On Monday, The Washington Post broke the news that Nakazawa would be the newest tenant at the Trump International Hotel. On Twitter, D.C. food lovers were torn. Some said they were reluctant to patronize a restaurant whose landlord is the president-elect. On the other hand, since Nakazawa is highly regarded — the New York restaurant is famous for employing chef Daisuke Nakazawa, who appeared in the documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” — others said they were willing to give it a try.
That latter goodwill may have gone out the window, however, when owner Alessandro Borgognone gave an interview to Grub Street this week. Some choice excerpts:
On what he thought of Washington: “With D.C., I had reached a point where I saw so much bad that I was actually looking for the good. I couldn’t find it.” And: “It’s a meat-and-potatoes town. It’s a steakhouse town.”
On his D.C. competition: “We don’t have any. I don’t know if I’m using the right words. I don’t sound humble. But I am. It’s just, you know, can you name an amazing sushi restaurant in D.C.?”
On whether Washingtonians will embrace his restaurant: “I can’t expect them to fall in love with it. I have to work for that love.”
Insulting our city is a pretty counterintuitive way of working for our love — kind of like a pickup artist “negging” a girl at a bar. Soon after the article was published, D.C. restaurant-goers had feelings to share about Borgognone and the reporter, Richard Morgan, who offered up some pretty outdated stereotypes as well.
Borgognone would like to set the record straight. He began with a classic politician’s apology — which means he’s going to fit in here just fine!
“If people took my words the wrong way, especially the people in D.C., I want them to understand that I have the utmost respect for D.C. and the food scene in D.C.,” he said.
His words, he said, “get twisted and turned.” When he was talking about the District being a meat-and-potatoes town, he was referring to 15 years ago. “But D.C. has evolved to being a great food city,” he said. As for there being no competition, “As a restaurateur, I want no competition. I try to do things that set our restaurant apart,” he said. “When people ask, ‘Do you have competition?’ I say ‘No.’ ”
Now is the time to humbly point out that while Nakazawa, the Today Show reported, was a “surprise omission” from the list of Michelin-starred restaurants in New York, Washington’s Sushi Taro has one Michelin star. “And congratulations to them,” said Borgognone.
Sushi Taro is among the restaurants Borgognone said he has patronized over his 2½ years of visiting the city. For his first trip, he had dinner at Minibar. He loves Fiola Mare — “I can even tell you my dinner that I had at Fiola Mare, that’s how much I liked it. I had the Dover sole” — and he’s waited in the Georgetown Cupcake line. He even mentioned going to another D.C. outpost of a New York brand: Carmine’s. He says he has lost track of how many times he’s been here. “I was Acela’s best customer.”
But in all of the research he’s done, he neglected to learn one important thing about the D.C. restaurant scene: Its long-standing and deep inferiority complex to New York. Nothing riles up Washingtonians quite like being compared unfavorably to the Big Apple. A single New York Times reference to our longtime reputation as a city of white-tablecloth steakhouses for lobbyists will set off an epic Tweetstorm and a scolding from every food media outlet in town (The Post has taken the bait, too). The worst insult of all? Calling us a “meat and potatoes” town.
“I wish I would have known about that,” said Borgognone. “I’ll make sure never to bring up meat and potatoes, that’s for sure.”
It’s doubly complicated for Nakazawa because of its location in the Trump hotel. Borgognone has the challenge of winning over locals turned off by his attitude — and getting a city that voted 93 percent for Hillary Clinton to patronize a restaurant in a building with the president-elect’s name on it. Choosing the hotel location was a business decision, he said, but he’s also distanced himself from his landlord.
“To me it’s not the Trump building, it’s the Old Post Office,” he said. “I’m not saying that I voted for the guy, but believing in democracy, I hope he serves a good four years. But his political views have nothing to do with Nakazawa.”
Restaurant space in the Trump International Hotel, of course, has been the subject of litigation throughout the last year. Chef José Andrés was slated to open a Spanish-Japanese restaurant in the space, but he pulled out after Trump’s disparaging comments about Mexican immigrants. Andrés, the unofficial mayor of the D.C. food scene, tweeted benedictions to Nazakawa after the interview.
By the end of our conversation, Borgognone’s politician’s apology had turned into a real one. “I truly feel bad,” he said. “I’m a little rough around the edges. Sometimes words don’t come out right. My intentions are always good, and I meant the right thing.”
Besides, he says he likes Washington enough that he hopes to open a second restaurant here. He’s not sure about the location yet, but it will be an offshoot of his family’s Italian restaurant in the Bronx. It’s called Patricia’s, named after his mother.
“If I didn’t like D.C. . . . why would I open two restaurants? That was never, ever what I intended to say, that’s not how I meant it, and in all honesty, I do apologize for that,” he said.
Borgognone already has an agenda for his next trip to town.
“The first thing I’m going to do is visit José Andrés and tell him thank you for the tweet he put out welcoming me to the city,” he said. His next stop? “Georgetown Cupcake. My kids will crucify me if I don’t bring back cupcakes.”