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The Japanese-inspired Wren restaurant flies high in Tysons

The bar and dining room at Wren in Tysons. (Deb Lindsey/for The Washington Post)
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Unrated during the pandemic.

Want to stump a food critic? Ask him where to dine (well) in Tysons. Known as the business hub of Fairfax County, this slice of Northern Virginia is one of the least interesting places to find yourself for a meal — unless, of course, your idea of dinner is meat and potatoes attached to a corporate label. Steakhouses have a thing for Tysons.

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The new Watermark Hotel wants to offer locals something more personal: a “destination, chef-driven” experience on its 11th floor, says general manager Osman Cuadros. Inside the boutique, 300-suite property from Capital One is a Japanese-inspired restaurant called Wren that has been attracting a lot of neighbors since it set sail in September — a good thing for the Watermark, which is only at 10 percent occupancy, says Cuadros. The restaurant’s name is a play on words that connects to a Japanese character meaning “love,” says chef Yo Matsuzaki. That turns out to be an apt description for a venue that evokes a songbird and already soars above nearby restaurants.

A native of Ehime prefecture in southern Japan, where his family owned an orange farm, Matsuzaki, 54, previously worked at Ozumo in the Harbor Court Hotel in San Francisco. Washington audiences might recognize his name from the four years he served as executive chef at the late Zentan in the Donovan Hotel. The chef says he was lured to the Watermark by the promise of creative control and the opportunity to bring some urbanity to the suburbs. Wren finds him “cooking food I like to eat,” including small plates typical of an izakaya, or Japanese watering hole.

I like what Matsuzaki likes. Tokyo fried chicken gets its kicks from soy sauce, ginger, garlic, sake — a long list of flavoring agents applied a day before the thigh meat is served, each (gluten-free) nugget crisp from a dusting of tapioca and cornstarch. The hot chicken is arranged in a bowl atop a cool slaw, sweet-tart with rice vinegar and yuzu, and some pickled cucumbers. “You need a break” between bites of fried chicken, says the chef. The tangy dark green pickles are a pause that refreshes.

He also demonstrates his frying skills in a tempura of sweet corn and sugar snap peas, a crisp lattice of vegetables that benefits from a drag through green tea salt after a dunk in dipping sauce. Brussels sprouts distance themselves from the routine when they’re offered sans their bitter cores, as little green leaves of flash-fried cabbage, ignited with hot mustard and garnished with crisp garlic. Each racy bite encourages another. Matsuzaki says of his food, “I want sweetness, sourness and saltiness” on every plate. Hence the threads of sweet fried leek atop the miso-splashed black cod, a shareable entree paired with smoky grilled shishitos.

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“The food comes out as it’s ready,” servers tell you. “Your entire order is going to land in minutes,” they might just as well say. The best strategy is to order a few dishes at a time. I’ve also learned to ask for a spacious table close to the ground, near the picture windows, rather than the tall two-tops near the bar, which require you to surrender things to make room for incoming traffic. Goodbye, water bottle.

But hello, pork buns! Matsuzaki marinates pork belly for several days, then presses and sears the meat, concentrating the flavor of the pork, which he slips into tender bao buns with carrot matchsticks, cucumber slices and jalapeño. The ivory clutches, held together with dainty spears, look like something special on their long black plate, and they are. Matsuzaki is a stylist as well as a chef. Another of the more artful plates brings together a couple day boat scallops and bacon-wrapped enoki on a strip of bamboo leaf. The sweet of the seafood and the salt from the bouquet achieve balance with a vinaigrette made with yuzu kosho, the hot-tart Japanese condiment.

The oval bar, illuminated as if by a moonbeam and ringed with metal fringe on top, is the heart of the setting and the source of some serious liquid pleasures. Beverage director Luis Mantilla is behind the cocktails, which incorporate housemade syrups and bitters and fill glasses with such revivifying combinations as matcha, Japanese whisky, yuzu and honey syrup. (Ask for the “Incredibl-y Calm Hulk.”)

It’s hard to take your eyes off some of the food and drink, but when you do, you notice the ways in which Watermark is different from other hotels. No one wears name badges, for instance, and employees can choose from among a rainbow of colors for their shirts. No one talks from a corporate script, either. “We want people to be themselves,” says Cuadros, whose hotel curates music and even scents for its staff behind the scenes.

A dearth of servers in the market found Wren hiring only bartenders, who rotate between making drinks and taking dinner orders. Some are more knowledgeable about the food than others. When I asked where the oysters on the half shell are from, a waiter blurted out “Connecticut.” A teammate later issued a correction: “Great Whites from Cape Cod.” Whatever. The oysters, bedded on ice and seaweed, are sea-breezy on the nose and briny in the mouth.

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This being a hotel restaurant, there’s a hamburger, and it’s an impressive one. Wren uses buttery Wagyu beef for the patty, which arrives with some crunch from onion in addition to sriracha-spiced aioli on a toasted brioche bun. The juicy sandwich blossoms in the company of french fries, hand-cut and dusted with Japanese chile pepper. You can find a steak here as well, and it reinforces Matsuzaki’s belief that everything on the plate should be there for a reason. In this case, leeks act as a sweet foil to the grilled rib-eye and wasabi-green mashed potatoes. If I’m going to get meat here, though, it’s going to be in the form of ramen, thick with egg noodles, earthy pork and corn in a spicy miso broth that finds me tilting the bowl so as not to miss a drop.

You’d think an 11th-floor perch would come with a view. Wren takes in a sweeping vista of buildings under construction and the Metro, distant enough from the restaurant to make the train cars look like toys.

Frankly, I’m fine with a place that puts as much of a premium on its staff as its guests and challenges itself to be different. The proof is on the plate — and in the seating. Cuadros says he had to go furniture shopping. Wren recently added 40 seats to accommodate the people who want in on the fun.

Wren

1825 Capitol One Dr. South, Tysons, Va. 703-655-9527. wrentysons.com. Open: Indoor dining and takeout daily from 5 to 10 p.m. (Bar hours are longer.) Prices: Appetizers $5 to $18, main courses $15 to $31. Sound check: 72 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Accessibility: Wheelchair users can easily reach the restaurant via an elevator on the fourth or fifth floor of the parking garage; restrooms are ADA-compliant. Vaccination protocols: The general manager says staff members are not required to be vaccinated, but 95 percent of them are.

correction

An earlier version of this review misstated the Japanese translation for the name of the restaurant. The column has been corrected.

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