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Shoto is a sight for weary eyes, and a must for Japanese food fans

The dining room at Shoto in downtown Washington. (Scott Suchman/for The Washington Post)

Unrated during the pandemic

“There’s no bad seat at Shoto.”

So says Arman Naqi, the London-born, Bethesda-raised founder and managing partner behind downtown Washington’s new Japanese restaurant, the splashiest dining room to open in the region during the pandemic and, since its February debut, one of the most challenging to book. If you like to dine at 5 p.m. or after 9, here’s the spot.

Naqi is right about the tables. No matter where you settle, there’s something to hold your gaze. One visit, I’m looking up at a constellation of hundreds of rocks taken from an active volcano in Japan. Another night, I’m facing a wall crawling with preserved ivy, a mass of greenery interspersed with a dozen faux fires. The 25-foot ceiling pays homage to Japanese basket weaving, and a perch at the chef’s counter gives you an orchestra-seat view of the open kitchen, framed in ceramic green tile molded on live bamboo in Bali. Naqi and his partners, including London restaurateur and venture capitalist Arjun Waney, the co-founder of the international Zuma brand, sweat the small stuff. Check your coat and you get a heavy brass tag with the restaurant’s logo.

Shoto is the work of the acclaimed Tokyo designer Noriyoshi Muramatsu, who helped fulfill Naqi’s request: “We wanted to give a transforming experience.”

Cooking included. Shoto stars two chefs, Alessio Conti, 31, and Kwang Kim, a decade older. Conti, the executive chef, is an Italian whose last job saw him cooking at the Japanese-accented Nama in France and Greece. Kim, the executive sushi chef, brings experience under some of New York’s best-known Japanese chefs, including Masaharu Morimoto and Nobuyuki Matsuhisa.

Tacos from an Italian chef in a Japanese restaurant? Yes, please. Salmon blended with wasabi mayonnaise and garnished with bright salmon roe intrigued me initially. Bluefin fatty tuna flavored with a yuzu-truffle dressing and dressed with domestic sturgeon caviar reinforced the fusion concept. The wrappers’ crunch is distinctive and delicious: housemade potato chips!

Pretty much everything that isn’t sushi is the watch of Conti, a native of Lake Como whose passion for Japanese cooking has found him in restaurants specializing in the cuisine for the past decade. Looking around at what others are eating is apt to sell you on something fried, perhaps juicy-sweet rock shrimp, spiked with lime salt, or squid sheathed in a batter of rice and potato starch and brightened with green chiles and lime. The robata grill, fueled partly with binchotan, a type of Japanese charcoal prized for its clean and powerful heat, is another source of pleasure. Cue the meaty pork ribs, stacked on a bamboo leaf and glossed with a barbecue sauce flavored with bonito. There are no finer scallops in town right now than the fat, faintly smoky beauties at Shoto, which depart the grill with plum butter and shiso and fairly melt on the tongue.

Another sight for sore eyes is the front bar, where the shelves display hand-blown glass containers of infused spirits in gem colors and the counter finds an exuberant crew shaking, stirring and sometimes proffering samples of their creations, based on Japanese spirits. Tip No. 1: A whiskey sour made with citrusy yuzu, lemon and frothy egg white has become my favorite prompt to "kanpai!” Tip No. 2: The bar is where I go, around the time the restaurant opens, if I want some of the most exciting food in town but didn’t reserve weeks ahead.

You can opt to let the chefs serve you what they think is best by asking for omakase. The only decision you need to make is how much you want to spend for five courses: $115 or $195, the latter for a meal built around Wagyu beef, lobster, truffles and caviar.

The best strategy is to reserve at the chef’s counter, where the person who made your sushi might actually hand it over and introduce the fish. Kim buys most of his specialty fish from Japan and prefers products on the creamy and fatty side: Golden eye snapper, amberjack and sweet, uni-capped scallops from Hokkaido were among the treasures on a recent visit. Kim cuts fish with the precision of a Savile Row tailor. Like a conscientious bartender, he also bothers to weigh the sugar and salt for his sushi rice so that the seasoning is consistent from one meal to the next. Notice how each piece of sushi is presented as a single wonderful bite? Shoto translates to “short sword” in Japanese, a name that marks the exactitude evident throughout the restaurant.

The night I left dinner in the hands of the chefs brought some lovely surprises. The excellent sushi, including chive-speckled king salmon from New Zealand, was followed by silken sea bass sporting a hillock of julienne daikon, carrot and Japanese cress, a signature entree circled in a creamy yellow sauce ignited with ginger and jalapeño. Lamb chops made an appearance, and a big impression, too. The plump meat — painted with pungent red miso, tingling sansho pepper, mirin and more — shared its plate with tangy cucumbers and a whip of tofu freckled with sesame seeds. Dessert — a slender bar of yuzu-flavored cheesecake on a black sesame seed crust — extended the bliss. The slice was also pretty, abetted by garnishes of raspberries, strawberries, red drops of fruit gels and tiny tiles of nori.

Throughout any night, passersby stop to admire the spectacle inside, via the restaurant’s expansive front windows. Now I know how the pandas feel at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo.

Four visits also let me see splinters in the chopsticks. While the owner says he doesn’t want Shoto to feel like a club, the soundtrack conjures an attraction in Las Vegas, hold the bachelorette parties. Servers tend to be knowledgeable, friendly, sometimes even funny. When I asked a waiter about his job one night, he told me he played three roles: “Psychologist, nutritionist and photographer.” That said, food spies have reported that VIPs can be fussed over at the expense of parties seated right next to them. “Rushed!” a pal texted me after she and her husband spent almost $400 for a birthday splurge. “Ignored also. And indifferent.” Annoyingly, Shoto asks you to use QR codes rather than order off a printed list, a practice I’d like to see retired.

On a more buoyant note, Shoto, which has plans to expand in North America, gathers one of the most diverse audiences in Washington. The combination of stunning room and high-quality food feels, to me, like the ideal follow-up to a slice of land where the previous Washington Post building used to be.

Actually, the sense you’re someplace special starts at the door, whose handle is a tree branch the designer found in a forest outside Tokyo and had cast in bronze in England. Over time, Naqi hopes the handle wears down from use. I’m more than happy to help.

Shoto

1100 15th St. NW. (Entrance on L Street NW.) 202-796-0011. No website. Open: Indoor dining 5 to 10:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 to 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Prices: Sushi and sashimi $12 to $28, appetizers $7 to $29, signature entrees $34 to $48. Sound check: 82 decibels/Extremely loud. Accessibility: The front door is heavy, but attendants assist with opening it. A seat at the bar and two seats at the chef’s counter are designated for wheelchair users. Restrooms are ADA-compliant. Pandemic protocols: Staff members are all vaccinated and wear masks.

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