Nibbles And Sips Around Town: ‘Lessons in Modern Japanese Dining’ by Jordan Wright

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jordan1Following in my tried and true method of going to newly trendy restaurants at unfashionable hours, I had no problem getting into Daikaya, the wildly anticipated Japanese restaurant and bar with its first floor ramen house, Izakaya. I’m told the Japanese like to dine on many levels, but my plan was to head upstairs where I would dine with one of the owners and be schooled in Sapporo.

School’s in session at Daikaya with Daisuke Utagawa. Photo by Jordan Wright.
School’s in session at Daikaya with Daisuke Utagawa. Photo by Jordan Wright.

Multi-lingual, world traveled, and wed to a beautiful Brazilian he wooed and won in Dubai, Daisuke Utagawa opened his two-story labor of love this month after a four-year wait and a tasting trip to Japan with his partners, Katsuya Fukushima (Daikaya’s Executive Chef) and Yama Jewayni. “When we were there I saw it with their eyes,” he said describing the men’s sense of wonderment as they hopped from place to place sampling food and drink and learning new recipes. From that fact-finding mission they cobbled together a unique Sapporo-influenced menu, “a sort of Japanese comfort food” he calls it. And with that I began my lessons from the very patient and congenial Daisuke.

“Sapporo is just one of twenty-six types of regional ramen in Japan. It’s our Japanese soul food,” he instructs, going on to name the major styles – Sapporo, Tokyo, and Kyushyu noodles – the last of which he characterizes as a ‘turbid’ or milky noodle. These noodles are not the kind you microwave in a Styrofoam cup while cramming for finals. The traditional ramen served here are handmade and pre-aged for ten days in a noodle factory in Japan and flown over each week.

Brined cucumber with togarashi. Photo by Jordan Wright.
Brined cucumber with togarashi. Photo by Jordan Wright.

Daisuke’s aims were to make his restaurant a democratic spot. “In Japan you could be sitting next to a banker, a lawyer or a truck driver. It was important to create this same ambiance in the U. S. I wanted it to be a very free style. So we hired an American designer that we sent to Japan to learn about the essence of Japanese design and translate it here.” That is immediately noticeable by the crazy quilt walls and menus stapled inside of Japanese pop fashion magazines. My edition read “Love Toxic” and featured dozens of laughing preteens in heart emblazoned t-shirts posing with their plush teddy bears.

Daisuke took charge of the ordering and we began our culinary journey with salmon poke, pronounced “po-kay” for those unfamiliar with the Hawaiian raw fish dish, followed by a refreshing salad of mizuna with dashi gelee and ponzu vinaigrette, its profile tempered by the highly unorthodox use of burrata. From a vast and complex selection of wines, beers, sake, Japanese whiskey (who knew?) I chose a softly floral Japanese-made Belgian style beer, Suiyoubi No Neko by Yoho, for my pairing. It was the one flavor profile that wasn’t in the food, so I felt I chose well.

A play on Oysters Rockefeller. Photo by Jordan Wright.
A play on Oysters Rockefeller. Photo by Jordan Wright.

All of a sudden small plates are flying to the table in rapid progression. Baked Rappahannock oysters with teriyaki sauce and Parmesan cheese – a play on Oysters Rockefeller – and brined baby cucumber topped with thin-sliced togarashi. I dip into chawanmushi, a soothing custard soup with steamed egg and braised shitake and enoki mushrooms. A curative dish that would set you back on your feet after a night of sake sipping.

Blackened shishito peppers stuffed with gouda in a Japanese version of jalapeno poppers, and a hot-off-the-grill avocado with ponzu sauce, fresh wasabi, and nori salt, are two more playful experiments. Sweet, hot, cool, spicy, tender, crunchy, salty, umami; it’s all about the balance.

Shishito peppers stuffed with gouda and topped with togarashi. Photo by Jordan Wright.
Shishito peppers stuffed with gouda and topped with togarashi. Photo by Jordan Wright.

A humble dish of fried garlic – nutty, creamy and not at all pungent – is swiped across kimchee-miso sauce. Next up are tender sautéed chicken livers – lovely. Skewered beef tongue is too tough. It’s the first, and what would prove later, the only miss. But the memory is fleeting when little nuggets of tempura-fried chicken called Chicken Kara-age are dipped in ‘Chili-Kewpie Sauce,’ a type of spicy Japanese mayonnaise. Lady Gaga would smack her kewpie doll lips over this and Colonel Saunders would have never dared to compete with these tasty morsels.

