Fare Minded

Come Home to Mama-San

Clockwise from left, salmon salad, chicken pt, black cod with miso and fried whiting.
Clockwise from left, salmon salad, chicken pt, black cod with miso and fried whiting. (By Larry Morris -- The Washington Post)
By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 16, 2005

Oddly enough, the unassuming name, multilingual as it is, might just be one of the most characteristically wry Japanese things about Chez Mama-San, because in truth, "Mom's home cooking" is almost never this good.

In fact, the meatloaf at this Georgetown hideaway, of delicately bound and hand-formed ground sirloin, is so light that "loaf" is almost a slur. Slices of miso-marinated and grilled black cod have to be tasted slowly to appreciate the exchange between the sweet, earthy white miso and the naturally buttery flesh. The potato salad, which comes as an option with the main courses, is the slimmed-down cousin to the Waldorf salad, lightened with apple. Salmon meuniere with a delicate anchovy sauce could be a supper dish at any French cafe. And a piece of slow-braised pork belly fully earns its description as "confit," yielding to the chopsticks in luxuriant layers of meat. This is definitely bringing home the bacon.

As you can see, although Chez Mama-San is often described as serving "yo-shoku" fare -- European or American dishes adapted to Japanese tastes -- the menu is actually a mix of these reverse-fusion and more traditional recipes. The pork belly with spinach is an old Japanese favorite long ago adapted from a Chinese dish. The miso-marinated black cod is a classic Kyoto recipe, harking back to when the soybean paste was used as a preservative for fish transported from the seashore to the city. Beef curry (or kari ) is of the mild Singapore variety. Grilled salmon salad -- a half-dozen slices over greens and a base layer of lightly pickled beets and red onion -- has become a "modern-eclectic" staple.

And in any case, how long is a dish imported? The Japanese have been frying food, including chicken, since the Portuguese arrived in the 16th century, long before Kentucky Col. Harland Sanders put on long, white pants. And the Kurobuta (black Berkshire) pork cutlet, a dish so popular in Japan that it stars in its own restaurants, as big beef might here, is the chicken-fried steak of your dreams.

Actually, although the quick-fried whiting, butterflied like shrimp and served with soy-vinegar dipping sauce, is first-rate, and the chicken wings almost as good, the tempura donburi , a transmogrified frito misto of cut-up shrimp and scallops, was one of the few less successful moments, soggy and cool; but it was a comfy bowlful. (In family style, it comes heaped on sauced rice.)

Okonomiyaki , which has become a favorite street food in Japan, is a sort of pancake/omelet/quesadilla that aficionados usually griddle up for themselves at the table -- the word means "grill the stuff you like" -- and top with Worcestershire sauce and mayonnaise. (Okonomiyaki seems related to the Korean paijun and perhaps for that reason is not always looked upon approvingly by older, more conservative Japanese, but it's addictive.) At Chez Mama-San, it's offered only at lunch, a pork-scallion-smoked squid version prepared in the kitchen and rather on the delicate side.

Chicken pt is exceedingly light, more like teatime potted white meat than a liver spread. For those who are surprised to find the raisin rolls as the alternative to rice, I assure you, white bread really is a Wonder in Japan, especially to the under-30 generation.

Mama-San is really Mamas-san: Izumi Yoshimoto, who owned the Japan Inn restaurants in Dupont Circle and Georgetown for four decades -- and who prepared the first Japanese meal I ever ate and so launched a lifelong fascination and eventual career -- and her daughter Miki Yoshimoto, whose elegantly moody paintings are the restaurant's only decoration. (The exterior mural, a climbing vine visible from M Street, is by Arlington artist Ivo Koytchev.) The former townhouse has been stripped to its lovely bones, its brick exposed and its staircase framed in glass, and the long, narrow paintings sometimes seem like nighttime glimpses of the courtyard garden that would be traditional in a Japanese home.

Although American diners are accustomed to, or rather, spoiled by, having sushi as an entire meal, sashimi and sushi are generally only courses in Japan and not at all an everyday occurrence. The only raw fish on Chez Mama-San's menu is a version of tuna tartare, a small portion tossed in a sesame dressing flavored with wasabi. The chirashi-zushi , which is usually a mixture of seafood and pickled veggies atop rice rather like unassembled nigiri, here is "Kansai-style," meaning all the ingredients are cooked.

Yoshimoto has westernized the menu even more to the extent that dishes are served in courses rather than all at once, and some are described as "small plates," though only by American standards: The trio of sesame-flavored spinach, temari green beans and fresh bamboo shoots, served in larger versions of those bamboo-stalk cups Nobu made famous, could be salad for two at least.

The Washington area has at least one other home-style Japanese restaurant, Rockville's Temari Cafe, which is even more casual and draws a somewhat younger audience. At Chez Mama-San, where there is a short wine list as well as sakes and shochu, the Korean-style rice vodka, and where the volume level is politely low, the clientele is expected to behave like grown-ups, as my mother would have said. Sounds like home to me.

Chez Mama-San 1039 33rd St. NW Phone: 202-333-3888 Kitchen hours: Open Tuesday-Thursday noon-2:30 and 6-10; Fridays and Saturdays noon-2:30 and 6-11; Sundays 5:30-9:30 Prices: Appetizers $3-$15; entrees $14-$21 Wheelchair access : Not accessible

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