Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one year anniversary.
Photo courtesy Three Lockharts Communications
When Darren Lee Norris and his wife Ari opened the doors to Kushi Izakaya & Sushi in Mt. Vernon Square exactly one year ago, it pretty much immediately became the darling of critics and Japanese expats alike. And just weeks ago it was named a James Beard semifinalist for best new restaurant. We caught up with Darren to chat about how a primarily kushiyaki restaurant worked in DC, the changing neighborhood and what's next on his and his wife's agenda.
Tell me about your original concept.
It came about years ago with my wife and I traveling in Japan. Japan has several different types of restaurants. There's either the high-end or there's this kind of lower end which is down-and-dirty and very casual. I never really saw hipper places in Tokyo that were izakaya-style, which had great design and great style, but yet still really casual. There wasn't a lot of that going on there. And there definitely nothing like that going on in DC. So we felt like that was the kind of place that we could do well ourselves. If we had done something too high-end in DC it might not have translated well. In the same vein, if it was too casual and too down-and-dirty it would have been dismissed as too ethnic. So we tried to reach somewhere in the middle and that's how we came up with the idea of Kushi. It originally didn't have a sushi element involved. It was just a grill counter, robata, that kind of thing. But I had a little doubt that it would have been well-received in the DC market. In New York there are places that are just strictly yakitori or kushiyaki and they're fine. But it's New York. So we added a sushi component to it. In fact, the original space we looked at before we found where we're at was a townhouse on 14th Street between S and T. It was three levels and we were going to separate concepts in a way where we would have kushi on one floor, then a sushi place on the second floor and a lounge on the third floor. We were at the 11th hour on the lease signing with the landowner and things kind of fell apart on their end financially. So we were forced to look for another space. Actually, we still had this idea of having it separate, a sushi place and a kushiyaki place next to that. But it just didn't seem logical at that point.
How did the build go?
The build-out was good. The design took a lot longer than I thought it would. The design and permitting and all that took nearly five months. And the build-out was only 17 weeks. It actually took more time to design the building than it took to build it.
What about the design took so long?
We were pretty definite in what we wanted. We did have to work with an architect, but my wife was the lead on the design. She basically gave this 500-page design guide to the architect. She had real definite ideas. Most of the problem was just trying to communicate the end results of what we wanted because we built something that really had not been done before. We built this kitchen basically in the middle of a restaurant and then built everything around it. And it didn't really create many problems, but I think it was so different for the architect and the builder to do something like that that we encountered some challenges like engineering issues. Most restaurants, even if they have an open kitchen, they don't have the entire thing open. They might have a window open to it or a counter open to it. There's a lot of airflow issues. We have this double-hood system to accomodate for all the smoke, and what it does is create a lot of different kind of pressure and vacuums in the restaurant that you wouldn't have if you had a closed kitchen or a partially open kitchen. And also how are we going to bring power or water and gas to certain areas that are on this concrete slab? So there are a few challenges as far as having to go underneath the concrete slabs or drop things down from the ceiling or however it was going to happen — but to build these things and have everything function. So it was more of a technical side that took a little bit longer.
And how did finding your staff go? You brought in Yoshihisa Ota from Tokyo. Did you feel like you got everything in place pretty easily?
Well, that was pretty difficult to get him, to bring him over. And in the long run it didn't actually work out, he doesn't work for me anymore. I had to deal with lawyers here in New York and getting him a visa. It was a lot of visa issues trying to get him here. We got it done. Most of the staff, I started looking early, well before we opened. And then we found a couple of key people that were Japanese and local. They were able to bring other people with them. That community is relatively small in DC, kitchen workers in Japanese restaurants know each other. So I was able to procure a couple of main guys. The rest just kind of fell together.
You got a lot of glowing previews. Did that make you nervous for the reviews? How did that go for you?
I don't want to sound cocky, but I do know what I'm doing with food. I was pretty sure about that. I think the only thing I was worried about was were people going to take the chance to understand it. I was pretty confident about the product that we were doing. We had been working on it for about two years before we opened, the menu and all that, so we were really sure about the food. But I guess it's like anything that's creative. You do it the way you want to do it and the best you know, and you wonder whether or not it's going to get received in the way that you intended it. I think it did for the most part. What we've tried to do and was part of our opening was educate people on what it is that we're doing. And not everybody was happy. We had people who just didn't get it, didn't understand you would eat one skewer at a time, there was no entree, there was no appetizer. People would ask "what kind of a restaurant is this?" I actually don't think I'm much of a restaurant. I think we're more of a pub that serves food. People take it so seriously and say, well, we didn't get our entrees together. And that kind of thing. And, you know, you're right. We didn't get your entrees together. And we won't get your entrees together. Food is meant to be shared and it's more of a social thing. It's supposed to facilitate the conversation and the drinking. You're just hanging out and having a good time. It just seemed like some people had a difficult time having a good time. But, for the most part, that was few and far between. In the end it all worked out fine.
