Sushi happy hours and Japanese cocktail and sake bars for cherry blossom season


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As soon as the cherry blossom buds begin to show, Washington restaurants and bars rush to honor the stars of the Tidal Basin with cherry-themed dishes and bright pink cocktails. (Never mind that most chefs are using “normal” cherries instead of the fruit of the Yoshino cherry tree native to Japan.) But after all the disruptions of the past few years, and with more people returning downtown, we were craving the comforts of after-work sushi happy hours, as well as places that specialize in Japanese drinks.

The National Cherry Blossom Festival is back in-person. Here are the can’t-miss events.

When: Monday through Thursday, 5 to 7 p.m.

Specials: Half-price rolls, $4 off selected cocktails and wines by the glass

O-Ku makes an impression before you’ve even glanced at the menu: You might be seated at the sleek wooden-topped bar, or at one of the cube-like tables nestled under large metal panels etched with oak leaves and lit from behind. (O-Ku is Japanese for “oak.”) On a sunny day, there’s the option of a rooftop deck, assuming you beat the inevitable crowds.

During its weeknight happy hour, the restaurant, located just down Fifth Street from Union Market, discounts selected rolls by roughly half, making them $7 to $10 instead of $14 to $19 for six to eight pieces. The tuna tataki — seared tuna and crispy rock shrimp tempura with avocado and a kicky aioli — was a standout, as was the pretty snow king, which matches crab, seared salmon and a miso truffle oil and tops the roll with micro greens. Five of the small plates are $5 or $6 off, in case you’d rather have Korean-style fried wings or the nugget-sized siu mai steamed shrimp dumplings instead of sushi. Or, you know, both.

Among the beverages, look toward the $8 Shogun, a gin cocktail that balances fresh basil notes and agave sweetness, or the $9 Peso for Your Thoughts, a pleasant nightcap in which liquid smoke and egg white add some depth to the combination of tequila and cacao.

1274 Fifth St. NE.

When: Daily from 4 to 6 p.m.

Specials: $12 for two maki rolls; $6 sashimi; $5-$8 small plates; $5 Japanese beers and sake, $6 wine or rail drinks.

Timing is everything: On a recent Friday, we arrived at Perry’s just after another couple had vacated two seats at the bar. If our Uber driver had been just a minute or so later, someone else would have grabbed the empty stools, and we would have been out of luck, trudging back down the stairs to Columbia Road.

Perry’s debuted in Adams Morgan in 1985, and while it’s still known for its breezy rooftop seating and boisterous Sunday drag brunches, the restaurant has been up and down in recent years, as newer businesses have collected more clout. Happy hour remains a draw, and regulars know to leave work a little early to secure a spot, whether in the second-floor dining room or, on warmer nights, the rooftop deck.

Happy hour is a bit of a kitchen-sink affair: Pick two of the basic maki rolls for $12 (regularly $7-$9 each), or trade up the California and spicy salmon rolls for a $12 high-end roll, such as the Element, which uses serrano peppers to spice up a mix of yellowtail, tobiko roe and avocado (regularly $15-$16). Fish lovers can skip the $8 nigiri trio for gorgeous, precision-cut sashimi, at $6 per pair. The non-sushi specials range from chicken yakitori and miso-marinated salmon kushiyaki to shishito peppers and pork belly tacos. Wash it all down with Japanese beers, such as Orion, a crisp, flavorful rice lager, or trade up to a Stillwater Extra Dry, a citrusy American craft take on the Japanese style. House wines and rail drinks — basically any spirit with a choice of mixer — are also available.

Whatever you order, expect the presentation to be as thoughtful and artful as it would if you were ordering from the “regular” menu, and, if you’re sitting at the bar, friendly service from bartenders who will drop gentle reminders when happy hour’s winding down, and endeavor to keep your glass full. You can see why neighborhood residents keep coming back after all these years.

1811 Columbia Rd. NW.

When: Monday through Friday, 4:30 to 6 p.m.

Specials: $5 maki rolls and small plates, $4 beers.

On a recent Friday night, a steady stream of delivery drivers and neighbors entered Sushi Keiko in Glover Park and tapped a bell at the host stand, alerting the staff that yet another person had arrived to pick up bags of takeout. Meanwhile, only three other duos were seated at the L-shaped sushi counter or in the dining room. I began to wonder if we should have instead gone to Keiko’s sister restaurant, Onkei, at the new Western Market in Foggy Bottom, even though it doesn’t have a happy hour.

