Crane & Turtle: A chef’s playground in Petworth

A meal at Crane & Turtle, a fresh excuse to explore Petworth, asks diners to rethink their notion of what goes well together.

Most gazpacho springs from tomatoes or grapes. Crane & Turtle’s soup plucks its summery sweetness from cherries. Explore the bowl a little more with your spoon and brace yourself for a surprise when you dig up a raw clam or two in the mix. The combination is not at all obvious, but not so far out that you wouldn’t dip again.

Another first course yields another curiosity. Slender white asparagus lined up next to pine nut “milk,” a pale pool dotted with rosemary oil. Poached strips of rhubarb lend color and gentle tartness. As much as I like all its featured players individually, the dish leaves me puzzled, yet intrigued to see what other tricks Makoto Hamamura has in his repertoire.

When the chef finds something special in the market — say, baby crabs the size of a quarter — he has the smarts to let the find speak for itself. Announced as a special one night not long ago, baby crabs were simply deep-fried and sprinkled with salt: potato chips by way of Poseidon. “It tastes like ... crunch!” a tablemate cried after we netted an order. Eaten (fragile) shell and all, they sounded like footsteps on gravel when four of us snacked on them simultaneously.

A Japanese native, the chef developed a taste for fresh fish as a child, when he would drop by his grandparents’ seafood shop after school and snack on the catch of the day. While Hamamura, 38, worked three years at the late Japan Inn in Georgetown, and later as a private chef, he says he gleaned most of what he knows about his craft from “the school of Eric.” That’s a reference to Eric Ziebold, the executive chef of the four-star CityZen in the Mandarin-Oriental hotel, which is where Hamamura cooked for seven years, starting as a commis, or kitchen assistant, and working up to the position of sous-chef. His techniques, then, tend to be French.

Paul Ruppert, whose restaurants around town include Room 11 in Columbia Heights and Petworth Citizen across from Crane & Turtle, says he came up with the idea for his latest restaurant only after he hired Hamamura. Once he knew it would have an Asian bent, Ruppert started researching names online, focusing on Japanese fables.

One that intrigued him was the story of a crane that was lost at sea until a turtle delivered him to shore. The crane later helps the land-locked turtle by ferrying him to sea. When Ruppert presented the idea to his chef, Hamamura helped seal the deal when he revealed the Japanese names of his mother and aunt: Crane and Turtle, respectively.

The light-filled dining room, one of the most inviting to open this summer, is a pleasure to spend time in. From what used to be a wholesale Ethio­pian bakery, graphic artist and Room 11 co-owner Nick Pimentel have united oak (floors), walnut (bar stools), cherry (counter) and imported Japanese fabric to create a charming interior with a mid-century modern lilt. A seat at the kitchen counter, awash with blue tiles to imitate the water, puts diners face-to-face with the cooks. A table allows for a dash more privacy, or as much as a 25-seat restaurant allows. The clientele skews young and liberal, at least in their food tastes.

Surf gets a lot of play on the menu. Pinwheels of sea trout, glistening with smoked salmon roe, gather on a creamy comma of avocado mousse. Another “amuse de mer” stars big-eye tuna tataki. Slices of the meaty raw fish fan across an orange “satay condiment” with the texture of a classic Italian tonnato sauce and flavor pumps from fish trimmings, paprika and tamarind. Crunch comes by way of a trail of crushed roasted peanuts and light sails of socca, a chickpea crepe. Specials tend to be dishes that encourage return visits. A favorite memory: salt-cured sardines scattered with slivered green olives, with the silvery fish hovering on a stinging puddle of yuzu juice, olive oil and vinegar.

A change of seasons means the aforementioned cherry gazpacho and white asparagus salad have left the building. I wish the single tempura selection would follow them. The combination of hot skate tempura teetering over a sea of grapefruit pieces and compressed cucumber flavored with yuzu juice is, to put it mildly, unfortunate.

On the other hand, the dish that more or less sums up the restaurant, the composition that ought never take a vacation, brings together three sweet scallops separated by dainty tapioca dumplings whose centers hide a pleasant shock: chorizo. Filling in the blanks of the elegant bowl are a froth of coconut milk foam infused with fresh ginger and hillocks of wilted baby arugula. It’s a lot to think about, true, but also a lot to like.

Diners partial to meat and potatoes aren’t overlooked, however. Beef makes a regular appearance, sometimes as ruddy slices of short ribs, pleasantly sweet from their contact with soy sauce, pureed apples and pears, and shored up with creamy barley and a shimmering watercress sauce.

Herbivores aren’t forgotten, either. For them, the kitchen might float a canoe of summer squash, its hollow brimming with stir-fried corn and bell peppers that pick up heat from garam masala, the warm North Indian spice blend. The centerpiece is held in place on the plate with an application of yogurt and almonds.

The short wine list, like the food, takes a global view. Think sake. And cider, including three from Maryland and Virginia. The tiny bar isn’t big enough to mix more than a few cocktails, one of which is a stellar Black Manhattan, darker and richer than the classic, thanks to a splash of the Italian liqueur called Averna.

Desserts come from the hands of Hamamura’s fiancee, Katy Kinch, who is also a pastry cook at Room 11. The prettiest ending is an outsize green tea macaron, the halves of which are separated by mascarpone and jewel-like raspberries. The best finish is her not-too-sweet, oh-so-moist black sesame cake, served most recently with luscious peaches and buttermilk ice cream.

The food at Crane & Turtle can sometimes make you swoon and other times make you scratch your head. One thing you will never be is bored.

2 stars

Location: 828 Upshur St. NW. 202-723-2543. www.craneandturtledc.com.

Open: 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday
and Saturday. Closed Monday.

Prices: Appetizers $7 to $12, main courses $18 to $27.

Sound check: 73 decibels/Must speak with raised voice.

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THE SCOOP

Location: 828 Upshur St. NW. 202-723-2543. www.craneandturtledc.com.

Open: 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday
and Saturday. Closed Monday.

Prices: Appetizers $7 to $12, main courses $18 to $27.

Sound check: 73 decibels/Must speak with raised voice.

Weaned on a beige buffet a la “Fargo” in Minnesota, Tom Sietsema is the food critic for The Washington Post. This is his second tour of duty at the Post. Sietsema got his first taste in the ‘80s, when he was hired by his predecessor to answer phones, write some, and test the bulk of the Food section’s recipes. That’s how he learned to clean squid, bake colonial cakes and distinguish between nutmeg and mace.
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