Whaley’s regulars can still find the restaurant’s popular seafood towers, but they’ve been joined since December by Asian-inspired small plates and the signature shabu-shabu, a request for which brings burners for pots of broth — diners choose between dashi and red miso — and plates of raw seafood, thin-sliced meat and vegetables for dunking in the bubbling centerpiece.
Heeding our server’s advice, my posse orders a base of red miso (“It’s got more umami”) and a trio of self-selected add-ins: scallops, shrimp and rib-eye, their lineage highlighted on the menu. When the broth starts to roil, the waiter adds some vegetables to the pot and coaches us on how to finish the meal ourselves, adding the seafood ahead of the crimson beef, which cooks in a matter of seconds. (Shabu-shabu takes its name from the “swish-swish” movements of the chopsticks in the pot.) A trio of condiments — pickles, fresh wasabi, a dipping sauce of ponzu — make good spark plugs. The crisp Japanese cucumbers, tickled with ginger-pear rice vinegar, are particularly habit-forming.
Once the last of our choices have been plucked from the hot pot, into the concentrated broth go some thick, hand-cut udon for what goes down like another course. Slurping, you should know, is totally acceptable. The motion cools the steamy wheat-flour noodles.
Shabu-shabu — requested by 90 percent of customers, according to Perron — is but one lure. Fuyu’s many charms extend to miso-steamed clams set off with thin strips of matsutake; bronzed vegetable tempura offered with aged fish sauce; and uni-and-lobster custard dressed up with shaved winter truffles — creamy surf fused with haunting earth. The most alluring dish gathers folds of bigeye tuna with see-through slices of kumquat, crisp thread-thin sea beans and a light moistener of fruity yuzu olive oil. The most clever construction is a sandwich layered with cabbage and what looks like tonkatsu — breaded fried pork cutlet — but is actually crisp sliced monkfish, brushed with Japanese mustard and coated with airy panko. Imagine schnitzel by way of the sea.
Every aspect of a meal subscribes to the temporary theme. From the bar flows premium Japanese whiskey (try it in an Old-Fashioned), while desserts include a Japanese cotton cheesecake enhanced with winter citrus. A caramel sauce flavored with miso and yuzu sweetens the delicate confection, its taste similar to angel food.
Fuyu’s thoughtful food should come as no surprise. Perron, 29, worked at the Oval Room, Fiola Mare and Blue Duck Tavern before moving to the Southeast Waterfront and Whaley’s, co-owned by cousins Nick and David Wiseman.
Decorated with a painted school of fish “swimming” across the high walls and a raised raw bar, the interior is appealing as ever, and it takes on a Japanese lilt with more than 100 paper lanterns suspended from above and pretty chopstick rests on the tables. Really, the only dampener to an evening is the chill that follows arrivals when they enter the river-front door. Thick drapes make a minimal buffer. Then again, the dose of cold just makes us more grateful for the heat source atop seemingly every table.
Let’s hope March, the eventual expiration date for the pop-up, comes in like a lion. Fuyu deserves as long a run as possible.
301 Water St. SE. 202-484-8800. whaleysdc.com. Shabu-shabu, $29 to $34 (for two to share).
More from Food: