Chances are, you’re going to like the look of the place that the owners of Chaplin’s have created for Japanophiles in Shaw. Zeppelin, a replacement for the short-lived French Quarter Brasserie, feels as timeless as the German airship for which the newcomer is partly named.
Chances are, you’re going to be less smitten with the execution of the menu, conceived with the help of Tokyo native Minoru Ogawa, chef-owner of Sushi Ogawa in Dupont Circle. Zeppelin’s list reads like something you’d find in an izakaya overseas but frequently eats like a document that got garbled in translation.
This is not apparent when you walk through the impressive wood door bequeathed by an earlier restaurant (remember Shaw Bijou?) and take in the bar to your right, home to a highball machine, scores of sakes, Japanese beer on draft and some cozy nooks for grazing. If the lounge looks like a set from a silent movie, great; co-owners and brothers Ari and Micah Wilder are fans of the era.
Customers with dinner reservations are led to the upstairs dining room, another stylish visual set off with blimp-shaped woven lights, a stretch of a communal table running down the center of the space and an illuminated box suspended overhead. The Japanese script on the float features words to the song “Kashmir” by (clever!) Led Zeppelin. Smoked acrylic dividers carve the table into private zones for couples and can be removed for larger parties.
Wherever you land, you’re left with a flurry of menus listing drinks, sushi and small plates. A subtly smoky combination of bourbon, choya plum and Angostura orange bitters — ask for the Stone Cutter — makes a nice liquid opener.
Order a few dishes at a time to avoid having everything you want descend on your table within minutes. On our maiden trip, the nigiri we requested was better for its raw fish — hamachi, fatty tuna, sea eel — than the pads they were draped on. Not only was the rice under-seasoned, the grains were cool to the touch. I couldn’t see if Ogawa was in the kitchen, but dinner tasted as if the pro were away, maybe at his own counter.
Zeppelin’s mixed vegetable tempura shoots blanks, and the rubbery conch salad makes you wish you were eating the sea snail where it gets more TLC (see: El Sapo Cuban Social Club in Silver Spring). The salad here tastes like dressed, chopped erasers.
A little time on the Japanese charcoal grill makes for some pleasing skewered meat, foremost tender beef tongue and silky pork — but not the dense chicken marbles, er, meatballs. The sleeper on the menu may be kalbi, sweetly sauced Korean-style short ribs.
Consistency, from both kitchen and bar, is an issue here. The Stone Cutter I admired so much I asked for another on my first trip resembled a boozy Orange Crush on a more recent encounter, when my meal included scallop sushi whose fishy aroma saw my chopsticks retreating.
Zeppelin offers a five-course omakase, or chef’s choice, for between $80 (in the dining room) and $100 (at the counter), a detail that wasn’t promoted, verbally or on a menu, on multiple visits. Maybe another night. Ari Wilder says the eventual idea is to have Ogawa, whom the restaurateur knows from their time together at the late Cafe Japone, at the helm at Zeppelin three to four nights a week. Fingers crossed, because I know Ogawa’s potential.
A surer bet at the moment is karaoke, which starts at the conclusion of the omakase’s second seating, around 10:30. The customer-fueled performances come with a warning on the menu: “The consumption of alcohol may lead you to believe that you can sing.”
1544 Ninth St. NW. 202-506-1068. zeppelindc.com. Skewers and shared plates, $5 to $15.