Nightclub operators Wayne Johnson and Tony Perry are longtime friends of Pusha T, which explains the rapper’s role as a partner in Kitsuen, the two-level ramen, hookah, and cocktail bar they’ll open on H Street NE this weekend. Their introduction to chef Munehiro Mori, though, was as impersonal as possible.
The Tokyo native, who has nearly 30 years of experience making traditional ramen, simply responded to their Craigslist post.
Kitsuen opens at 1362 H Street NE on Saturday, January 18, with limited hours (Thursday to Sunday, 3 p.m. to 1 a.m.) and a compact menu from Mori. The line-up kicks off with a short list of starters like fried shrimp, chicken gyoza, and karaage (Japanese fried chicken), followed by five options for ramen bowls: shoyu, spicy miso, tonkatsu, fried chicken, and vegetable. The chef’s stateside resume includes opening Wolfgang Puck’s Chinois at Caesars Palace and leading local kitchens at Cashion’s, Asia Nora, and McGinty’s.
“We say we are a bar that does a few dishes very very well,” Johnson says.
The ivy-lined bar stocks six types of sakes, imported Japanese beers like Orion and Lucky, and plum wines. Cocktails play with green tea infusions and go heavy on Suntory Japanese whiskey.
Framed photos of Pusha T hover above gold reptilian booths in its upstairs lounge. Colorful prints of 1940s era tourist posters for Japan line a row of two-tops below. A yellow vintage scooter from China with only 168 miles on it stays parked near the kitchen.
A sleek and spacious patio is a stunning surprise addition to the back area, which was previously just “a mound of dirt,” says Johnson.
Along with Pusha T’s business partner, Terrion Jones, the project has a couple other high-profile backers: pro basketball players Jerian and Jerami Grant. Perry used to babysit the siblings when they were growing up together in Maryland. Vegas entrepreneur Kyle Eubanks is also on board.
A good chunk of the crew lives nearby. Jerian plays for the Capital City Go-Go in the G League and just bought a condo on H Street. Jerami plays for the NBA’s Denver Nuggets. Pusha T moved to Bethesda because “he’s trying to get roots down here,” Johnson says.
“He has been a champion for us pushing the brand,” Johnson says. “He’s not just putting his name on it.”
They wanted to open a ramen bar together because it’s their favorite food to eat before a night out. Johnson also says they were encouraged by the late 2018 opening of Swan in Miami, which boasts singer/producer Pharrell Williams as a partner.
Longtime D.C. favorite Toki Underground is just a few blocks away, but Johnson thinks there’s room in the neighborhood for another, much bigger (87-seat) option.
“We are not just club guys trying to do ramen — we are doing it the right way,” he says. “I think people will be pleasantly surprised.”
There’s no longer an official dress code, which was the plan when the project was first announced in summer 2018, but the partners still hope to appeal to a fashionable crowd.
Johnson says the project was delayed because the original ownership group ran into financial problems.
“We started building and had some hangups,” he says, revealing “a contractor ran off with a ton of our money and it set us back.”
Getting some time to regroup last summer turned into a “godsend,” because it brought new partners like Pusha T into the mix.
“The project got a second wind,” he says.