The Daikaya Group is known for its quartet of ramen shops, each bringing the flavors and culture of Japan straight to DC. The team’s latest venture, Tonari, takes a different turn, swapping noodle soups and dumplings for crispy pan pizzas and twirls of pasta. Known as “wafu” cuisine, the blending of Italian and Japanese food is unlike anything else coming out of DC kitchens.
“Whenever we do a restaurant, one of the big reasons that we choose the cuisine is because it’s something we want to eat and we can’t find it here,” says Daisuke Utagawa, one of the restaurant’s partners.
Both Tonari’s name and concept were inspired by its Chinatown location. “Tonari” translates to “next door,” and the focus on pizza and pasta echoes the building’s past history as Graffiatto, chef Mike Isabella’s Italian eatery. The restaurant is set to open tonight.
“In a sense, we really wanted to repurpose and recycle the restaurant,” says partner Yama Jewayni.
Pairing Japanese and Italian cuisine may be an unfamiliar style to many Americans, but it’s a well-established cuisine in Japan, explains executive chef and partner Katsuya Fukushima.
The wafu style reportedly originated in 1953 at Kabenoana, a small Tokyo restaurant serving affordable plates of pasta. Working with his customers, the chef began creating dishes that incorporated Japanese ingredients like cod roe and sea urchin.
Tonari’s menu and vibe – down to the ingredients in the kitchen – draw heavily on this tradition, including sourcing custom noodles and pizza dough directly from Sapporo, and embracing design elements like a moss garden and “horigotatsu” seating on the second floor. Dining at Tonari is a bit more refined than the Daikaya Groups other locations, with a pace that is more laid back than the rapid churn of a ramen counter.
The opening pasta menu includes a half-dozen dishes ($12-$18) with vegetarian, seafood and meat options. Cooked al dente, the pastas retain a firm yet chewy texture, allowing the flavor of the noodle to come through with each bite. For something fancier, go with the briny and buttery uni pasta folded together with soy, mirin, sake, kombu dashi and seaweed. There’s also the shirasu, a more adventurous plate of tagliatelle topped with baby sardines and a simple sauce of garlic, olive oil and red pepper. And don’t write off the kitchen’s Napolitan offering, a homey sausage, peppers and onions spaghetti dish with a ketchup and Tabasco sauce.
In addition to pasta, Tonari bakes up a few different pizzas ($14-$16) with a unique 100 percent Hokkaido flour that produces a bready, air texture and a crispy crust. The best of the bunch is the white clam variation, a nod to New Haven-style eating. If red sauce is the move, Tonari offers takes on classic Hawaiian and pepperoni pies. The pizzas are generously topped and filling, with one easily being enough to share along with a couple of other dishes. If dinner leaves you itching for something sweet, the tiramisu and chocolate budino are both satisfying.
The bar sticks mostly to classic cocktails and Italian wines, with a few twists. Fans of vermouth and amaro can enjoy neat pours before or after eating, or taste them in one of the signature drinks. The Reverse Martini, for example, mixes a high ratio of vermouth with vodka, Maraschino liqueur and bitters. Whiskey drinkers will like the Smoky Manhattan, made with smoked amaro and rye.
Tonari truly does feel different than anything else around town. The wafu combination of Italian and Japanese flavors and cultures seems odd at first, but it all comes together. Subtle at times and bold elsewhere – it’s an experience worth checking out for yourself.
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Tonari: 707 6th St. NW, DC; www.facebook.com/tonaridc