For as long as I can remember, Adams Morgan has been a neighborhood divided: bars and nightclubs to get the young ones liquored up, late-night joints to sober them back up with falafel, shawarma or that Snuggie blanket of pizza known as the jumbo slice. The more ambitious restaurants would naturally serve alcohol, too, both as a business necessity and a tacit acknowledgment that the nightlife runs on booze.
Donburi blows up this practice. The place is the Zen intruder in Bacchus’s backyard. Everything about Donburi exudes a Japanese minimalism, as if the operators were trying to strip away Adams Morgan’s cheap, costume-jewelry facade and focus on the fundamentals. A whitewashed brick wall. An unadorned wood bar. Utilitarian stools fashioned out of rebar. A bowl of rice, some good toppings and a glass of barley-steeped water.
It might surprise you to learn, then, that Donburi was founded by Seungjoon Jang, 26, a Korean native who embraced Nippon cooking while working at Japanese restaurants here and in his native country. “I love Korean food, but I guess the flavor profile of Japanese cuisine is what I was really into,” says Jang, who invested what was supposed to be his college savings into his debut restaurant.
The purity of Donburi is such that no menu negotiations occur once you’re situated at the 14-stool bar. This means you’re free to focus solely on your friends, your food or, should you be dining solo, your smartphone. Then again, you could watch Jang and his line cook prepare every bowl placed on the bar that borders the open kitchen, a perspective that will give you a front-row seat into the mostly wordless theater of Japanese donburi.
Donburi, the dish, combines the precision of sushi with the comforts of ramen. It’s a deep bowl (also called a “donburi” in Japanese) of rice topped with your preferred ingredients, whether fresh or fried. At Donburi, the restaurant, you place your order as soon as you step inside, where, if you’re lucky, someone will be standing at the register to ring it up. It won’t take long to decide: Jang’s menu runs, at best, eight dishes long, with a handful of sides and assorted drinks, none alcoholic.
I’ve become addicted to starting my meal here with a small side of the farmed Scottish salmon. Put aside whatever biases you have about farmed fish: These thick wedges of salmon are fresh and meaty, shot through with fat that melts on the tongue like butter. I could eat them like peanuts at a ball game.
Part of the salmon’s appeal is its brief salt cure, which firms up the texture and amplifies the flavor. When starring in the sakedon bowl, the salmon has a few supporting actors who play important roles. First among equals is the house-made donburi sauce, a concentrated sweet-and-savory liquid that mixes a vegetable-infused dashi with mirin, sake and soy sauce. The donburi sauce carpet-bombs the bowl with umami, while supplying flavor all its own; the sauce also provides the dish with its own singular identity, Jang’s personal signature in this and every other bowl at Donburi.
If the sakedon is the minimalist donburi, then the mixed katsudon is the baroque one. The bowl comes loaded with logs of fried, panko-coated pork and shrimp over a layer of onions, which have been caramelized with donburi sauce into translucent, mahogany-tinted ribbons. The kitchen then places a soft-cooked egg on top, which in turns oozes its sunny yolk over the entirety of the bowl, laying richness upon richness to an almost obscene effect. I ate the whole thing with only slight remorse.
My favorite dish, however, is the unagidon, a rice bowl topped with irregular squares of eel, which Jang caramelizes with a blow torch behind the counter. His flamethrowing technique leaves the eel almost carbonized in spots, but the char has no adverse effect on texture. The fish goes down like foie gras, at once soft and buttery, while the char itself pokes through the sweeter, richer flavors.
Most every bowl at Donburi is served with pickled daikon and pickled strips of jalapeno, which supply some needed piquancy, not to mention a big wallop of pure satisfying crunch. Sometimes, though, the garnishes simply provide relief. The tendon bowl, for example, is virtually a forest of fried vegetables: tempura-coated eggplant, lotus root, king oyster mushrooms and other plants, all slightly different in texture and flavor. But collectively, the crisped, oily objects generate palate fatigue long before the last veggie has fallen. I kept reaching for the pickled counterparts for solace. I didn’t have the same issue with the equally fry-heavy karaagedon, or chicken donburi, no doubt because the onions and eggs provide more balance.
Lest I get obsessed with the toppings, I would be remiss not to mention the rice that fills the bottom of every bowl; it would be like reviewing nigiri sushi and only addressing the sliced fish. Jang’s rice emphasizes the single grain. Despite being smothered in toppings, these short grains maintain their individualism, each small oval clearly outlined at the end of your chopsticks. Their texture is as pleasing as their form, absorbing whatever flavors seep into the grains and transmitting them with a gratifying chew.
When I mention to Jang how much I like his rice, he demurs, explaining he’s still not happy with it. There’s something about this kind of modesty that strikes me as particularly un-Adams Morgan, too.
2438 18th St. NW. 202-629-1047.
Hours: 11 a.m. to
2:30 p.m. and
4:30 to 10 p.m.
Nearest Metro station: Woodley Park-Zoo, with a 0.7-mile walk to the restaurant.