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The Waterfront Space at the Center of a Contentious Lawsuit Will Now Be an Izakaya

Prominent Japanese chef Kaz Okochi joins a project that already lost a Michelin-star talent

Kaz Okochi, owner and chef at Kaz Sushi Bistro in Washington, DC.
Kaz Okochi has signed on as a consulting chef for the NaRa-Ya bar coming to the Wharf.
Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images

After losing one sushi chef with Michelin-star credentials, a pair of restaurateurs overseeing a waterfront restaurant space in D.C.’s tony Wharf development have turned to another prominent name in the city’s sushi scene to rescue their investment while they continue to wage court battles with their former partner.

Kaz Okochi, who has built his reputation on mixing Western ingredients into raw fish dishes for the past 20 years at Kaz Sushi Bistro in Foggy Bottom, has signed on as a consulting culinary director to help design a menu for a casual Japanese bar called NaRa-Ya. The project is expected to open in late April on the third floor of the building at 88 District Square SW, right below Mediterranean lounge La Vie.

Last year, Sushi Taro chef Nobu Yamazaki backed out of a partnership to lead a Japanese-Hawaiian restaurant called Tabu in the same space.

Naeem Mohd and Rajiv Chadha, who own La Vie, count NaRa-Ya in their restaurant portfolio. The pair are engaged in a contentious split with their former business partner, Mike Bramson, leading to a series of ongoing lawsuits rife with mud-slinging and allegations of shady financial behavior.

NaRa-Ya will focus on izakaya-style fare. Okochi tells Eater her plans to serve takoyaki, spherical snacks traditionally filled with octopus and cooked in molds. Some will be stuffed with sous vide octopus to achieve a less chewy texture. Others will swap the seafood out in favor of pork belly. Okochi says he’s looking into acquiring teflon molds, which will be more forgiving than cast iron for cooks who have less experience making them than street vendors in Japan.

“A lot of restaurants I notice are serving the frozen takoyaki, but we’re going to make it from scratch again,” he says.

Kushi katsu — battered and fried skewers — will include beef, pork, and vegetables. Okonomiyaki, savory pancakes built out of batter, cabbage, and myriad toppings and condiments, will be another point of emphasis. So will Japanese croquettes with a creamy Bechamel filling.

Okochi says NaRa-Ya will have the creative sashimi dishes that have become his signature. He’s coming up with temaki (hand rolls) in an unconventional shape and does not plan to serve nigiri sushi.

A rendering of the dining room and bar at NaRa-Ya
A rendering of the dining room and bar at NaRa-Ya
NaRa-Ya [official]
A rendering of banquettes at NaRa-Ya
A rendering of banquettes at NaRa-Ya
NaRa-Ya [official]

Jason Streiff, an alum of now-closed Asian-Latin fusion spot Zengo in Chinatown, is the chef overseeing the kitchen at NaRa-Ya. The restaurant’s name is a reference to the one-time Japanese capital. It’s also a portmanteau of Mohd and Chadha’s first names.

Meanwhile, Mohd and Chadha are seeking compensation from Bramson, Yamazaki, and their partner in another venture as part of a lawsuit centering on Yamazaki’s departure from Tabu. The NaRa-Ya partners claim that Bramson defrauded them by selling back his 25-percent stake in Tabu, valued at $500,000, all while knowing that he planned to steer Yamazaki away from that restaurant and toward another project, the Roll’d stall in Ballston’s Quarter Market Food hall.

Bramson first brought legal action against his former partners for alleged breach of contract, claiming they plotted to remove him from the group that managed La Vie by using a contract loophole that allowed them to buy him out if he failed to contribute money to six internal fundraising calls.

Bramson, Washingtonian reports, scored a legal victory over his former partner in a case alleging Mohd “unjustly enriched himself” as the majority owner of the company that operates Provision 14, another clubby spot just north U Street NW. A judge last week ordered a third-party audit and placed a one-year restriction Mohd that keeps him from making any financial transactions for that restaurant company.

Mohd has filed a defamation suit in Virginia against Bramson and his wife for allegedly spreading accusations that he steals restaurant money.

Given all the lawsuit drama, one may reasonably wonder why Okochi would want to work with Mohd and Chadha. The chef says all the lawsuits are “not really my business,” and he prefers acting as a consultant because he doesn’t have to handle the burdens of ownership.

“I rejected their offer to be a partner,” Okochi says, “but they kept on asking, so I said, ‘If you want me to do the consulting, I can do that.’”