Chef Pepe Moncayo, a Singapore restaurateur by way of his native Spain, will open a highly anticipated, highly ambitious Spanish-Japanese restaurant this weekend in Penn Quarter.
Cranes, his first U.S. restaurant, starts serving dinner Saturday. It combines cooking techniques from Spain and Japan as the basis for small plates that use U.S. ingredients.
“I am discovering America’s pantry, which is fantastic,” Moncayo says.
A six-course “Spanish kaiseki” menu shows off hyper-seasonal selections for $88 ($45 more for beverage pairings). Kaiseki refers to tasting menus in Japan that draw from specific seasons and environments. There are also nearly 20 a la carte tapas to choose from ($9-$28).
Each dish is overflowing with references to Moncayo’s experiences in Spain and Singapore, where he still runs popular omakase-style restaurant, Bam! It took him a while to find the gelatinous Japanese mushroom to create the “nameko mushroom rice” tapas dish.
“I was crazy looking for it — I couldn’t find it or fly it from Singapore,” he says.
He met a grower in Pennsylvania via a connection from a Gravitas chef. It turns out it’s called “honey mushroom” in America and nameko in Japan. The paella-like dish speaks to his time at two-Michelin-starred Dos Cielos with Javier and Sergio Torres, celebrity chef brothers who are obsessed with rice quality.
“In Spain it’s our starch. Italy is known for pastas, Spain is its rice. It’s our specialty,” he says. The trick is to “make it suffer” and dry out, he says, letting the rice release starch in stock for a “round texture” that picks up a lot of flavor. Myoga (ginger) adds a Japanese flair.
Beets four ways ($12) — crème fraîche, ginger juice, pickled golden beet, salt-baked beet, and buckweat — is a gorgeous red medley that resembles stained glass. Look for live sea urchin and “melt-in-your mouth” black cod coming soon.
A happy hour right out of the gate accommodates the neighborhood’s 9-to-5 crowd. In a few weeks, a bento box lunch with six food compartments, soup, and tea will get the busy set in and out in under 40 minutes for under $40.
Plates parading out of the open kitchen come with an equally dramatic backdrop, starting with an ominous-looking metal door on Ninth Street NW.
“We did that on purpose to elevate the curiosity into the space,” says 3877 architect Molly Forman, whose team drew design inspiration from Moncayo’s plating, composition, and drastic shadow play.
A long entryway lined with metal bird feet and circular rising sun shapes lead guests into a sprawling, 12,000-square-foot space (724 Ninth Street NW) that’s completely unrecognizable from its former life as as Ruth’s Chris.
Despite a promising and evolving menu stacked with thought, Moncayo’s top priority is rolling out the red carpet for guests from Day One.
“You can get beautiful food with bad service. You are not coming back, no matter if it’s the best food ever,” he says.
There’s intentional ample space between sleek oblong tables with origami-shaped black bases. Tables themselves are also oversized by design to fit all the small plates. Colorful cranes make an appearance on every table in the form of glossy chopsticks holders. Anticipating many to “fly away,” Moncayo bought 300 extra.
“No one is going to tell you not to take it,” he says.
Cranes boasts a 50-seat bar and sake lounge, a 175-seat raised dining area, an open kitchen, and a private dining room for 25. Another six-seat private dining area, formerly a storage space, is filled with lively paintings of Spanish flamenco dancers. The super intimate setup is ideal for business deals, Moncayo says.
Old sake glasses are affixed to walls, creating a pattern that also resembles broken bird eggs. Woven baskets used to make sake were imported from Japan to line the bar.
Daikaya Group alum Monica Lee curated a sake collection that includes rare Japanese labels like Yamada “Everlasting Roots” Tokubetsu Junmai.
“Isn’t it fate that I come here with my concept and she was already in this city? It was a perfect match,” Moncayo says.
In a restaurant so big, with expensive ingredients and a prime location, the pressure is on to succeed from the start.
“If we are not full we are doing something wrong,” Moncayo says, referring to always-packed Zaytinya nearby.