Even hired mouths will tell you that restaurants are about more than what you get on the plate. Food is important, yes, but people leave home to break bread for plenty of other reasons: companionship, comfort, ambiance.
It would make sense, then, to engage more than just a culinarian to examine a restaurant. We sent experts in food, design, fashion and music to train their eyes, ears and pens on a popular Washington eatery.
The subject: the Japanese-inspired Daikaya across from Verizon Center.
The aim: four ways of looking at a dining experience.
Daikaya reveals its charms slowly. The single door, on street level, is so discreet you can easily miss it. The steep stairs suggest your goal is Mount Fuji. Once you reach the summit (okay, the second-floor dining room) you find yourself in a dim cavern of knotty wood tables, booths separated by thick ropes and a bar decked out with a half-roof of black panels upon which menu items are flagged in white Japanese script.
I never visit this restaurant that I don’t spot some fresh detail. Tonight, it’s the profile of a skylight above my head — and the sight of a pop music critic who isn’t above using Shazam to identify a song in the background.
As is my custom here, I order a bowl of fried garlic for the table. The $3 snack sounds like a date-dampener but eats like a dream. The plump cloves of sweet, near-melting garlic, together with slivers of pickled garlic, are eaten with toothpicks after a dunk in a saucer of miso and kimchi.
Daikaya, which translates into English as “house of big cooking pot,” takes its inspiration from the free-wheeling taverns, known as izakayas, in Japan. That explains the whimsical categories, including “green things” and “meat things.” The crab croquettes are a nod to Maryland; bite into one of the crisp balls, and a shot of hot chowder spiked with Old Bay fills your mouth. A skewer of marinated pork belly and Brussels sprouts is garnished with squiggles of mayonnaise and a dusting of bonito flakes, which dance (for real!) on the surface of the hot skewered food for a long minute. With luck, there might be craggy fried oysters, an occasional special, nestled in a bowl lined with Japanese newsprint.
As at so many contemporary restaurants, this one serves food as it’s ready rather than in distinct courses. Sharing is encouraged.
Get past the homely appearance of the grilled Japanese eggplant draped with crumbled lamb and creamy yogurt, and you’ll discover a smoky, mint-brightened dish that sounds as if it doesn’t belong on the menu until you learn that co-owner Yama Jewayni is Afghan.
Drinks are no less diverting. The swizzle stick for an Asian riff on the classic American Sazerac is a length of dried licorice root that gets torched on one end, infusing the cocktail with a pleasant burnt note. Sip slowly; the indulgence costs $18.
Kimchi Bolognese? In the hands of a lesser chef, the union — ground pork, soy milk, sake, red wine and fermented cabbage over spaghetti — might emphasize how fusion too often leads to confusion on the plate. But I tend to trust this kitchen, which is under the care of Katsuya Fukushima, who later tells me “the Japanese love Italian food.” An acolyte of Spanish chef JoséAndrés, the Okinawa native is very much his own recipe-writer at Daikaya, which he also co-owns with the owner of Sushiko in Chevy Chase, Daisuke Utagawa.
While food should be my primary focus, Daikya brings out my inner designer (well, so do the fashion and cultural critics seated across from me). The patchwork of fabrics on the front wall? Utagawa explains that they’re meant to evoke the loose pants, or monpe, worn by farm women in rural Japan. The nicotine-colored wallpaper along the stairs? That would be enlarged pictures from comic books, artificially aged to appear as if hundreds of chain smokers had hoisted sake and beer here before you.
As straightforward as they appear, the ropes setting off the booths suggest different things to different eyes, says Utagawa: links to religious shrines, fishing boats or “S&M, something naughty.”
Daikaya is many things. Dull isn’t one of them.
Tom Sietsema is The Post’s food critic.
I discovered two great things at Daikaya: the crab croquettes and the perfect song for noshing on them.
It was Raydio’s “More Than One Way to Love a Woman,” an airy R&B single from 1979 that came breezing out of the hostess’s iPod midway through the meal. What a tune! It was sweet, melodic and casually funky. It was being piped through the restaurant at a pleasantly uninvasive volume. And because it’s a song that never cracked Billboard’s top 100 singles chart, it wasn’t all that easy to recognize.
In other words, Brian Eno would approve.
“More Than One Way to Love a Woman” hit the airwaves a year after Eno released his 1978 landmark album “Music for Airports,” a collection of ambient suites designed to calm twitchy air travelers. But in the liner notes, Eno delivered a miniature treatise on the role of music in public spaces, explaining why benign background music should be dynamic, too.
“Ambient music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular,” he wrote. “It must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”
That’s exactly what was happening on the stereo at Daikaya. The restaurant’s terrific electro-funk playlist was brimming with tunes from the late ’70s and early ’80s that felt both familiar and foreign. You knew the era, you knew the sound, but maybe not this exact song.
Consider that ignorable interestingness a gift to you and your companions.
In restaurants, the more recognizable the music, the bigger the threat it can pose to the conversation. Songs can trigger irrelevant memories we feel suddenly compelled to share. They can flash us back to less-than-appetizing moments in life, like puberty. And love songs can remind us of old flames and ugly breakups — which is why mopey indie rock and wan R&B should be played only in wallow-centric establishments, such as coffee shops.
Daikaya is obviously no place for wallowing. The vibe there was both laid-back and upbeat — something reinforced by the gently funky soundtrack drifting through the air at the perfect volume. The iPod-toting hostess seemed to be following the rule obeyed by most of Washington’s hipper eateries: “Lively but not too loud.”
It was just right. The music signaled that this is a restaurant run by people with good taste. The volume signaled that they’re thoughtful hosts, too.
Chris Richards is The Post’s pop music critic.