Sushi Keiko isn’t going to win awards for its decor — a few small windows high on the dining room wall provide a bunkerlike vibe — and the most interesting and colorful part of the room is a glass case atop the bar filled with sliced fish. Sushi Keiko is best known for its extravagant rolls, such as the Fire Tuna, which contains slivers of jalapeño peppers and sriracha among the seared spicy tuna and avocado, as well as menus of donburi and ramen, but there’s none of that on the short-and-sweet happy hour menu: eight maki rolls, a few non-sushi items (chicken yakitori, gyoza, shrimp siu mai), and four bottled beers. The rolls are standard fare: creamy eel and avocado, wrapped in seaweed; salmon skin with avocado and cilantro; crunchy shrimp with sesame seeds dotting the rice; and the fish was good quality. If you’re seeking an affordable, no-frills date night — three rolls and two beers for less than $25 (before tax and tip) — then Sushi Keiko delivers.

2309 Wisconsin Ave. NW.

Kaiju Ramen and TKYO Speaks

The menu at Kaiju Ramen goes beyond your standard ramen shop: Black miso cheese ramen takes its color from squid ink and is topped with grated cheese; the Wagyula ramen stars Wagyu beef striploin and gold flakes. (It’s $65.95.) There’s also flavorful Tokyo-style ramen, soft-shell crab tempura that arrives looking like a claw emerging from the bowl, and a selection of more than a dozen sakes. (The restaurant’s name comes from the Japanese term for giant monsters, which is why you’ll find a collection of Godzilla figures over the bar and a collage of movie posters on the bathroom walls.)

It’s not obvious when you walk into the Barracks Row restaurant, but there’s a second bar downstairs. Head for what seem to be shelves of sake barrels and look for the empty slot. That’s the doorknob. TKYO Speaks is a dark space: Most of the light comes from neon signs on the wall, including an outline of Osaka’s Tsutenkaku tower. The menu is strong on Japanese beers, such as Orion unfiltered lager and Lucky Cat White Ale, which is brewed with yuzu and sancho peppers. The house martini marries Roku gin and plum wine. Asked for a sake, the bartenders were quick to recommend Ozeki Ikezo, a canned sparkling sake with the texture of a jello shot, and sweet yuzu or berry flavors.

That’s the kind of place TKYO is, with lively weekend party crowds fueled by birthday celebrations and DJs dropping pop remixes. There is a cosplay party on April 10, with a 20 percent discount for everyone in costume, and prizes for the top three outfits.

525 Eighth St. SE.

Earlier in March, in honor of International Women’s Day, the Michelin-starred Japanese-cum-Spanish restaurant Cranes held a special $325-per-person dinner with a list of sakes selected by sommelier Eric Stewart-Woodruff in collaboration with three women in the industry: New York-based sake sommeliers Chizuko Niikawa-Helton and Jessica Joly of Sake Discoveries, and Reiko Hirai, a native of Kyoto who, in 2020, launched D.C. Sake Co., a curated online sake boutique that sells and delivers sakes within the D.C. area.

While the event has passed, Cranes kept the sakes on its by-the-bottle menu, and — psst! — is offering a flight of three as an off-menu treat while supplies last. Order the $30 trio and you’ll receive a visit from a sake sommelier, who takes novices through the brewing and rice-polishing process that gives sakes their unique flavors before pouring samples into three wine glasses. Find one you like — the clean, lightly tropical Hakkaisan Tokubetsu Junmai is very different from the nutty Tengumai Umajun, which has a deeper umami — and you can have a full glass for $20.

Cranes, which opened in February 2020, has a fun sake list — the by-the-glass menu is broken into categories that include “elegant/round/mellow” and “delicate/aromatic/complex,” and has sake on draft as well as in bottles. But the only way to taste three at a time is to be in on the secret.

724 Ninth St. NW.

Spring in Japan is the time for hanami (“flower viewing”): People gather together under cherry blossom trees to picnic and enjoy the fluffy pink and white clouds of blooms overhead. That experience has inspired a collaboration between two award-winning cocktail powerhouses: Masahiro Urushido of New York’s Katana Kitten, an izakaya where highballs and boilermakers are the order of the day, and Ryan “Mr. Lyan” Chetiyawardana, whose Silver Lyan lounge in the basement of the Riggs hotel opened just weeks before the pandemic shut D.C. down.

The Silver Lyan x Katana Kitten pop-up, at Silver Lyan from March 31 through April 2, draws on both organizers’ expertise and employs Japanese ingredients. There are two options: Make a reservation for the $75 “Hanami Picnic Experience,” which includes three snacks (one of which is a strawberry cream sando) and three drinks (one of which is a cider boilermaker) per person.

There is also the “Highball Experience,” with an a la carte selection of highballs that mix Japanese whisky with bamboo soda, or vodka with Pocari Sweat, a Japanese sports drink, and salted cherry blossoms, and cocktails such as the Green-Eyed Samurai, which blends Japanese whisky, vermouth, umeshu — a liqueur made from ume plums — and green tea. A menu of snacks includes a mortadella katzu sando and jerk mushroom summer roll. Drinks are $17; food ranges from $8 to $16.

900 F St. NW. Reservations strongly recommended.


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