A Little Japan: U Street’s authentic cuisine

In Japanese, the word “izakaya” translates to “sit-down sake shop.” And while this restaurant serves over 24 varieties of sake, there is much more to Izakaya Seki than its tasty rice wine.

I was lucky enough to score a coveted reservation at the authentic Japanese restaurant near U Street. The restaurant is tucked among townhouses and condos, and if not for the Japanese lantern hanging near the door, we would have missed it completely. Make your entrance, and your two options are to either make a right toward the 10-seat sushi bar or climb a flight of narrow stairs to a dining room with about seven tables. I then understood why we couldn’t get a Saturday reservation until 9:30 p.m.

Once we ordered our food, the waiters promptly served us, never letting even five minutes go by before replacing our empty plates with filled ones. We started with a sushi sampler platter with some of the freshest sashimi I have ever tasted: tuna, scallops, yellow tail and squid, each different in taste and texture, but none with an unpleasant, lingering fishy flavor.

We also ordered an unusual seafood dish – the uni starter ($16), a bowl of fresh sea urchin accompanied by a quail egg. It had a buttery texture and tasted like the ocean, but I say that in the most positive way possible. Some of the more recognizable dishes included Kalbi – barbecue beef short ribs ($11), fried tofu in dashi sauce ($7), cold soba noodles in soy dipping sauce ($12) and Kara-Age – fried chicken with garlic puree ($9).

Each dish had a little twist to what you would typically expect: The short ribs were small and thin, with a rich, smoky flavor and perfect char; the soba noodles were cooked al dente and had a made-from-scratch taste and delicacy about them.

We each received a pot of scallion soy sauce for dipping, which added the right amount of salt and hearty flavor to the silky noodles. We also ordered vegetable tempura ($8) which, along with the fried chicken, was fluffy and crisp on the outside while still remaining tender, juicy and flavorful on the inside. The garlic sauce with the chicken reminded me of hummus, and it created a beautifully smooth contrast to the crunchy chicken without being too overpowering.

After ordering more than a dozen plates, we barely had room for dessert. But coming from a family of foodies and having the burden of a perpetual sweet tooth, I shared a small dish of black sesame flan with my guests. Flan sometimes gets a bad rap, but this version was creamy and velvety, not gelatinous and slimy as flan so often is. The sesame added the complexity of a nutty undertone and a rich charcoal-black color – hence the dessert’s name.

If the menu hasn’t convinced you of this restaurant’s authenticity, look no further than the beer and wine selection: There are more than 15 different Japanese wines and beers on tap, including my favorite, Sapporo. (Yes, that’s the beer used for sake bombs.) I decided on a bottle of Hitachino, a white ale that had aged in sake barrels, so it tasted sweet and light, with a hint of a rice flavor.

A quiet and authentic atmosphere with five-star food – what more can you ask for? You might run up the bill at Izakaya Seki if you order a lot, but if you’re looking to try some real Japanese cuisine, including astoundingly fresh seafood, I would highly recommend you make a reservation. Also, if you have the opportunity to sit at the sushi bar, do so. The owner-chef, Hiroshi Seki himself, has been known to appear behind the counter.

Don’t Miss These:
Uni Starter – $16
Porkbelly Kakuni – $13
Ojiya Soba – $12

Rating: 5/5

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