Wine bar Maxwell Park has been one of D.C.’s most popular drinking destinations since it opened its first location in Shaw four years ago, but the neighborhood fixture has struggled to settle on which food to permanently pair with its under-the-radar wines listed on cheeky themed menus. This summer, the bar brought on an executive chef to take the kitchen in a completely different direction: Japanese comfort food.
Masako Morishita loops in lots of memories from her native Japan with items like a McDonald’s-inspired teriyaki burger, savory cabbage pancakes, and the same sardines recipe her mom makes overseas.
The homegrown bar from award-winning sommelier/proprietor Brent Kroll previously served small snacks and rotating menus from tenured D.C. chefs like Oyster Oyster’s Rob Rubba and Food Network champ Adam Greenberg, but Morishita marks Maxwell’s first executive chef hire.
After running her roving Japanese comfort food pop-up Otabe over the past few years, the up-and-coming D.C. chef finds solid ground in a kitchen with her new Maxwell gig, that started right after the Fourth of July.
Maxwell’s original location in Shaw, which picked up a local restaurant association award in 2019 for “Wine Program of the Year,” added a 1,000-square-foot outpost in Navy Yard in early 2020. Morishita’s menu is only available in Navy Yard for now and arrives in Shaw starting next week.
“We were looking for someone to plant their feet and sink in — someone on the rise who we think will be the next big thing,” says Kroll, an alum of Proof and Iron Gate.
One month in, Morishita is already tinkering with fresh dish ideas to keep customers guessing. “We have a lot of regulars who come here every day or three times a week looking for something new,” she says. “I am constantly changing the menu to make it interesting and fun. I love cooking, so this for me is my dream job.”
An early best-seller is inspired by one of her favorite fast food fixes in Japan — a McDonald’s teriyaki burger that the chain doesn’t serve stateside.
“I miss it so much. I wanted to create something similar to that,” she says. Her take on the burger, delivered between a Martin’s potato bun and speared with a neon sparkly-topped toothpick for a touch of whimsy, comes slathered with a sauce made with gluten-free tamari, garlic, ginger, sake, and sweet rice wine.
A self-described “tamari sommelier”, Morishita finds uses for the fermented soy product across her menu. She even did a tamari tasting at Japanese brand San-J’s facility in Richmond, Virginia. Tamari is similar to soy sauce and originated as a byproduct of miso. Classically, it’s made with only soybeans (and no wheat), making it more similar in flavor to Chinese-style soy sauce.
“It has a richer flavor compared to regular soy sauce. San-J is the best [brand] to me. I use it in everything,” Morishita says.
A gleaming bowl of scallop crudo looks a little more refined, dressed with pickled plum and yuzu kosho (chili paste) for a fiery finish. She suggests using a spoon to scoop a broth she makes with tamari, sake, and sweet rice wine. Micro shiso and edible flowers from local farm Fresh Impact round out the dish.
A bright burrata salad that screams summer includes macerated strawberries with tamari and sugar, a tomato sliced open in a style similar to origami, and a sauce made from seaweed (kombu) that’s been marinated in rice vinegar and maple syrup. The last component reappears as a broth poured tableside.
“Dashi is my thing,” she says. “I try to use it as much as possible.”
A tin of grilled sardines punched up with parsley, garlic, and chile is a replica of the starter her mom makes thousands of miles away in Kobe, Japan, at a small restaurant and bar that’s been in the family for nearly 90 years. Both her mom and grandmother are chefs and taught her the art of Japanese cooking growing up.
Instead of employing a traditional okonomiyaki sauce for her Japanese pancake, she subs in zig zags of a homemade black garlic aioli. Prosciutto, otafuku (a type of flour), Kewpie mayo, togarashi, and bonito flakes round out the savory entree. The okonomiyaki blew Kroll away when he invited Morishita to do a tasting tryout after sampling her food during a pop-up event at Elle — the acclaimed Mt. Pleasant cafe where her husband, Brad Deboy, is the chef — earlier this year.
“If she had a dish that would stop me in my tracks, that was it. It’s delicious and pretty filling,” Kroll says. “I was like, ‘don’t change anything you’re doing.’”
Her taco rice bowl is an ode to the go-to order she used to get while traveling to Okinawa for work. A stacked pile of wagyu ground beef, salsa, lettuce, cheese, Kewpie mayo, and hot sauce speaks to American influences on the Japanese island’s cuisine, due to its proximity to a military base, she says.
Maxwell’s wines change all the time, so instead of listing specific pairings next to her dishes, guests are encouraged to chat with sommeliers directly.
“I view myself as a concierge. You can’t go to a lot of wine bars and lay that on the server, but you can do that here with whoever waits on you,” says Kroll.
Maxwell’s abundant list of temperature-controlled wines includes roughly 50 options by the glass and up to 500 bottles at any given time.
Amid the changes in the kitchen, Maxwell Park has also made big changes in the front of the house. Kroll says sommeliers Daniel Runnerstrom and Niki Lang moved on to other careers during the pandemic. Kroll found a new partner in Matt Dulle, who most recently worked as beverage director for Lazy Bear, a San Francisco restaurant with two Michelin stars. Before that, he was the opening head sommelier at Healdsburg, California’s luxurious SingleThread, which also played up Japanese influences across its farm-centric menu.
“I feel like wine knowledge doesn’t need to be relegated to the fine dining world. It can just be fun, so I was happy to come here, throw on a T-Shirt, play great music and lose my voice. We’re on the same page,” says Dulle.
Dulle and Kroll first met through a mutual master sommelier friend during an educational conference in Sonoma a few years back, and the bicoastal contacts kept in touch over the years to geek out about wine and stay in tune with the industry. When COVID-19 started causing lots of turnover, Kroll reached out asking if he knew anyone in his star sommelier network looking for a job.
“It was literally the perfect day for him to text me,” he says, adding D.C.’s energy and love for wine made the move appealing. “There is a little more heart here and sense of urgency.”
Maxwell’s new menu compliments a wine list that’s also known for being fun and approachable, with rotating themes playing up various varietals month to month. August’s edition is “Bubbles and Boy Bands” with Justin Timberlake as its branded pop star, and this week specifically is all about flights of dry, fizzy lambrusco paired with charcuterie.
This fall, look for “Royal Tannenbaums” for high-tannin reds.
Post-pandemic, Maxwell is sticking with its walk-ins-only model, but it’s taking pre-opening bookings for personalized tasting parties at $70 per person. Look for light cosmetic upgrades and a renovated patio with fans, heaters, and an awning in Shaw by the end of the year. Kroll says he and his new partner Dulle have a shared love for “shoebox” New York wine bars, which is what Maxwell was designed to be.
“Maxwell is meant to be a small company — I get offers for Tysons and Bethesda I turn down left and right. I want there to be two and that’s it,” says Kroll.