I don’t much like the comparison of art to food, but I’ll venture this analogy: If chefs were painters, we would be living in the great age of the Mannerist restaurant.
The term refers generally to a tendency to exaggeration and affectation, and particularly to the Mannerists of the mid-16th century, when artists explored new ways to heighten expression and increase the dynamism of what they represented, often through distortions that seem perfectly natural, but on closer study are tremendously weird and ridiculous. Perhaps the most famous example is Parmigianino’s “Madonna With the Long Neck,” whose head looks as if mounted on a periscope made of rigatoni. At first she seems birdlike and delicate, but on closer scrutiny, she appears freakishly tall and distended.
All the ganaches of this and dashis of that, the soils of artichoke and flakes of maple, the foams and spumes, reductions and infusions and other outlandish innovations — that’s Mannerism. So, too, is the annoying performance art of the waiter explaining it all to you in excruciating detail, like Trimalchio presiding over his obscene banquet.
Mannerism is, however, almost inevitable in any enterprise that caters to people flush with cash and bored with life. The restaurant business is competitive, and chefs are looking to craft ever new complexities for the dining “experience.” Mannerism isn’t all bad — it is inherently experimental and innovative. But it can be exhausting.
Daikaya, a pleasant, unprepossessing restaurant, is a fashion victim in the mad, Mannerist aesthetic moment we are living in. The decor and unpretentious staff lean in the homey izakaya direction, but the food strains to keep up with the Mannerist rat race.
The decor feels intentionally borrowed, a little nautical (ropes help define the space between booths) and a little truck stop (movie posters and outdated commercial art). The ceiling is high, and no effort has been made to hide the mechanicals, other than painting them in a dark color. This is a standard commercial architectural gesture, which makes the visitor feel as if he is sitting in a romantically lighted movie stage, fully aware of the artifice of the space.
The food, however, struggles to be something more than standard izakaya fare. Here’s a telling description from the online menu (I felt guilty about stealing the real one): Wasabi Tako: Raw marinated octopus with Granny Smith apple, celery, California arbequina olive oil and wasabi sprouts. You may wonder, as I did, what “arbequina olive oil” is. I Googled it and found that the arbequina olive tree is pretty much planted anywhere olive trees grow, yields a lot of olives and is commonly used to make olive oil. In other words, nothing special. It’s inclusion in ingredients is like an orchestra conductor saying: “You’re going to love this next piece because it’s in B flat.” The misuse of the singular (Granny Smith apple) is, however, a charming solecism that reminded me of my recent visit to Japan.
I wish I could say the same thing for the pickles, which are one of the essential visual and gustatory pleasures of Japanese cuisine. They come in a dazzling array of colors and flavors, linked by powerful synesthetic bonds. But the pickles at Daikaya weren’t particularly lovely, and were rather bland.
The pickles can stand for a larger problem, both visual and experiential: I don’t know where this restaurant wants to be or where it wants to take its customers. It is struggling to project an identity, but the cues are confusing, as if someone has cobbled together bits of other restaurants’ identities. Mannerism, when it works, can be stunning in its virtuoso artificiality. But Daikaya would do better if it stuck to basics, and delivered a good plate of pickles.
Philip Kennicott is The Post’s art critic.
The most notable characteristic about the entrance to Daikaya is that it is not designed for making an entrance. There’s no place to promenade. There’s no flattering light. There’s barely any light at all.
If setting inspires dress, then Daikaya has created a mise-en-scène that discourages ostentatious displays of fashion, whether that is status labels, trendy swagger or blind-date bravado. Instead, Daikaya encourages showing up in one’s pajamas, if you wish. No one will see you arrive.
Normally, Washington is too tightly wound for that kind of uninhibited informality. On an average workday, restaurant booths are crowded with folks in standard, federal city fare: button-down shirts, gray suits and the discreet nonwrinkling jersey dresses for which Ann Taylor sets the middling standard. And to some degree, the crowd at Daikaya plays true to Washington form. There are a couple of suits hovering over by the bar. There are women with pristine bobs and narrow-hipped boys with that debate-team hauteur.
But this happens to be a cold day, and it has unleashed an atypical Washington style. Most folks are snuggled into fleece-lined gear that makes an aesthetic statement not native to these parts. When it is too cold or too hot to adhere to decorum or play to type, things get interesting. On this day, grunge has been reborn in the nation’s capital. Is that a Sherpa at the bar?
In this darkened treehouse of a restaurant, guests look hale and hardy and more grizzled and cool in their thick pullovers, plaid shirts and Capitol Hill-inappropriate scruffy hat hair. Daikaya looks like a cozy club that welcomes all comers. It feels effortlessly loose and young. And one relishes this sense of ease.
In today’s dining-out world, chefs are stars and restaurants their sets. Waiters are the supporting characters, and duly wardrobed. Designers have lent their talents to dressing them. Brands from Sophie Theallet and Yeohlee to Narciso Rodriguez have created uniforms for various restaurants and cocktail lounges. The waiters at Daikaya don’t wear uniforms, but their relaxed, quirky creativity heightens the vibe encouraging guests to just come as they happened to be.
Watching the waiters work, one can’t help but think of those fashion shoots in which the most interesting item in the photo comes with the caption: model’s own. Of the various attendants who arrive at the table in old-school T-shirts and such, one woman offsets utilitarian jeans with a bib-style necklace crafted in Morocco from strips of metal.
Washington has always known how to create restaurants with a high-falutin’ environment. And it has become saturated with places that radiate self-conscious kitsch and cool. But Daikaya — and Mother Nature — together offer a reminder that most folks look best when they stop trying so hard.
Robin Givhan is The Post’s former fashion critic.
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