It's open! After a last-minute blessing from D.C.'s permit department, Daikaya Izakaya hurriedly got things ready for a soft opening last night. The restaurant, the second floor of the already-popular ramen shop downstairs, will open at its traditional time, 5 p.m., this evening.
From the specials written in Japanese calligraphy hanging from the bar to the Japanese beer crates stacked near the storage area, it's clear that every detail behind the upstairs izakaya is meant to be transporting. Brian Miller of Edit Lab at Streetsense traveled with partners Katsuya Fukushima, Yama Jewayni and Daisuke Utagawa to Japan to research the look and feel of the country's izakaya bar culture.
The restaurant is designed to feel comfortable and encourage people to linger, explained Miller. With 90 seats, it's actually pretty large by Japanese standards, so the designers made an effort to split up the space into smaller, more intimate nooks, using tools such as ropes around the booths. The restaurant is meant to have an eclectic, evolving feel, with lighting fixtures that don't necessarily match. That way if something is damaged, it can be replaced with something new, and the feel of the space isn't lost. Two Japanese food-themed mangas, Oishinbo and Drops of God, were used for the subtle design on the restaurant's wall.
Japanese fabrics cover one wall in a collage, and a friend of Jewayni did Japanese calligraphy signs of some of the menu's specialties. Those are hung behind the bar, interspersed with Japanese advertisements, to help create a realistic feel to the place. The dramatic outside facade also adds to the impact — it serves as a sort of screen, letting in only light and colors from the outside rather than a view of the Verizon Center's loading docks. That was a gamble on behalf of the landlord, Jewayni said, since it's such a major part of the actual building.
"Really, there's no such thing as the 'authentic' izakaya experience because everyone does their own thing," says Utagawa. Daikaya is trying to pay homage to very traditional dishes, while putting their own unique spin on them. A good example is the grilled oyster with sake. That's a very traditional dish, but add Fukushima's oyster salt, and it becomes a little bit different. Same thing with the shishito peppers, which get a unique touch from gouda. Diners will get introduced to Japanese dishes they may not be familiar with — such as a salmon sashimi called ruibe that's intentionally served frozen. Spicy cod roe spaghetti sounds like a dish Fukushima may have invented, but it's actually a tribute to a dish Utagawa remembers enjoying in Japan in the 1970s.
Want ramen? You'll have to stay downstairs. The two floors of the restaurant, which have separate entrances, do not share a menu. Those waiting in line for ramen, though, are encouraged to have a drink upstairs, and Utagawa doesn't think it will be unusual for customers of the izakaya to end a night of drinking with a bowl of ramen downstairs.
Daikaya wants to build a reputation for its selection of sake, shochu and Japanese whiskey. Bar director Eddie Kim is hoping to push for more varieties of Japanese whiskey to be imported into the U.S. Cocktails range from a spin on the gin rickey to the rye-based Of Hearth and Home. There's also a section of the drink menu that pays tribute to Fukushima's time spent at Minibar — it has a bit of a molecular gastronomy bent. A sake bomb features the sake spherified into a ball, and then dropped into a small beer glass. The restaurant has a significant wine list as well.
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