Saturday, October 30, 2010

Makoto - 10/10/2010

4822 Macarthur Blvd NW
Washington, DC 20007-1557
(202) 298-6866

Though not DC's oldest Japanese restaurant Makoto carries itself as if it were the grande dame of Japanese cuisine projecting a reserved stately air and expecting the same of its diners. Now California features its share of sushi nazis who will kick you out for ordering the wrong thing or a myriad of other faux pas. Makoto seems different, expecting a level of etiquette from its diners but at the same time I got the feeling it would take a lot to get kicked out. The restaurant features the strictest dress code of any Japanese restaurant I've been to, t-shirts, jeans, and sneakers are verboten and jackets are recommended for men. When guests arrive they first enter an antechamber where they trade their shoes for slippers and are asked to turn off their cell phones.

After being yelled at by the chef at Sushi Wasabi, I've developed a new appreciation for asking for permission to take pictures. The staff seemed a bit dubious at my request but acquiesced after a momentary pause, asking that I only take pictures of the food and not the kitchen, decor, or other guests.

The dining room is almost entirely wood paneled with a long bar behind which two chefs prepare both sushi and cooked dishes. Along the back wall are a couple of tables good but as with any good sushi restaurant the best seats are at the bar. The general feel is similar to Urasawa but Makoto is decidedly more rough-cut, lacking the immaculately smooth wood and ultra-refined feel.

Though much of the focus seems to be on the restaurant's sushi, the best way to experience all that Makoto has to offer is with the multi-course dinner which actually features very little sushi.

NIMONO - Cooked with richly flavored broth
The meal started with a stock composed of vegetables and mussels cooked in sake. The rice wine took the briny edge off the bivalves leaving a slight sweetness that augmented the smoky flavor of the vegetable broth; an unexpectedly robust soup given the components that went into it.

KUCHIGAWARI - Different appetizers on one plate
The next course featured an unusual duo, fish cake and fig, that was lightly fried, tempering the unique flavor profiles and giving the dish a uniform umami cast. A smattering of vegetables and a thick sweet yuzu sauce helped encapsulate the disparate flavors nicely.

TSUKURI - Slices of raw fish
The toro was presented in a beautifully minimalist style, drawing the eye to the cream colored veins threading through the vibrant pink flesh. The fish itself is tender without a hint of gristle though I would have appreciated a more pronounced fattiness. The toro is paired with freshly grated wasabi and diners are given a piece of the root and a grater in case they desire more.

AGEMONO - Fried seafood
My initial experiences with soft-shell crab were at sushi restaurants though since then I've found Western presentations more to my liking due to the added emphasis on pairing complimentary flavors with the crustacean. Here the crab is coated with hard bits of rice cracker giving it a malty grain flavor and drawing attention to the glassy bits of shell, exactly what I didn't want. The dish also featured diced persimmon coated in some sort of thick sauce that didn't compliment the crab in the least. Despite that I found the fruit quite palatable for someone who normally arbors it.

SUNOMONO - Vinegared salad
The salad course was the only blatant miss of the night. Featuring avocado, shrimp, endive, carrots, and a chili sauce, the dish was a mishmash of sweet, vegetal, and spicy that grated on the palate.

KOBACHI - Small appetizer
The ingredients of next course made me think of the shabu shabu course at Urasawa though the similarities ended there. The cooking style was markedly different with the raw ingredients grilled on a hot ceramic skillet before being dunked in a bath of ponzu, radish shavings, and scallion. Aside from the aromatic woodiness of the Matsutake mushrooms, the other ingredients all suffered from a distinct lack of flavor; texturally wonderful but utterly bland, a far cry from Urasawa where the meats seem to drink in the wonderful flavor of the cooking stock.

SUSHI - Raw fish on seasoned rice
Typically with set menus the sushi course tends to feature a more exotic selection from the restaurant but here I was presented with a trio of classic fishes: Maguro, Hamachi, and Aji that were solid but unremarkable. In fact, the most memorable aspect of the fish was how tiny the pieces were, about the size of my little finger. I immediately asked for a sushi menu feeling that this hardly qualified as a course.

YAKIMONO - Grilled fish or steak
I selected Orange Roughy for my main course of the evening. I recall having the fish once or twice in my youth and seemed to remember it standing up well to grilling. Indeed the fish lived up to my memories, with a delightful char that added a slightly bitter sweetness to the buttery flavor of the fish. The sprig of frissee provided an effective foil to the heavy flavors of the fish.

SUPPLEMENT: SUSHI - Tai, Shima Aji, Ika, Botan Ebi
Despite offering a complete array of cooked dishes the restaurant's claim to fame lies with its sushi; therefore, given the minuscule size of the sushi course I felt a more thorough tasting of Makoto's raw fish was in order. For my second round I chose a selection of less common nigiri. Again the sushi was solid, but the small size simply felt unsatisfying.

SOBA - Buckwheat noodle soup with mushroom topping
The second of the two choices diners have to make is the type of topping for the soba. The choices include: wild vegetable, seaweed, mushroom, grated radish, grated yam, or natto. The soba itself was impeccable, but the broth was completely devoid of flavor; even the cooked mushrooms added very little, making this an utterly boring dish. Perhaps the earthy wild vegetables would have been a better pairing.

DESSERT - Homemade Sherbet
The grape Grand Marnier sorbet was so thin and watery that it felt more like ice chips with flavor and coloring than a true sherbet. At least it came with a cup of hot tea which provided a soothing end to the meal.

Makoto is an interesting beast for me. On the plus side, the food itself was solid though I felt like it could have been so much more and I couldn't stop thinking of all the potential that went unfulfilled. At $60, the set course dinner was the cheapest of the three sushi restaurants I visited in the DC area (Kaz's Sushi Bistro, Makoto, and Sushi Taro).

Despite the strength of the food, there were a number of aspects that kept me from feeling entirely comfortable in the restaurant. The decor gives a serene zen feel, but the hard backless wood chairs are difficult to sit in for long periods of time. In addition for some inexplicable reason the hot food is prepared in the bar area and I just happened to be seated in front of the four burners which left me sweating by the middle of dinner. In addition, the room seem to fill with greasy smoke despite the best efforts of the ventilation system. Moreover, though the staff is attentive, I got the feeling they were silently judging my every move like a too-formal elderly relative. Also most sushi restaurants that feature a bar allow for interaction between the itame and the diners. At Makoto a half curtain partially obscures the view and I got the distinct impression that conversation with the chefs was frowned upon. The two chefs behind the bar moved quickly and efficiently, but there was a mechanical feel to their motions as if they were simply following a script rather than creating something they were truly proud of.

Clearly the restaurant seeks to deliver an elegant dining experience though the food lives up to that aspiration, the restaurant falls short in many other respects.

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