Believe the hype: like a secret little package that arrives by air mail from Tokyo, this tiny chef-driven hideaway is making some of the best Japanese food on the East Coast.
“Quirkily austere” would be one way to describe the bright, simple environment that lurks behind a humble entrance and anteroom, in which you are admonished if you don’t take off your shoes and don slippers. Another way, for some people—especially those who are princess-and-the-peaish—would be “uncomfortable.” Just a small handful of four-tops, plus a row of (preferable) counter seats with a view of the action in the kitchen and at the sushi bar, make up the entirety of this restaurant.
As such, even in an economic downturn, you’ve got to reserve weeks ahead and battle it out with all the Japanese embassy people, the visiting dignitaries, and of course the food tourists—suffice it to say that the place has been, um, discovered. Perhaps that’s what seems to make the staff feel justified in condescending to diners that don’t follow the dress/shoe-removal/punctuality protocol exactly.
But the rejection of the customer-is-right philosophy is a good thing when it comes to dining. Although some DC competitors (e.g. Sushi-Ko) boast of offering omakase (leave-it-to-the-chef) dining, Makoto is the closest thing in the area to the more formal, low-table Japanese set-menu structure known as kaiseki. It’s hard to predict what will show up in a given day’s meal, but soft-shell crab is almost always a part of it, and it’s superb, with an unusually coarse rice-cracker-based batter that imparts more crunch than usual—and, thus, more contrast between the crust and the silky squish within. Delicious, too, are cold green soba noodles; sweet, plump eggplant; and an extraordinarily textured sorbet of lemon silky aloe vera.
We don’t quite get the tuna salad canapé or the avocado in miso sauce, both of which make frequent appearances, and both of which come off as pedestrian. But the vast majority of small courses are right on the money, and an extraordinary amount of care is taken with the dashi-based mushroom broth—in Japan, far from a perfunctory starter, soup is often one of the centerpieces of a kaiseki meal.
People talk about the fact the Makoto is not really about the raw fish, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, the sushi and sashimi are just some among many kaiseki courses, but in the DC area, they are unsurpassed, from magnificent yellowtail and aji (Spanish mackerel) to unusually rich ama ebi (sweet shrimp) to sexy, eggy uni (sea urchin). Spring for the toro supplement; it will make your toes squirm with delirious pleasure, and luckily, your shoes won’t be in the way.
Get the 608-page book—it’s an indispensable reference and a great gift—available online or at a DC-area store.
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