"THIS LOOKS like Dragonfly," I hear somebody say one table over, as I pop an excellent spiced tuna roll into my mouth.
And indeed, like at Dragonfly, the walls are white, the chairs are white, the ceiling is white, and there's the same stark-but-sexy thing going on as at that chic club at 18th Street and Connecticut Avenue NW.
But it's not Dragonfly. It's Mondo Sushi (1301 S. Joyce St., Arlington; 703-418-0003), an ambitious little one-month-old bar and restaurant that's trying to bring some downtown swank to Pentagon Row. Created by the same folks that brought you Dragonfly, Eighteenth Street Lounge, Red and Local 16, Mondo Sushi was in fact going to be named Dragonfly as well, but the owners knew that in a shopping mall their establishment would have to make it primarily as a restaurant and only next as a nightclub, so they altered their naming plans.
"We wanted it to stand on its own and not be Dragonfly II," explains general manager Jesse Boone. "We wanted it to stand on its own and not be instantly perceived as maybe being too cool or too expensive. We want to be a comfortable place where everyone feels welcome." And in fact the menu is not expensive at all.
Mondo Sushi is primarily a sushi joint, and while I'll leave the final analysis of the cuisine to my more gastronomically inclined Post colleagues, I'll say that the sushi there is among the best I've ever had. Chef Jin Yamazaki clearly knows what he's doing, and the only complaint I've had is that the kitchen needs better ventilation. You leave smelling strongly of the oil used for the tempura.
The striking interior design (another creation of the local Division One team) includes recessed panels of colorful graphics created by the duo of Paul Miller and Akira Takahashi (known as Mesh) that has made such striking fliers over the years for the now-closed Buzz night at Nation. They make for a colorful contrast to all the white. The slanted walls and indirect lighting make me think of the interior of that interplanetary Pan Am shuttle in "2001: A Space Odyssey."
"It's funny you say that," says Boone, who was recruited away from managing the Mendocino Grill to run Mondo Sushi, "because when I saw the finished space, it looked to me like the concept of what the future would look like, but back in 1970. Now we know it doesn't look anything like that, but Mondo Sushi does!" The retro-futurist style works, though the techno music can get a little loud during dinner hours. There is a DJ booth, and Boone says they're still figuring out the flow of people and when to make that subtle shift from restaurant to nightclub.
There's a sleek stainless-steel bar, lit from below with bright fluorescent bulbs and lined with high-tech bar stools of molded white plastic on hydraulic lifts (bartenders will have a new way of gauging if someone needs to be cut off: riding up and down on their bar stool too much). The offerings include several top-shelf sakes, along with the usual premium boozes.
"The bar will be open 'til last call every night of the week," Boone says, "and the sushi bar stays open until midnight on weeknights and 1 a.m. on weekends." Those are hours that have already put Mondo Sushi on the nightlife map in Northern Virginia. "On quieter nights, our late crowd consists in large part of waiters getting off their shifts at other places and coming here to relax," he says.
And for anyone worried that the mod look of Mondo Sushi might inspire an attitude problem among the staff, Boone says he did the hiring himself. "I went out of the way to find the friendliest people possible," he says. "We're not stuffy or full of ourselves. We want to have fun, too."
DENNIS JAY'S WAY
" 'Folk and western' is what I like to call it," says guitar-playing songwriter Dennis Jay about his music. "It just makes a nice broad umbrella, like it did back then when they first used the term."
"Back then" is when Jay was a kid and began hearing the music that has steered him ever since, the classic country sounds of Roy Acuff, Lefty Frizzell and Hank Williams. "They didn't call it 'Country' when I'd hear it on the radio," he remembers. "They were calling it folk-and-western." Though he was born in Wisconsin more than a half-century ago, Jay spent many years as a kid on U.S. Army bases in Europe, where his father was a technical contractor.
"I'd have to say that was the main time for me, musically," he says, "because every day I'd come home from school and turn on the Armed Forces Radio, and most of the DJs were enlisted men, regular GIs who'd brought their record collections over." It was on the AFN that Jay first remembers hearing Williams and much more. "A lot of those fellows were from the south and they'd play a lot of rhythm and blues and a lot of country music. Back then the armed forces were one of the most integrated parts of society, and that was reflected in what the DJs played. It was all just music -- not black music, not white music -- and most of it was pretty out of date, since there wasn't that emphasis on 'No. 1 current hits' on radio yet."
Jay picked up the drums while in Europe, but when he was a senior at Bowie High School, he bought himself a brand new Martin D-18 acoustic guitar and set to writing songs. "It's still the guitar I write 'em on," Jay says. "I can't believe it's survived considering how I've treated it over the years. I used to ride with that thing strapped to the back of my motorcycle, but when you're a kid, you don't even think tomorrow's going to come, so you're not going to care about some guitar."
In the early '80s, after knocking around Texas and other points west, Jay came back to the Washington area and formed his group, Dennis Jay & the Confidentials. That's when I first crossed his path at clubs like the Gentry and Friendship Station. His resonant voice was the perfect vehicle for his dramatic love songs and his slice-of-life tales of hard-luck travelers. When that band ended its run by the end of the decade, Jay seemed to disappear until about a year ago, when suddenly he was making the coffeehouse rounds and talking about making a record.
"I took a leave of absence from the music business of about seven years," Jay says, "but we don't need to get into the 'whys' of all that. But part of the reason I started playing again was that in my basement I discovered a footlocker of copyright tapes that I'd mailed to myself years ago -- you know when you'd written a song you could record it and mail yourself a cassette and not open the envelope, and the postmark would provide a kind of common-law copyright."
Jay opened all those envelopes and began listening to his old songs. He liked enough of what he heard that he decided to give them a second life. "I really wanted to get in the studio and record these songs in the spirit in which I'd written them," he says. And that meant a stripped down folk-and-western sound led by Jay's Martin guitar, with fiddles and cowboy harmonies. He went into the studio with some local musicians and rolled tape with everyone standing in a semicircle, recording the songs absolutely live, like they did 50 years ago but which almost never happens these days.
The results became the excellent "What You See," released on the small Canadian label Linkhorn Music. You can hear those songs (and many more) live on Sunday night at Jay's CD release show at IOTA (703-522-8340). He'll be joined by guitarist Tim Griffin, bassist Bob Graver and fiddler Jack Cowardian (on the record, you'll hear fiddler Susan Jones). "Please write down how very appreciative I am of the combined efforts of all these people," Jay says. "They really make my songs come alive. And the man whose studio we did it in, Dave McKittrick, he's the key guy. I really owe this guy a lot."