The Daikaya group took yet another step towards achieving their plans for D.C. culinary domination with the launch of Tonari, their fifth restaurant in the District.
Tonari opened last Friday, and took over the old Graffiato space in Chinatown. Like its siblings throughout the city – and specifically, Daikaya, the eponymous group flagship next door – Tonari presents a relatively unchanged version of a Japanese food concept that’s “new” to American audiences. In this case, it’s ‘wafu’ – or Japanese style – pasta and pizza, a cuisine that developed in post World War II Japan and marries the culinary traditions of two nations and cultures thousands of miles away. Much like we developed our own version of Italian food in the United States (spaghetti and meatballs, anyone?), wafu pasta and pizza developed independently. Here, the rich umami flavors come from fish or mushrooms or seaweed as opposed to parmigiano and wild boar, and the most important thing remains the quality of the ingredients used.
The pastas and the flour for the pizzas are custom-made for the restaurant in Sapporo, Japan by the same manufacturer that produces the noodles for Haikan, Bantam King, and aforementioned Daikaya – giving all the dishes a slightly sweet, pleasantly chewy consistency. Anchovies are procured from Spain and lend some bite to a fluffy tomato focaccia. Cod roe is imported and delicately folded into a buttery, fatty mentaiko sauce that dances on your tongue and pairs beautifully with spaghetti. Uni, bought by the pallet, is placed atop piping hot bigoli pasta with soy and mirin and sake, giving us Tokyo’s answer to pasta carbonara. Fresh ricotta, shaved snow peas, and edamame beans are drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and finished with a yuzu vinaigrette – a cool, refreshing splash of brightness that cuts across all the fattiness and cleanses the palate.
Although there are a couple of modifications made to appeal to the local scene, Tonari is ultimately serving comfort food. They’re giving us really good carbs and cheese and tomato sauce – and the pasta dishes are an absolute highlight, with a unique twist that you can’t find anywhere else in D.C.
So, what’s not to love, you might ask? The pizza is fine. Just fine. They are thick, dense and buttery casseroles – closer to ‘Detroit style’ pies than the thin, chewy, slightly charred Neapolitan slices you’d be likely to find at any other sit-down pizza place in D.C. And although Detroit style pizza is becoming a thing in town, I’m still not the biggest fan of it. I’d take Duccini’s jumbo slice over it any night (or day – I will happily eat it sober). That being said, the mentaiko pizza with kewpie mayo was a hit with our group, and it’s definitely worth splitting one with a friend to try it at least once.
Designed by Brian Miller at Streetsense, the restaurant itself is split into two floors, with very distinct styles for each. The ground level has some Tokyo vinyl bar vibes, with a vintage record player and audiophile-quality speakers, as well as a focus on amaros and classic cocktails, and a fucking good smoky Manhattan. The second floor features a custom-built moss garden and horigotatsu seating for about 60 people, with distinct Kyoto vibes: more peaceful, serene and contemplative. We were invited upstairs for dessert and tried a couple of dishes, but none could hold a candle to the grapefruit granita. Shaved ice with grapefruit syrup and macerated grapefruit rinds was served over a delightfully rich vanilla bean ice cream and it was simple and perfect. Seriously – you have to finish your meal with this.
In summary, Tonari’s highs far outshine the negatives. In a city where the average restaurant-goer is both spoiled by choice and possessing an increasingly cultured palate, the fact that it remains true to the spirit of wafu pasta is a definite plus that helps it stand out from the competition – whether Italian or Japanese.