The Daikaya Group is at it again, always innovating around their solid Japanese food base, this time with Tonari. Some readers may remember when Tonari first opened in February 2020, where it served a la carte Japanese-Italian dishes before anyone even knew what Covid-19 was. Now, after a pandemic-related pause, Tonari has opened its doors once again to introduce, educate, and wow patrons with their wafu pastas and pizzas.
“We’re not really like an Italian restaurant,” Nico Cezar, chef de cuisine of Tonari, says. “We are doing Japanese food in the way that Japanese culture interprets Italian food.”
“Italian cuisine is something that’s been happening in Japan for a while now,” Chef Katsuya Fukushima adds. “They’ve taken Italian cuisine and made it their own. It’s like how New York or New Jersey have interpreted Italian food — ours just has Japanese feeling and nuance to it.”
Started in the early 1950’s in a small hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Tokyo, wafu pasta and pizza was introduced to Japanese cuisine. The restaurant owner played with different ingredients, adding classic Japanese ingredients to appeal to his base. The new cooking style took off around Tokyo, then Japan, and eventually spread further — but even now, Tonari is the only restaurant in D.C. that offers wafu Italian dishes.
“We’re trying to really elevate this beautiful space and food,” Fukushima says. “It’s more like an Italian-Japanese omakase.”
“Omakase” loosely translates to the customer leaving the choice of food to the chef. Currently, Tonari is offering a five-course tasting menu that involves antipasti, insalata, pasta, pizza and dolci with wine pairings. There are two options for each course, one vegetarian and one that involves meat or fish. Tonari imports their flour from Hokkaido, Japan, and their pasta noodles are imported from the same factory that produces their signature ramen noodles, in Sapporo. Both the flour and the noodles were, to me, the stars of the dishes.
The noodles were this satisfying chewy consistency I haven’t experienced elsewhere. The Melanzana sauce was light, the vegetables soft enough to blend into every bite. And the “Ex Ohh” pasta dish, one of Cezar’s creations, was this perfect encapsulation of wafu, combining ingredients like Spam, pepperoni, and scallop. Having the noodles as the base made every bite interesting, the flavors and the texture combining to present exactly what the chefs wanted: both an education and an experience.
As for the pizza, the chefs went with Detroit-style, cooking deep-dish skillet pizzas made from the Hokkaido-imported flour, oiled and baked to a perfect crisp. On the inside, the crust was light and chewy, a texture not easily achieved with flour common to America. Topped with ingredients that mix both Japanese and Italian cultures, like pickled Wakame and oregano, the pizzas are beautifully unique.
“Everybody gets a corner piece,” Cezar says. A perfectly soft-in-the-middle, crispy-on-the-outside corner piece.
The menu will rotate every few weeks as well. Since the chefs are focusing on a five-course tasting menu at the moment, they still want to mix up the experience as often as possible.
“There’s always going to be a pasta or rice course, and there’s going to always be a pizza course,” Fukushima says. “That’s something that’s always going to be there, but what the pasta is, or what the risotto is, or what the pizza is, could change.”
“Ideally, diners will always have a different experience,” Cezar adds. “There’s just so many flavors to try.”
Though the menu will rotate, the cocktails are a constant delight. I tried two drinks that featured a Negroni twist: the La Rosita and the Joaquin. They both complemented the five-course tasting menu in their citrusy simplicity — a kind of palette refresher before new bites.
Right next door to Daikaya, Tonari was the missing piece to the city’s cuisine, an introduction to something completely new for the D.C. area. The doors are open, just waiting for the city to come try for themselves, to learn, to eat and to enjoy.