Daisuke explains that the Japanese have many words and phrases to describe the exact moment of putting food into one’s mouth and of how flavor and texture affect the taste buds. “For example, when food passes through your throat or you drink a beer that is dry on the palate, we might refer to how it ends afterwards, like its dryness or ‘long tail.’ But there are many others,” he remarks. An intriguing concept I would have liked to further explore.

Chicken Kara-age with chili-kewpie sauce. Photo by Jordan Wright.
Chicken Kara-age with chili-kewpie sauce. Photo by Jordan Wright.

To achieve the perfect sear on meats and vegetables the restaurant uses a Vulcan gas grill that emits infrared energy to mimic a charcoal grill. Daisuke chose it in place of an open flame grill they couldn’t get city approval for. It’s not any easier to use, its ferociously high heat demands full attention, but it achieves the same purpose.

With dessert Daisuke suggested Choya Ume, a delicious drink with a plum wine soaked lychee nut in the bottle. It accompanied a trio of unusual sweets from black sesame panna cotta and purin, a concoction of caramel ice, orange, and burnt orange zest to chocolate aisu-kurimi, a kitchen sink of miso-banana caramel, chocolate crisps, and crushed banana crisps. When I asked how they came up with such unusual combinations of ingredients, Daisuke answered in abbreviated Haiku, “If you listen, it will tell you how to prepare it.” I’d been schooled.

At last, after two and a half hours of Daisuke’s gentle instruction, I felt I could navigate my way around Daikaya’s menu but I surely would need help in future understanding the over thirty sakes including such varieties as unfiltered ‘Nigori’, and unpasteurized ‘Nama.’ That is better left to those more learned than I. I am but a humble cricket.

Black sesame panna cotta with crispy wild rice, shortbread and sweet sesame sauce. Photo by Jordan Wright.
Black sesame panna cotta with crispy wild rice, shortbread, and sweet sesame sauce. Photo by Jordan Wright.

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Check Jordan Wright’s website Whisk and Quill.

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Jordan Wright
Jordan Wright is an accomplished writer on food, spirits, travel, and theatre. Her clients include the tony Georgetowner and hip sister publication the Downtowner, the Washington Examiner and San Francisco Examiner, as well as LocalKicks.com, DC Metro Magazine, Washington Life Magazine, Washingtonian Magazine, MDTheatreGuide.com, The Alexandria Times, Hartkeisonline.com, and now DCMetroTheaterArts. Her articles feature restaurant openings, food and wine events, food-oriented film reviews, farmer’s markets, food trends, restaurant reviews, food memories, new food products, hotels, spas, resorts and interviews with the country’s leading chefs – from Jose Andres and Top Chef’s Carla Hall, to CakeLove’s Warren Brown and Top Chef’s Spike Mendelsohn. She has also interviewed famed chef and TV star, Anthony Bourdain, Eric Ripert, cookbook author Joan Nathan, and director Robert Kenner for an in-depth article about his film Food, Inc. Photographs by Wright accompany many of her articles and NBCNews.com has picked up and used several of her stories. Jordan Wright hails from three generations of show business. Her grandmother, Betty Morton, was a Ziegfield Follies girl; her step-grandmother Corinne Griffith, a noted author and silent screen star wrote Hail to the Redskins; her father, Georgie Price, an entertainer and founder of The Lamb’s Club in New York, as well as a CBS radio show host, songwriter and vaudevillian; her sister, Penny Larsen Vine, a theatre critic both on radio and in print for Variety, a former longtime member of the Outer Critics Circle, and a lead performer in countless national touring companies; one brother, Peter Price, appeared in leading roles in over 16 major motion pictures for MGM; while her other brother, Marshall Price performed at Carnegie Hall. Niece, Stephanie Vine, was the final Annie in the original production of Annie on Broadway, and niece, Liz Larsen, has received two Tony nominations and a Helen Hayes award for lead actress in Sunday in the Park with George. Wright sang with Columbia Records in New York and Barclay Records in France. In the sports world her grandfather was the original owner and founder of the Washington Redskins football team. Wright has traveled throughout four continents and currently resides in Old Town Alexandria.

1 COMMENT

  1. Hi Jordan! Funny timing on this review – my girlfriend and I were at Daikaya the day before this posted (well, and the week before, but that’s less interesting). The ramen shop downstairs is great, and the only reason we don’t go to it more is that there are a few good ramen spots in DC but nothing like the izakaya upstairs! Lots of Japanese restaurants in DC do sushi and “traditional” dishes well, but Daikaya’s izakaya is the only place to really get an idea of what Japan’s cuisine is like on a larger scale. It makes the girlfriend seriously nostalgic for her trip to Tokyo. And the cocktails are to die for.

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