To sense — rather, smell — the extensive thought behind every inch in Shōtō, stroll straight through its immaculate, wood-framed dining room and into its spa-like restrooms. Here custom oil diffusers release a one-of-one black tea scent, made by luxury perfume brand Le Labo to exclusively swirl through Shōtō’s stone-lined lavatories.
That invisible touch is just a droplet in a sea of detail that makes Midtown Center’s modern Japanese izakaya unlike anything D.C. has seen before (1100 15th Street NW). The global hospitality group behind the 155-seat stunner, debuting tonight for dinner service at 5 p.m., knows what it’s doing. Shōtō is the newest member of London-based restaurateur Arjun Waney’s collective of brands that includes Zuma, a high-end sushi and izakaya concept with 18 locations around the world. The hotly anticipated sibling three years in the making brings downtown D.C. a symmetrically pleasing sushi counter, bar, and Japanese robata grill that cooks an array of fish, meats, skewers, poultry, and produce over pressed Japanese white oak (scroll down for a first look at its finalized menu).
The man behind the zen masterpiece is Noriyoshi Muramatsu of Tokyo-based Studio Glit, a world-renowned restaurant designer who’s also in charge of Zuma’s luxe looks (its Sin City Cosmopolitan location was named Eater Las Vegas’s 2017 Design of the Year). Shōtō marks the choosy designer’s first project in D.C.
“We built this project specially for D.C. It’s unique and there’s only one,” says managing partner Arman Naqi, a D.C. native who spent the past eight years based in Miami working for the company.
Shōtō’s smoky grilling technique inspires perhaps the biggest showstopper in the museum-quality dining room. A massive UFO-like formation hovering over diners is made of lava stone taken from an active volcano in Japan. Stones were drilled into orange-sized chunks, painstakingly hand-strung, and now hang in a perfect circular formation from the 25-foot ceiling. As the sun sets, the backlit, bobbing sculpture gives seated diners a dazzling shadow show on the floor as a DJ spins “pulse” music nearby on weekends.
The dramatic black showpiece joins an array of decor also sourced, assembled, and/or salvaged in Japan that impossibly made the 7,000-mile trek to D.C. in one piece.
Patrons get a tangible sense of what’s in store as soon as they open the door. The lengthy, thin handle is a bronzed branch that once belonged to a tree growing in an ancient Japanese forest, handpicked by Muramatsu just for Shōtō. Illuminated bottles of Japanese whiskey greet guests upon entry, showcased like precious artifacts behind gold metal grates. Shōtō shoots to have one of the biggest Japanese whiskey selections in D.C., if not the East Coast. For now, there’s 40 rare types to choose from with the goal of getting to 100 as supply restrictions loosen.
Shōtō, which means “short sword” in Japanese, speaks to “our commitment to accuracy and precision,” says Naqi — from its raw fish slicing skills down to every design element that seems to have a place and purpose. The sushi counter, for instance, offers diners a direct vantage point to watch the meticulous knife work on amberjack, fatty O toro tuna, A5 wagyu, and other delicacies flown in from Japan. Executive sushi chef Kwang Kim and executive chef Alessio Conti, both veterans of the restaurant group, open with omakase menus (starting at $95 per person) and a la carte options.
A closer look at their open kitchen’s textured tile backsplash reveals another artistic achievement. Vertical, thin rows of curved tiles are actually casts of Japanese bamboo, each hand molded and glazed green. Clay plates neatly stacked on wooden shelves also tell a story, handmade by a Japanese artist using a wood-fired ash technique.
The walls and ceiling themselves are a mathematical feat, comprised of square wood boxes that cast a grid-like look around the room. Other elements are as functional as they are fabulous to look at.
Century-old parts to a working aqueduct system in rural Japan are reincarnated as flower pots to hold Japan’s beloved cherry blossoms. Rows of hand-blown glass bowls, made to resemble traditional Japanese tea kettles, sit on shelves above the bar. Soon they’ll be filled with Japanese spirits, sake, and shochu infused with fresh fruits, herbs, and veggies. “Every day, week, and month, there will be different infusions for our patrons to try,” says Naqi.
The glass orbs are interspersed with gigantic sake barrels sourced from Japanese breweries. Now the soft, empty containers rest as floating ivory artwork at the bar, where floor-to-ceiling windows help create an “exhibition factor” from the street, says Naqi. A hand-carving ice station joins a bonsai tree behind the bar, where house cocktails are made using only Japanese spirits (vodka, gin, whiskey, sake, sparkling sake).
A wine and sake cellar that can fit up to 1,500 bottles takes up an entire wall, and customers can watch sommeliers climb a ladder to retrieve their pick. “It adds to the theatrics,” says Naqi.
A private dining room in the back brings D.C. a lengthy, 45-seat rectangular table under a ceiling of wavy red fabric and can accommodate overflow seating if need be. Diners in the hidden room can catch a glimpse of the action through the glassy cellar.
“There’s no bad seat in the restaurant. No matter where you’re sitting you get to experience every facet,” says Naqi.
Shōtō joins Philotimo, chef Nicholas Stefanelli’s Greek showpiece that opened in the same Midtown Center complex last month.