It took four years, but Daisuke Utagawa, the co-owner of Sushiko in Washington and Chevy Chase, has finally re-created the democratic dining spots of his native Tokyo with the introduction of two restaurants under one roof in Chinatown.
Although they share a Japanese name, Daikaya (“house of big cooking pot”), they’re distinguished by separate entrances and menus. The ground floor is a trim ramen house that opened on Valentine’s Day. A flight of stairs to the left of the building leads visitors to a second-story izakaya, or Japanese tavern, that made its debut in March. Both destinations are helmed by chef Katsuya Fukushima, an acolyte of Jose Andres who was born in Okinawa.
Ramen is just another bowl of soup like Daniel Day-Lewis is just another Lincoln impersonator. While ramen relies on a handful of building blocks — noodles, broth and tare, a concentrated sauce — there’s more than greets the eye with regard to the comfort food that seems to create lines wherever it goes.
Just ask the chef. His wheat noodles come from the esteemed Nishiyama in Sapporo and get aged on drying racks for up to a week after they arrive. The meat broth uses pork, beef and chicken bones, as well as garlic and onions, while the vegetable stock picks up its flavor from seaweed and pureed vegetables. The two broths are made twice a day; what’s left over is added to the next batches, enriching them. The ramen shop offers a quartet of soups, all but the meatless version completed with fat-ringed slices of pork.
The most engaging place to work your chopsticks is at the narrow ledge that rings the stainless-steel kitchen. “Men hairimasu!” the cooks repeatedly call out, letting their colleagues know “noodles are entering” the steaming stock pots. Good ramen house that it is, Daikaya aims to boil its noodles to the second. Toppings — scallions, bean sprouts, crumbled meat — are added to the bowls only after having been briefly stir-fried in a wok, a move that adds smoky depth to the score.
Connoisseurs know to eat the noodles first, while they are springy. Ramen fanatics also understand what Utagawa calls the “harmonious contradiction” of the best soups. The first and last slurps should taste different. I’m partial to the delicate shio ramen, followed by the meatless bowl finished with a garden of dark mushrooms, Brussels sprouts and carrots carved to look like flowers.
Aside from the soups, there’s only one other dish on the menu: gyoza, or Japanese dumplings. Order a plate of five pieces, and you’ll be told they’re apt to arrive after your ramen, since the dumplings are assembled to order. “But they’re worth it,” says one of the enthusiastic servers over a soundtrack of rap one recent lunch. Stuffed with ground pork and shredded cabbage that have the benefit of ramen broth and sesame oil in their seasoning, the gyoza are steamed and then fried to create a crusty surface on one side. When they’re delivered, a server pours soy sauce and rice wine vinegar into a dipping bowl and asks if you like heat. Say yes, and a bit of chili oil is added to the liquid accent. To pass on this snack is to miss a master class in dumplings.
Of all the city’s current hot spots, this one sports the most utilitarian look. Aside from some yellow and blue stripes, there’s little but an unkempt maze of wires and lights on the ceiling to busy the eyes. The starkness of the 40-seater is intentional, says Yama Jewayni, the third partner in Daikaya. “Your attention should be on the bowl in front of you, not the surrounding design.”
His is an easy, and enticing, direction to follow.
Upstairs at Daikaya is pretty much the opposite of the ramen joint, with the blaring exception of noise pollution, a shared trait. The 90-seat tavern is double the seating size and puts its bar center stage. The izakaya is also more colorful. Ropes slung between the center tables give inhabitants the sense of intimacy, while Japanese fabric lends texture to the walls. “There is no orthodox izakaya,” Utagawa says. “It is by nature freestyle.”
Unlike the go-go ramen space, the second floor encourages patrons to kick back and hang out. The big front window is dressed with a rusting steel screen that features an ancient Japanese symbol for the sea, a detail lost on the tech-savvy, laments Utagawa, who read the design as a big plug for (say it ain’t so!) WiFi service.
Anything goes on the menu, too, which is slipped between pages of Japanese fashion magazines and broken into categories including fried, grilled, steamed, cold and “unique” small plates.
Behind every dish is a little story or a playful touch. Crab croquettes, golden orbs that give way to a molten seafood chowder when you bite in, are the chef’s “ode to Maryland.” A salad of raw diced octopus and crisp green apple finished with wasabi sprouts glistens beneath a shimmer of intense olive oil. Even the edamame stands out here. The soybeans aren’t just steamed and salted, but lavished with bronzed garlic, lemon juice and Japanese pepper. Silky Japanese custard, chawanmushi, is rethought with Parmesan cheese and beefed up with shiitake broth.
Liquid attractions are just as abundant. A small glass of beer containing a clear, grape-size sphere made from algae and holding a shot of sake references the top chef’s time at the food lab Minibar; a fizzy moss-green cocktail with an undercurrent of tea is the bartender’s refreshing twist on a gin rickey.
One of the few combinations I wouldn’t care to try again involves coins of frozen salmon sashimi hit with ginger and wasabi, an acquired taste that smacks of a fish popsicle. But that just means I’ll have extra room for more grilled Japanese eggplant draped with crumbled lamb, creamy yogurt and bright mint — a nod to Jewayni’s Afghan background.
“No one should feel, ‘Oh, I don’t belong here,’ ” says Utagawa, whose floors and food embrace all takers.