This review appears in The Washington Post’s 2015 Fall Dining Guide.
The dude who makes arguably the best ramen in town, at Toki Underground, turns out to be pretty deft with Taiwanese and Cambodian dishes, too. Erik Bruner-Yang took seemingly forever to open his second restaurant on H Street NE, but our patience paid off. When Maketto began serving steamed buns with shredded pork and Khmer-style meat dip with crudite in April, the launch also unveiled a retail space and a second floor for pedigreed pastries (Frenchie’s) and coffee (Vigilante) — lots to like under one cool roof. I’m usually here for dinner on the ground floor, somewhere in a dining room that starts with a bar and spills onto a patio followed by an open kitchen with slender counters. And if my job didn’t require me to eat the full menu, I could happily stick to just the fried, five-spice chicken, that warm dip enriched with coconut milk and curry, and a Wagyu bao platter that goes down like Asian roast beef sandwiches. Come with an open mind. Ground duck hearts, brined in nuoc cham and smoky from the grill, could become your new best friend.
This review was published in The Washington Post Magazine on July 26, 2015.
No business on H Street NE gives the discerning consumer more reasons to browse than Maketto, the eagerly awaited multitasker that unites, on two floors under one roof, a retail shop with a manly bent, a pan-Asian restaurant from the chef-owner of the nearby Toki Underground, plus a cafe for coffee (from the pedigreed Vigilante) and pastries (by way of Frenchie’s). Whether you’re looking for an espresso and a sticky bun at 7 in the morning, or a bracelet chased back with coconut fish crudo at 7 at night, the light-splashed, clean-lined Maketto has you covered.
The marquee draw in the mix is Erik Bruner-Yang, 31, the talent behind the city’s premiere ramen joint, the aforementioned Toki. (Earlier this year, he was one of five nominees from around the country vying for the Rising Star Chef award presented by the James Beard Foundation.) Bruner-Yang’s latest contribution, on the ground floor behind display cases of accessories and shelves of designer sneakers, and extending to an outdoor patio and an open kitchen, gifts the city two uncommon flavors: Cambodian and Taiwanese.
The fusion makes sense when you know the chef’s back story. The Khmer food is explained by his marriage to Pechseda Nak, of Cambodian parents, while the Taiwanese cooking links to his mother and early childhood spent in Taipei. (The Chinese food may ring a bell for fans of Toki Underground, where some of the Maketto mainstays were served as specials.) The fewer than 20 selections are divided between “small format” and “large format.” Make that appetizers and main courses, respectively, and everything served family style.
Grilled Khmer sausage is the first-course equivalent of a double espresso, a bracing beginning to dinner at Maketto. The kitchen makes two kinds of pork sausage, one punched up with lemon grass, ginger, shallots and spices, the other wrought from rice mixed with fermented meat. Eating the first is like running through sharp grass in a jungle: painful, yes, but also a rush of herbs and heat. The second link sports a delectable tang. Both sausages are sliced and served in a semi-circle with matchsticks of fresh ginger, peanuts, cilantro and cabbage, the stiff green leaves of which make perfect scoops for a little of everything on the plate.
Buns can be ordered steamed (with shredded pork) or seared (with sweet leeks). The latter have become a habit, thanks to a crisp, piping hot bun that parts to reveal soft mushrooms and glass noodles in addition to curry-scented leeks. A dab of house-made hoisin ramps up the fun.
Braised beef tongue? Fried pig’s foot? Maketto encourages an open mind and rewards the adventuresome. Ground duck hearts brined in nuoc cham emerge from the grill dense, smoky, a touch livery and altogether teasing. A bite of bird followed by a dip into the accompanying mash of eggplant and green pepper is a pleasant rotation. On the relatively tame side is an omelet dotted with barely warm oysters and held together with sweet potato starch. The flavors and slimy texture — servers diplomatically bill it cheesy — whisk me to a night market in Taipei.
Still, the most original dish of the lot is a warm Khmer-style dip, considered an offering of thanks to monks on its home turf: ground meat (sometimes chicken, other times beef) in a sauce made creamy with coconut milk, golden with curry and pleasantly funky with fish sauce. Seasonal crudite are used to transfer snack to mouth. While “small,” the appetizer swells with appeal.
“Large” leans luscious. From the fryer come juicy chicken cutlets hinting of five-spice powder and crisp from a dusting of sweet potato flour. Strewn with fried shallots and sliced chilies, the main course, one of two top-sellers, is supported in its bowl by warm bread made from leftover Frenchie’s dough. (Fingers crossed it’s croissant dough.)
From the wok emerge slippery, smoky, locally produced chow fun noodles from the Florida Avenue Market. Served in a mushroom broth and scattered with fried garlic and red chilies, the noodles don’t need meat to make them marvelous. However, carnivores might consider a side of crisp pork belly, a mini-meal of three slabs of meat mounted on sour shredded cabbage, the taste reminiscent of kimchi. Fat and fierce play well together.
Maketto’s other bestseller is the (American) wagyu bao platter composed of pillowy steamed buns you stuff yourself using slices of designer beef, pickles, greens and hoisin. The circus of flavors spoils me for future roast beef sandwiches elsewhere.
With luck or timing, you’ll be shown to a table near the stark-white front bar or a communal spot on the patio. While the idea of sitting close to where your food is made sounds fun, the reality — a tall stool fronting a slim ledge across from the open kitchen — makes for uncomfortable conversation if there are more than two of you. Plus, multiple plates crowded on minimal counter space is a prescription for, well, the dry cleaners, in my case. No wonder the servers tend to snatch plates as soon as they spot evidence of self-cleaning.
Bruner-Yang surrounds himself with an able crew. Behind the exhibition kitchen is chef de cuisine James Wozniuk, a veteran of Lyon Hall and Liberty Tavern in Arlington. Whipping up the signature cocktails is beverage director Colin Sugalski, a Toki alumnus. On a hot summer night, my thirst is quenched by the Mala Colada: white rum, lime and house-made spiced coconut cream — to date, the most serious blender drink to cross my lips. What appears to be snow in the glass leaves a trail of Sichuan heat on the tongue. Surprise! Not really. Maketto has numerous tricks up its sleeve, not all of them edible. Witness the vending machine outside the cafe on the second floor. The inventory finds phone chargers, condoms, even Pepto Bismol.
My inner optimist wants to give Maketto three stars, but the realist in me wants to wait for a time, probably not far from now, when the recipe is enriched and the service feels more sure of itself. (One night, three different people asked to take my order.) Ever dropped by a party where the host is too busy to answer the door so a stranger does? That’s how this restaurant sometimes presents itself. And yet, I can’t wait to go back for more.
Maketto took two years longer to open than its owner predicted. Bruner-Yang might not be famous for forecasts, but he’s an ace with actualities.
Location: 1351 H St. NE. 202-838-9972. www.maketto1351.com.
Open: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily; dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, 5 to 11 p.m. Thursday, 5 p.m.to midnight Friday and Saturday.
Prices: Lunch dishes $4 to $10; dinner small dishes $6 to $13, big dishes $12to $32.
Sound check: 80 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.
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