Lucas Irwin distinguishes himself from the rest of the small crew at NaRa-Ya, a high-end Japanese restaurant that opens next week on the Southwest Waterfront, when he turns his attention away from a countertop where he’s been braiding tangerine-colored strands of raw salmon and lifts his head to say hello. On a recent visit to the kitchen in the third-story space that looks over the Potomac River, the Hawaiian chef wiggled his pinky and thumb to flash a friendly a “hang ten” hand gesture.
Irwin, the latest in a string of sushi chefs attached to the long-developing waterfront restaurant, left Maui a long time ago, using experience working for Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto and Hawai’i legend Alan Wong as a springboard to travel around the country for jobs in places like Beaver Creek, Colorado, the island of Nantucket, and, most recently, Palm Beach, Florida, where he answered a Craigslist ad from NaRa-Ya culinary director Kaz Okochi. The “neo-traditional” Japanese dishes Irwin plans to send out when NaRa-Ya opens for indoor dining on Wednesday, March 10, retain a tropical island vibe with a flood of colorful flowers and fruits like kiwi, passionfruit, and candy kumquats.
While many fine dining venues have adopted a more casual approach during the COVID-19 pandemic, NaRa-Ya (88 District Square SW) is going the opposite route. Parking is a challenge at the Wharf development, which makes carryout and delivery difficult, and there’s no outdoor seating. So instead of the modern izakaya Okochi planned to develop a year ago, the restaurant is opening with a tasting menu-only format that includes three options: vegan ($75), regular ($89), and “luxury” ($135). Irwin says Okochi (Kaz Sushi Bistro) has given him the green light to put together prix fixes with a theatrical approach to match the restaurant’s maximalist design. Inside NaRa-Ya, seats are covered in hot pink leopard print fabric, and one wall is wrapped in a print of cherry blossoms in peak bloom.
The NaRa-Ya roll, for example, includes a filling of Alaskan king crab and purple sweet potato, a topping of A5 Japanese wagyu beef with black garlic aioli and crispy onions, and rice that’s been milled, or “polished,” on-site. Irwin employed that process at Morimoto Maui and says he only knows of a few other places in the U.S. that do it.
“It just changes the grain completely, and you have a fresher product,” Irwin says. “You can tell the difference, you can smell it.”
Two techniques Irwin says he’s developed over time are hot rock cooking — presented tableside at Nara-Ya with Sixty South salmon that’s raised without antibiotics off the southern tip of Chile — and zuke tuna (marinated in dashi, mirin, and soy) carried to the table in a smoking chamber. Another item Irwin expects to attract attention is a plate of torched tuna marrow. Cross-sections of fish spine show off the gelatinous product topped with ponzu sauce, scallions, and momiji oroshi (a spicy daikon condiment).
“I’d say it’s almost got its own flavor,” Irwin says. “It’s a little salty, but it’s a savory salty with this kind of light, luxurious gelatin flavor, gelatin texture. It’s something that you can’t really compare to anything.”
Irwin’s vegan prix fixe includes courses like green tea soba noodles in a shiitake green tea dashi (chazuke) filled with “ultra-baby” bok choy, pickled carrot flowers and parsnips, viola flowers, and nasturtium. “Luxury” menu dishes span from an amuse bouche of passionfruit and uni butter on a rice cracker to grilled squab and crispy enoki mushrooms served over a puree of shishito pepper and miso. For a surcharge, tables can pile on marked “luxury touches” including caviar, foie gras, truffles, fresh wasabi root, toro, and more wagyu.
General manager Michael Deery, a Nobu alum, has stocked the bar with sake bottles that cost anywhere from $26 to $1,800. Eaternity Hospitality Group owners Naeem Mohd and Rajiv Chadha, who also have Mediterranean spot La Vie directly above NaRa-Ya, inquired about buying Deery’s personal Japanese whisky collection for the restaurant, but he says he’s holding onto it as an investment for his daughter’s college fund. Bar Manager Ali Altayli is using Suntory Toki and Ichiro’s Malt and Grain inside florid cocktails, too.
Once D.C. eases capacity restrictions on indoor dining, NaRa-Ya will add a full a la carte menu with some of the touches Okochi, the culinary director, originally envisioned. That will include including takoyaki (octopus balls) served with grilled octopus legs and okonomiyaki, savory pancakes loaded with sauces and garnishes that Irwin’s Japanese grandfather used to make him for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
D.C. currently allows indoor dining at 25 percent capacity, which would allow Nara-Ya to host about 30 customers at a time. Restaurant workers are not yet eligible for the vaccine in the District, although they are listed as part of the Tier 1C group that just opened up appointments for people with qualifying medical conditions. COVID-19 cases in the District have been steadily declining since mid-January, although there’s been a 9 percent rise in new cases over the past week. The CDC classifies indoor dining at a restaurant as a “higher-risk” activity for exposure to the virus.
Irwin is looking forward to a time when he can serve his full menu. He’s pumped about the arrival of the annual cherry blossom festival, although organizers are emphasizing virtual events this year. He’s planning to serve sakura-infused rice, but isn’t sure if he’s allowed to collect local flowers.
“I don’t want to get arrested for stealing cherry blossoms,” Irwin says. “Right now we’re just sourcing them from Japan.”