The following review appears in The Washington Post’s 2017 Fall Dining Guide.
The two constants here in Old Town Alexandria are chef-owner Yuh Shimomura, a studious presence behind the kitchen counter, and manager Vara Wachrathit, the lively guide to her employer’s food. Together they produce a lovely evening via a Japanese tasting menu for which the chef shops himself every day. No two nights are alike at the small, spare storefront. While every meal includes a sashimi course, the artful arrangement of raw fish changes; a September visit included a morsel of shad wrapped in clear seaweed and citrusy buzz flowers that briefly numb the tongue. Trained in his native Japan, Shimomura is comfortable slipping outside influences into his cooking. So a pink shrimp cake sits atop a beige base of fufu, an African staple whose sticky texture suggests a cross between mochi and potato. The seafood and the starch arrive in a bowl of clear but yuzu-fragrant matsutake mushroom soup. In a later course, foie gras finds its way into a base of rice on which steamed, grilled eel slices fan out. Come to think of it, there’s a third thing you can always count on at Nasime: bliss.
Nasime:1209 King St., Alexandria. 703-548-1848. nasimerestaurant.com.
Prices: Prix fixe $48.
Sound check:70 decibels / Conversation is easy.
The following review was originally published June 14, 2017.
At Nasime, an intimate dining room delivers big personality
Dinner at Nasime, a slip of a Japanese restaurant in the heart of Old Town Alexandria, reminds us that food isn’t the sole reason we choose to eat away from home. Not to take away from the talent of chef-owner Yuh Shimomura, who has a lovely way with seafood, but worthy Japanese cooking is only part of the reason one visit encourages another.
The chef’s equal in the dining room, a mere 20 seats, is a Thai manager named Vara Wachrathit, whose knowledge of the food and lively delivery are every bit as enticing as whatever Shimomura has created for Nasime’s daily-changing tasting menu, five courses for $48. Even the most routine interactions, like offering sake in a chilled flute, are little lessons in hospitality.
Here’s Wachrathit, who doubles as Nasime’s lone server, on the chef’s strategy: “The only thing you can’t ask me is what’s on the menu tomorrow,” she tells two of us with a smile. Shimomura, 44, a Tokyo native whose credits include Kaz Sushi Bistro and Sei in Washington, typically shops at two or three markets a day for his evening performances.
“Tokyo-style tuna tartare,” Wachrathit says, presenting the first taste of the night. Before anyone can ask about it, she introduces miso paste and aromatic oba leaves as flavor agents in the small cake of pink fish, garnished with crisp asparagus and displayed on a green tile with upturned edges. The backdrops for the food at Nasime reflect a chef who likes to collect beautiful objects. Zebra stripes appear to be the canvas on which the chef serves supple firefly squid draped in an egg yolk-thickened miso vinaigrette. Tucked beneath the seafood, named because it lights up like a firefly, sit crunchy, punchy garlic stems.
Setting down pretty little cups of soy sauce for the sashimi course, arranged on a teardrop-shaped shiso leaf, Wachrathit shares that the vessels come from the chef’s own cupboard. She retreats so we can admire Shimomura’s arrangement of raw fish, half a dozen or so types that are likely to include slices of salmon marbled with lines of fat and bluefin tuna that eats like sea butter. The rest of the bowl is rounded out with whatever fish the chef thinks looks good in the market, sometimes conch, pleasantly resistant and hit with plum sauce, other nights scallop, its umami bequeathed by kombu, or seaweed. The chef buys premium soy sauce from Japan; more amplification comes from Key lime halves and fresh wasabi on the plate.
Sorry, Nasime doesn’t do sushi. Shimomura says he doesn’t have space in his small kitchen, which only recently acquired a dishwasher. Also, sushi is considered a specialty in his native Japan. His focus at Nasime is broader.
Nasime is such a slim place, you may walk right past the front window with its bed of smooth river rocks. A blue half-curtain is all that separates the tiny foyer from the chef’s six-stool counter and the handful of tables beyond. I’m telling you, the joint is small. But it’s also quiet, with little more than some jazz to accompany conversation. “I feel like I’m dining in someone’s house,” a companion says, gesturing around the room, its name based on three Japanese words that loosely translate to “moving ahead.”
Throughout the night, would-be customers poke their heads inside the door, hoping to eat in the restaurant. If they haven’t reserved, chances are they end up back on the street. “I tried to eat here three times!” I hear a man, clearly proud of where his persistence has taken him, tell his seat mates at the counter. “It’s always busy! You have to book weeks in advance, like Komi,” he says, referencing the modern Greek tasting menu experience in the District. The man turns to the chef and asks, “Are you going to get help? Hire a sous-chef?” Shimomura smiles, shakes his head and continues the task at hand. A sous-chef would mean a higher-priced tasting menu.
If I had to trim the meal by a plate, I could skip the meat course, which makes me feel as if I’m in another restaurant. Sliced duck served with baby arugula and turnip vinaigrette, a recent midway point, is no more than pleasant.
Unless you are perched at the counter, your one chance to interact with the chef may be the last of the savory dishes. Invariably, it’s a pot of something roiling and delicious, one night dashi supporting soft-shell crab and udon noodles. “You want to know a little surprise?” asks Wachrathit after the chef returns to the kitchen. “It was alive a minute ago!” She laughs and instructs us to use the chile-zapped shichimiand the Key limes as amplifiers. Neither seasoning is needed, but both nudge the hot pot to new heights of lusciousness. Just as memorable was a hot pot featuring lobster meat affixed to eggplant skin with a crab cake and fried to seal the deal. The seafood packets bobbed in a bubbling broth of dashi and chicken stock teaming with ramen noodles of a thickness to hold up through the last slurp.
Dessert is usually a cup of ice cream (hope for plum-tamarind or strawberry) with jiggly cubes of coconut jelly and pleasantly chewy red beans, only slightly sweet and the ideal close to a tasting meal. The chewy texture of the dense ice cream, made in-house, is reminiscent of Indian kulfi.
If it weren’t for Wachrathit, Shimomura might be a one-man show. But the chef’s able guide in the dining room doubles the pleasure of dinner at Nasime.