First Bite

A New Way to Eat Up, Then Check Out

Sushi chef Pema Kunkyab delivers a plate at Izakaya in Whole Foods Market in the District. Below, the restaurant's dragon roll.
Sushi chef Pema Kunkyab delivers a plate at Izakaya in Whole Foods Market in the District. Below, the restaurant's dragon roll. (Photos By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Tom Sietsema
Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Raw fish has replaced hot java at the front of the Whole Foods Market (1440 P St. NW; 202-332-4300) near Logan Circle, which recently swapped its coffee bar for an "Asian diner" named Izakaya.

Although it's just feet removed from a bank of brightly lighted checkouts, the new dining venue manages the neat trick of passing for a free-standing restaurant. A long blond community table runs the length of the place; all that's missing is a fleet of cocktail glasses (a beer and wine license is pending). Suspended from on high, pumpkin-size orange globes lend both light and style. Tea is poured into pretty grooved cups that practically massage the hands.

"We're always looking for new things to offer our customers," says Louise Liu, the culinary concept coordinator for Whole Foods stores in the mid-Atlantic. Genji, a Philadelphia-based sushi purveyor, operates the new dine-in cafe and a similar one at the chain's Fair Lakes location.

There are no official waiters at Izakaya. Customers place their order with one of the solicitous cooks, take a number and pay a cashier before seating themselves. Voyeurs gravitate to the narrow counter overlooking the front sidewalk, while those who want in on the (cooking) action head for the sushi bar that frames a tidy grill. A cook or other staff member delivers the customer's food.

The menu runs to tempura, rice bowls and cooked meats -- a welcome mix, but the execution is mixed. One day's tuna sushi is a blank on the tongue, while salmon is served so cold it can't be tasted. (Another day, another story: salmon sushi that you'd be happy to find at your neighborhood Japanese joint.) Vegetable tempura emphasizes a heavy batter over its crisp red peppers, zucchini and broccoli. I'm more impressed with the fried food's dipping "flakes" -- accents that include green-tea salt and minced orange peel with red onion -- and the soothing, bite-size shrimp dumplings.

You don't have to spend much for a meal here. A trio of dumplings runs about three bucks, grill combinations don't go over the $9 mark, and a filling rice bowl with a choice of eel, shrimp or salmon comes in at $7. And unlike at a full-fledged restaurant, there's no tipping. "Great service is just part of our job," reads a sign on the counter.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company