Chef Pepe Moncayo plans to unite his backgrounds in Japanese cooking techniques and Spanish ingredients at Cranes, a restaurant and sake lounge opening later this year in Penn Quarter.
The 11,000-square-foot restaurant, which will boast an extensive sake collection alongside a “Spanish Kaiseki” small plates menu, is expected to open this fall inside the former Ruth’s Chris space at 724 Ninth Street NW .
The native Spaniard comes to D.C. following a 10-year stint in Singapore, where he opened his first omakase-style restaurant, Bam!, which he continues to operate. Cranes will feature a bar, sake lounge, raised dining area, open kitchen, and private dining room for 25.
“Japanese cooking is well-represented in the culinary scene in Singapore, and I fell in love with it the moment I moved there,” says Moncayo. “The more of it I learned, the more similarities I saw with the ingredients, techniques and landscapes I grew up with.”
His resume includes working under three-Michelin star Catalan chef Santi Santamaria at his eponymous Santi in Singapore, Can Fabes and EVO, and working as executive chef at two-Michelin-starred Dos Cielos with Javier and Sergio Torres.
“Working with Santi changed my life — it put me to another level of understanding commitment,” Moncayo tells Eater, adding “the most important thing is service — it’s a challenge everywhere in the world.”
In the style of Spanish bar and Japanese kaiseki, seasonal dishes are small and designed for progressive dining. They will be available a la carte, or as part of a set menu chosen each day by the chef.
One dish in the works is fresh oysters with ponzu and espelette pepper instead of mignonette.
Other Japanese-Spanish dishes could include a baby shrimp torta with aioli and tamarind romesco; nameko mushroom rice with burrata alongside a salad of enoki mushrooms, shallots, and porcini oil; and fried baby squid with soft-boiled egg, chorizo, and white onion puree.
“One of my dreams was to come to America,” says Moncayo, who recently relocated to D.C. with his wife and three kids. “I was told D.C. was a steakhouse city,” he says, but after a handful of trips here, he realized his new town is “moving at a very fast pace.”
Supra’s Georgian cuisine “blew his mind,” he says. He rattled off some of his other favorites so far: Masseria, Oyamel, Zaytinya, Kinship, and Estadio. He hasn’t met fellow Spanish chef José Andrés yet, but would “love to,” he says.
Diners will have a hard time remembering Cranes’s former life as steakhouse chain Ruth’s Chris, which is getting completely gutted to make way for a sleek design featuring concrete, dark textures, and bright polished metals. Moncayo’s team considered three locations and was sold on the spacious corner layout.
Studio 3877, an in-demand architect behind Penn Quarter’s new Boqueria, The Smith and Succotash, leads the redesign. An opening is scheduled for around October. The name Cranes stems from the flying symbol of luck in Japan that travels between foreign lands.
“A mentor told me [wherever] you go, find ingredients that are the freshest and best you can get,” Moncayo says. “I don’t believe in recipes that work everywhere.”
He’s excited about soft shell crabs, having recently gotten an early seasonal taste in Annapolis.
“To get fresh soft shell in Singapore is impossible,” he notes.
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