Neighborhood: U Street
Needing to find a dinner spot for myself, Official Co-Writer/Girlfriend of DCWD Texas, and Official Friends of DCWD Sam and Shawn, we decided on one of the most surprising inclusions in Tom Sietsema's latest Fall Dining Guide: U Street's new Izakaya Seki.
When we lived down the street, the space that Izakaya Seki now occupies was a dilapidated townhouse in a block of V Street that was slow to turn around. Now, like the rest of the neighborhood around it, it's gentrified quickly and into something that's pretty cool. On the first level is a simple ten seat bar surrounding an open kitchen that recalls something out of Jiro Dreams of Sushi. The wall behind it is similarly staid: wooden wall panels painted a thin coat of stark white with a few black coat hangers on it. In the window, a small bar for pre-seating drinks.
Upstairs is more of the same decor. The staircase is lined with a shelf of sake bottles, but the walls are all still white. So are the tables, two large fours to one side, while on the other side, a row of half-booth two tops. The service is friendly and helpful throughout, but I expect the coolness of the experience is greatly improved if you can sit downstairs instead of upstairs.
There being four of us and it being an izakaya restaurant, we ordered quite a lot of food before we got full. Izakaya Seki succeeds in large part because it lets its high-quality ingredients speak for themselves. First out was a special and one I was very excited about: nine sizable pieces of fatty tuna. We chose to have it sashimi, and while it was not the most buttery piece I've ever had, but definitely nice fleshy pieces of goodness.
Next up came two similarly colored dishes with very different tastes. First, the uni starter with quail egg: five solid chunks of bright creamsicle-colored sea urchin atop a raw quail egg. Preparation is minimal which is nice, allowing the uni's natural unctuousness and saltiness to come out. Second was definitely the weirdest dish we ate: monkfish liver in a yuzu miso vinaigrette. Much like sweetbreads, the liver chunks were oily and mealy-in-a-good way, with their mild flavor enhanced by the citrus tart of the sauce.
From there, the dishes got even better. The yamakake (tuna tataki on top of mashed potatoes) had a soy-based sauce that brought together the outside sear and tender inside. A dish of croquettes filled with bechamel, crab, and corn was deliciously creamy and bright pops of flavor. And perhaps the standout dish of the night was the hamachi kama, a whole yellowtail grilled to perfection which fell apart in lemony, meaty chunks.
Other grilled izakaya were also well-cooked and flavorful. Squares of beef tongue glazed with yuzu and miso were salty and fatty, wonderful little guilty pleasures; pieces of skewered pork belly provided similar indulgences. Among the other dishes: rock shrimp fritters that presented much like tempura, a surprisingly successful fried rice with garlic and shiso leaf (surprising in how much better it was than other restaurant fried rice), and a trio of vegetable salads (kinpira with burdock, carrots, chili, and walnuts; kiriboshi with sun-dried radish, wood ear mushrooms, and carrots; and hijiki with carrots).
Great Japanese food in a cute setting if you grab a seat downstairs.
Food Rating: **** (out of 5)
Date Rating: 3 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code: Casual
Bar Rating: N/A
Cost: $$$$ (out of 5) ($75-$100 for two)
Pairing: Afterwards, we headed a few blocks down to Jack Rose to sample some of the best cocktails and the largest whiskey collection (purportedly) in North America.