When the brothers and co-owners sketched out plans for Zeppelin, they imagined that the multi-concept establishment — sushi house, izakaya, yakitori, karaoke bar — would sit above Chaplin’s, their ramen-forward restaurant, also in Shaw. They wanted to suspend a scaled reproduction of a German airship from the rooftop, a zeppelin that would be visible for blocks in every direction in this low-slung city. They had hoped the dirigible would become a Washington landmark, separate from the august monuments that honor our nation’s guts and glory, a kind of Randy’s Donuts for the District.
But when the city’s regulatory dweebs nixed their plans, the brothers settled on a location just down the block from Chaplin’s on Ninth Street NW. Zeppelin moved into a two-story structure with a short, snakebit history as a dining destination. The previous two tenants to occupy the space — Kwame Onwuachi’s Shaw Bijou and the French Quarter Brasserie — didn’t survive a year there. Combined. Restaurateurs with less nerve might have balked at such a spot.
But the brothers Wilder were born with moxie in their blood. They’re the sons of an iconoclastic father who passed along his affection for silent movies, whose heyday happened to coincide with the rise of commercial airship travel, which is how these siblings connected the dots between Charlie Chaplin and Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin’s famous dirigible. From there, the Wilders were only one small free association away from making the leap from Count Zeppelin to Led Zeppelin, whose debut album featured a high-contrast image of the Hindenburg, mid-explosion, a disaster that would effectively end the airship era.
Somehow, some way, the owners pour this entire strange brew into one Japanese restaurant. The interior, designed by Reid & Taylor Studio, draws inspiration from Art Deco, German airships and Japanese minimalism. A soft, glowing light box hangs above the second-floor dining room. Its panels illuminate a faithful Japanese translation of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” courtesy of partner Minoru Ogawa, the chef better known for his namesake restaurant, Sushi Ogawa.
Talk in song from tongues of lilting
Sounds caress my ear
And not a word I heard could I relate
The story was quite clear
This may be the first time — at least the first time without a giant bong hit held tightly in your lungs — that the lyrics to “Kashmir” make sense. The creation story of Zeppelin (the restaurant, not the band) has a stoner’s clarity to it: a restaurant that mixes the luxury of 1930s airships with the hedonism of ’70s-era rockers, which is how you get a place that combines pricey omakase menus with izakaya-level drinking and late-night karaoke. Artist Patrick Owens sort of ties it all together, like the Dude’s rug, with a giant outdoor mural in which Godzilla, Mothra and King Kong storm the streets of Tokyo as airships circle above, including one with the Sushi Ogawa logo on it.
And, yet, despite Zeppelin’s heady cocktail of cultural references, I can’t always relate to the more ambitious side of its split persona. You can probably chalk this up to Ogawa’s limited presence at the restaurant, given that he’s apparently trying to shore up operations at Sushi Ogawa, where he and his co-owner were sued for wage theft. But whatever the reason, the night that two friends and I ordered the $80 omakase at the table (it’s $100 at the sushi counter), I was underwhelmed by the parade of nigiri sushi, including one plate with 12 pieces just for me. The server couldn’t name all of them, and I couldn’t eat them before the rice had started to lose its essential warmth, making it almost impossible for the bite to collapse into a soft tumble of fish and grains.
As a sushi house, Zeppelin’s strength lies in its sourcing. Ogawa orders a fair share of fish direct from Japan, but, just as important, his omakase looks beyond the usual suspects — tuna, salmon, snapper and yellowtail — to showcase porgy, butterfish, barracuda, geoduck and other morsels that dare our palates to savor textures and flavors other than the rich, the oily and the lush. I’m just not convinced Zeppelin is the right place to show off these fish, whose more delicate qualities demand the Zen stillness of a temple.
On a Saturday night, with every seat occupied on the second level, Zeppelin vibrates like a stack of Marshall amps behind Jimmy Page at Madison Square Garden. This is an atmosphere not designed for contemplation, but for guzzling. Fortunately, the Wilders, old pros behind the bar, have put together a tight spirits program focused on sakes and Japanese spirits. They even have a Suntory highball machine, which injects more bubbles into your whiskey and soda than a Jacuzzi. Try the Baldwin, an orange Fanta of a cocktail with this lovely little tickle of ginger. Even better is the Simple Twist of Fate, a mix of blended Japanese whiskey, brandy and vermouth, almost Dylanesque in its embrace of complexity and simplicity.
Despite its loftier aspirations, Zeppelin operates more comfortably as an izakaya, or Japanese-style watering hole. That’s how most diners treat the place anyway, ordering up beers and cocktails, and divvying up share plates between them. There are plates to remember here, too, though most do not come from the yakitori station, where executive sous chef Shigehisa Yokote and his team apply their shio and tare as if hoarding the seasonings for the coming apocalypse. Too many grilled skewers, whether chicken thighs or pork jowls, are just lifeless. The shiitake mushrooms, with their shock of acid, are the exception.
Turn instead to the crunchy shrimp dumplings, the ethereal shrimp tempura, the flamboyant seafood okonomiyaki or even the nikuzume lotus root paired with a ground chicken patty slathered in a sweet, savory yakiniku sauce. These go down like Japanese bar food, fast, sloppy, mindless and fun. Zeppelin’s creators may want to embrace the high and the low, but the people have spoken: They want to party.
Tom Sietsema is away. He will return next week.