And do you think looking back that you could have opened without the sushi on the menu?
I don't know. I think the next place will probably be without sushi, but I'm not sure it could have started that way. The biggest problem in DC just seems to be there was nothing like it there before. Every restaurant in DC that is Japanese has sushi. Unfortunately, most Americans think that sushi is the only Japanese food that's out there. Even in New York — I've spent most of my life in New York and there's still a lot of things that aren't in New York that are amazing in Japan. Okonomiyaki. Yakisoba places. Kaiseki restaurants. There are so many things that really aren't even here and they definitely aren't in DC. And I think it would still be a long time before they would even been accepted there. So sushi is kind of like the ambassador. It's what people are familiar with. I would have liked to have done it that way, without the sushi, but I just didn't think it was going to happen.
The neighborhood around you has been growing, too. Has that changed business over the year?
Yeah, it's really changed a lot. Even the local element that was there before that was not so savory, that was a little bit dangerous late at night, is pretty much gone now. And I've noticed that even the city has adapted and changed since we've been there. There were no parking meters when we first started building there, and now they've gone through three different kinds of parking meters within the last year. And they get more elaborate every time. Now it's the machine where you pay with a credit card. That didn't even exist when we got there. In fact, one of the landlord's selling points to me was that there were no parking meters, there was free parking everywhere. And even the parking lots in the neighborhood didn't charge people after 4 p.m. They're all in business now at night. I think we created a lot of revenue for the city and different parking companies in the area just because of the volume of people that come through that neighborhood now. And it's all for the good. It's changing. It's cleaning up. I didn't realize it was going to happen so fast, though. I was pretty content with being in an edgy area because that was also kind of in line with the way we think. To be honest with you, one of the reasons why I ended up there was because of all the places I didn't want to be. I did not want to be in Dupont. I did not want to be in Penn Quarter. I did not want to be in Georgetown. I did not want to be in Columbia Heights. But that area kind of fit for me that it was a bit off the edge. And I liked that. Now it's actually not so much off the edge. But that's OK because it's kind of happening the way we want it to happen. So it's a good thing.
Can you tell me about how you find out you were a James Beard semifinalist?
Actually, I just got a call from Dusty my publicist that I made the list that day. I was genuinely surprised. It was so surreal for me to be in that conversation. I know they're going to narrow it down to five finalists next month, but I could care less. I'm very happy to be in the 30-something list of it. It's all really just gravy to me. We did what we wanted to do. All we wanted to do was open a restaurant and be able to support ourselves. The fact that it gets recognized as something good by the likes of James Beard or whatever is just amazing. It was never a goal. We never thought about anything like that happening.
So what is next for you?
Next. Well, I've got a few small things that I've kind of got on the fire, so to speak. One is a farm-to-table kind of market that we're looking at doing in DC. I think the next thing that's really in line with what I'm doing now is most likely going to be a noodle place. What type of noodle we do has a lot to do with location, whether it be a soba place or a ramen place. Typically, I think soba places are a little finer of a restaurant. Ramen is a faster type of thing. I think the space that we find next will probably dictate which type of noodle we're going to do. But we won't do both. We won't do soba and ramen in the same place. And, honestly, I haven't really spent a lot of time looking at the next thing. I'll probably start looking over the summer. But there are people already looking for me. I get a lot of offers and some opportunities have come up, I just haven't jumped on any of them yet. I really want to wait until Kushi is really set and the machine is operating without me. I don't think that we're quite there yet, but we're on the verge. One of the great things about my experience is I was able to watch other people make mistakes on their own dime. And I've seen people that expanded too quickly and bit off more than they could chew too fast. I just don't want to be that guy. I'm trying to be patient and take it slowly and do it right. I think that's one typical mistake restaurants make is trying to do too much too fast.
Does it feel like it's been a year?
It feels like it's been about three years. It's been a very long one year for me. But I think it's probably because I've worked seven days a week for the last year and the days are long. Before I've always had a job working for other people when there's a time where you go home — even though the jobs I had were big jobs — there was a time when you forget about your job and your career. This is the kind of thing where you never forget about it. You wake up in the middle of the night and you're thinking about it. Whatever you're doing you're constantly thinking about it. But I'd rather be doing this than working for somebody else.