Even Washington’s occasional restaurant-goers are likely to be familiar with Perry’s, the Adams Morgan fixture that populates seemingly every local listicle celebrating outdoor dining and Sunday brunch. The restaurant maintains one of the loftiest places to graze on its rooftop, nearly 30 feet off the ground, and a weekend morning menu that comes with a side of men in drag.
Longtime citizens might not recall Perry’s origins, however. When owner Saied Azali opened the destination’s doors nearly three decades ago, the second-floor dining room featured a Japanese menu; Perry’s saluted Matthew C. Perry, the 19th-century U.S. Navy officer credited with opening Japan to the rest of the world.
Last month, the restaurant returned to its Eastern roots. The owner says he wanted to change his menu as long as several years ago. Only the lack of talent held him back: Skilled Japanese chefs, like quiet restaurants, are rare commodities.
Heading up the kitchen these days is Hironobu Higashijima, whose résumé lists Makoto, the grand dame of Japanese establishments in the Palisades, and the more contemporary Kushi in Mount Vernon Triangle. Watching over the sushi bar, which has been a staple of Perry’s since 1984, is a veteran of Raku in Bethesda, Tetsuya Nakata.
In its early weeks, the reconsidered Perry’s is better for its kozara (small plates), kushiyaki (skewered grilled food), fried dishes and noodles than for its raw seafood compositions. I say this based on a beautiful but fishy-tasting arrangement of sliced orange clam and a rainbow roll so flashy, the flavors of the different fish get lost. Plain sushi is a better route. Give me a finger of yellowtail on a pad of soft rice, and I’m a happy diner.
I like my yellowtail cooked, too, and the kitchen delivers, with yellowtail jawbone that’s lightly crisp from just salt and a brush with the grill. My prize: snowy meat just below the surface of the skeleton. A squeeze of lemon is the only accessory the dish requires.
Order drinks to begin (the bartender does well by the classics), and ease into the round with a few small plates. The gyoza, or dumplings, are first-rate, see-through crescents filled with crumbled beef cheeks and Chinese chives, then seared to a golden crisp on one side. Skewered chicken meatballs — springy oval patties shocked with ginger and punctuated with water chestnuts — are likely to prompt an order for seconds. And if your chopsticks don’t make quick work of pork short ribs draped in an eye-popping “bulgogi” sauce, you have more restraint than this heat-seeker.
From the flames of the stove emerge silken, miso-bathed cod, offered under a canopy of bamboo leaf with crisp-tender green beans made smoky from the grill. The fish is good by itself; a dab of its accompanying emulsion of miso, butter and Parmesan lends the entree a pleasant European air.
Perry’s fry cook is as adept as its grill tender. The evidence arrives on a platter of crisp mahogany chicken arranged with irresistible curry-laced “Nobu” rice — an homage to the lead chef here — and wasabi-ignited coleslaw that would be more with less mayonnaise. (A soak in sake, soy sauce and ginger informs the chicken, while a powder of potato starch lends it a deep tan.) Grander yet is the kitchen’s “Nippon” fish and chips. The catch features whole fried porgy, carved into crisp bites. The “chips” are mostly root vegetables: lotus root, Korean sweet potatoes, beets, sometimes turnips. A house-made ponzu sauce electrifies the eating.
On a cold winter night, a bowl of thin buckwheat noodles with islands of fried tofu adrift in a mushroom-fueled broth makes one merry and bright.
One of Perry’s abundant attributes is the skill with which its staff handles groups of diners. In almost every party, there’s bound to be raised arms and questions from members who say they don’t care for Japanese, they can’t eat flesh — whatever. Throw the restaurant an issue and the kitchen can likely address it. Japanese selections flag almost a dozen vegan items, from wild mushroom and somen noodle soup to skewered grilled okra and Chinese broccoli tossed with miso dressing. The most generous of the lot appears to be the Asian chop salad: kabocha squash, Brussels sprouts, spicy greens, tofu, cucumber, daikon and a sesame dressing. Alas, my server forgot to drop it off on my last visit, so I’ll have to go back to tell you more about it.
As for the carnivore concerned about finding something suitable, let Perry’s introduce him to the grilled New York strip. The sirloin swells with beefy juices and the miso with which it’s marinated; the pre-sliced slabs of beef share the plate with a thatch of house-cut french fries that don’t last long after making their entrance.
Perry’s sprawling second-floor dining room, reached after a steep climb of marble stairs, does not suggest you’re in Tokyo. But Azali has applied a coat of orange paint to the walls and installed some fresh light fixtures, and plans to add wood counters to both the front sushi counter and the handsome bar to the side of the expanse. In the kitchen, the staff awaits equipment, including a new grill, that should make their assignments easier. (Too bad the tables aren’t bigger; rarely does dinner fit easily on their surfaces.)
Desserts reflect the past — and fear not, fans, drag brunch remains on the menu. As far as this diner is concerned, the chance to eat a moist slice of almond cake on a pool of creme anglaise is a good thing. The menu credits former Perry’s chef Robert Dalliah, now catering at the Well Dressed Burrito in Dupont Circle.
Perry’s, once the source of crusty crab cakes and divine banana cream pie, did America proud for years. With time, I expect the new-old fixture to burnish its adopted accent, too.
Next week: Rose’s Luxury on
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1811 Columbia Rd. NW.
Dinner 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5:30 to 11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Lunch
11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday; drag brunch 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday.
METRO: Woodley Park.
Small plates $4
to $9, entrees $13 to $27.
with raised voice.