At Sei, the food is inventive and so are the cocktails
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 12, 2009
Like a lot of hot spots, Sei wants you to start off with a cocktail.
Unlike a lot of places, Sei rewards those who bite at the invitation. It won't be cheap, but a drink from the bar of this bold Asian statement in Penn Quarter demonstrates how far Washington has come from the days of chocolate martinis and cosmopolitans. The cocktails here taste as if they were whipped up in the kitchen, with the flavors of the food in mind. Fresh and spirited, the libations also perfectly capture the mood and style of Sei (pronounced "say"), a sibling to the nearby Oya.
No two drinks overlap or taste the same. If you like it light and refreshing, there's the vanilla-scented Apple Blossom, which goes down like apple juice for the 21-and-over crowd. As for Liquid Wasabi, a server tells us there's no Japanese horseradish in the swirl, which instead gets its zing from fresh ginger, lime juice and habanero pepper. Made with unfiltered sake, the fire-and-ice cocktail is very much to my taste, a little pain followed by a lot of pleasure as the elixir slips over the lips. Even the sangria is different: It's made with pear puree, pear-flavored vodka and sparkling wine. One sip and you'll wish you'd ordered a carafe instead of a glass. The wiz behind these libations is Arris Delgado, Sei's general manager.
Fortunately, the thrills here aren't limited to liquids. Most of the cooking that follows is every bit as intriguing. There are two primary explanations for that. One is on display behind the sushi counter in the middle of the dining room. Noriaki Yasutake, 33, wields a sharp knife and a discerning eye where raw fish and white rice are concerned. Sei's Asian-accented small plates, on the other hand, are chiefly the work of Avinesh Rana, 28, who presides over the kitchen. Both men last cooked at Perry's in Adams Morgan, which makes me wish I had spent more time there during their run. Because their handiwork at Sei is such a delight to eat, the experience would have lured me back even if I didn't have a deadline.
Yasutake and Rana take their food, but not themselves, seriously. In an Asian turn on Mexican chips and dip, light, scallion-sprinkled won ton chips spill out of a paper cone alongside a bowl of guacamole ignited with wasabi oil and creamy with tofu. The presentation is fun, the flavors delicious; a lime wedge and fresh wasabi on the side allow diners to turn up the brightness if they wish. Chicken wings are draped in a liquid black curtain (that would be soy sauce reduced with molasses, honey and lemon grass) that tickles the tongue and requires additional napkins for cleaning up. Thoughtfully, the appetizer comes with warm finger towels for everyone. Tofu "steak" sounds like the culinary equivalent of a whoopee cushion, and I have to admit that I ordered the entree mostly for its joke value. The laugh was on me, however. The slab of organic tofu, dredged in cornstarch and pan-seared to create a light crust, delivered plenty of bang for $10, spurred by its puddle of mascarpone, dashi (stock) and garlic. Fleshy shiitakes on top of the tofu suggested a steakhouse steak; a garnish of deep-fried lotus root underscored the restaurant's Asian persuasion.
Make room for a roll or two, or three. I have yet to try a combination that I wouldn't be happy to eat again. The one that gets the most attention, and that the staff is likely to promote, is billed as Fish and Chips: floun-der accented with red onion and malt vinegar, plus a garnish of Barbie-size fried pota-toes. Chef Yasutake also does well by his simpler sushi. I'm partial to the buttery hamachi, garnished with a snip of fresh basil and a bit of green olive, and the briny, delicately sweet sea urchin roe, which peeks out of a tiny envelope fashioned from nori.
I like the idea, but not the execution, however, of the Asian pork tacos. The pillowy, steamed white buns stuffed with spiced pork belly are too sweet for my taste; big and squishy, the "tacos" are also a challenge to eat. If it's meat you want, consider two lamb chops interlocking over a fluffy bed of barley risotto, colorful with minced carrots. The lamb is cured with miso, sake, rosemary and fresh pineapple, among other flavor boosters, and it's luscious.
Half lounge and half dining room, the stage for the chefs' food is a low-ceilinged space seemingly carved from a glacier. From the outside peeking in, Sei looks 80 degrees cooler than it is. The restaurant is mostly white, save for a seductive mural of a geisha and a red hedge of skinny branches to separate drinkers from diners. As with the cooking, the interior has been lavished with plenty of thought. Notice how the gold stitching on the ivory-colored chairs is repeated on the white menus? Every female's dream, the restrooms are labled "Hers" and "His and Hers." The best tables look onto the sushi bar, behind which hangs an infinity mirror inset with countless pink cherry blossoms. The effect, in combination with Sei's soundtrack and endless sake menu, is slightly hypnotic.
The luxe setting suggests 2006, before the recession hit, and the clientele skews young and dewy.
In contrast to the room, the servers are dressed in black. They're a well-versed, high-octane bunch, encouraging (sometimes pushing) you to try one of those drinks and plugging their favorite dishes. When they're not working, they stand like sentinels around the dining room. But they're pretty busy, quick to sweep crumbs from the table and remove empty glasses. Their hawklike attention to my table on three occasions set off my critic alarm. Had I been recognized? (The honest truth is that "made" restaurant reviewers don't necessarily receive better service; they simply get more service.)
Whatever, I had to work to find faults. One of them was a gray mush of lentils foisted on perfectly fine scallops. Another involved dessert. There are only a handful of sweets, including creme brulee flavored with tea that was no improvement on the standard vanilla variety. Sei is also a very noisy place to eat.
The biggest disappointment? Not living closer to this kitchen.
Tom Sietsema wrote about Sei for a First Bite column in January 2009.
Recession? What recession?
You wouldn't know the country is as stretched as it is by dropping by the new Sei (444 Seventh St. NW; 202-783-7007), where the sake flows, small plates rule and just about every seat might be occupied even early in the workweek.
"The Penn Quarter is flourishing," says co-owner Nancy Koide, who also co-owns nearby Oya and credits the Verizon Center and convention center for boosting traffic in the neighborhood.
Sei (pronounced say) combines the talents of two chefs, Avinesh Rana and Noriaki Yasutake, both of whom last cooked at Perrys in Adams Morgan. Rana is in charge of the Asian-flavored small plates; Yasutake, who came to the United States from Japan to work at Matuba in Bethesda, owned by an uncle, helms the 10-seat sushi counter. Among Yasutake's signatures is "fish and chips," a roll that pairs flounder with threads of fried potato and is served with wasabi "tartar." The crunch and punch therein make for fun eating.
You don't have to be a fan of raw fish to experience Sei, whose cooked dishes include "tacos" made from steamed buns and marinated pork belly, served in a bamboo steamer; and tofu, made on-site and offered with a variety of enhancers, including green tea salt and basil oil. (You'll need the accents; the tofu resembles unflavored custard.)
Like Oya, Sei is cool in white. Its chairs, tabletops and even its low ceiling are covered in faux ostrich leather. The ceiling, too? "For the noise," says Koide, who hopes to minimize any problems in the 40-seat dining room.
Small plates, $5-$16.
(Jan. 28, 2009)