Autumn is a time of change. Green leaves yellow, the time clock rolls forward and my preferences shift just as naturally. As comfort starts to outweigh elegance, a steaming bowl of something substantial starts to look far more appealing than a million dainty small-plates perked up with micro-garnish. It seems Daikaya, the popular double agent ramenya-izakaya and brain-baby of Yama Jewayni, Daisuke Utagawa and Executive Chef Katsuya Fukushima, has picked up on these preferences. The 2nd floor izakaya now offers a new lunch menu featuring hearty lavash wraps and Japan’s most popular one-pot-wonder comfort food. And, in true izakaya style, the dishes are paired with great day-time-why-not cocktail creations, crafted by Daikaya’s brand new Japanophile beverage director, Lukas Smith.
“Donburi” in Japanese designates a large bowl, as well as the dish most commonly served in it: donburi-mono. It’s fluffy white rice with some sort of dashi-based, soy-touched sauce drizzled on, and a protein of substance – anything from raw sashimi to cooked fried, simmered, grilled, or braised meat or fish – layered over the top. In some cases, it takes the form of a deconstructed maki roll, while in others it’s a stew-type thing with a thickness meant to stick to your bones and warm you from inside out. Traditional meets innovative on the new donburi menu. Eel and breaded pork bowls represent the blue collar Japanese classics, while a “hambugu patty” and gravy bowl nods at Chef Fukushima’s partial Hawaiian heritage. I recently had a sampling of this -don menu and feel compelled to recommend it as a great alternative to the lunchtime commotion surrounding the downstairs ramenya.
Two great little cocktails introduced by Bev. Director Lukas were the Sesame Street and something temporarily named Tiny Dancer in honor of Elton John’s recent visit to D.C. Both were great in different ways. Sesame Street contained Beniotome sesame shochu, Fever Three ginger beer, yuzu and Angostura bitters. The floral, spicy notes of the ginger were rounded out by the earthy, nutty flavors of the sesame, and yuzu added a delicate acidity that lifted the drink up and alleviated the heat of the ginger. Dainty in appearance but with powerful flavors which justify its small size. Tiny Dancer was a bright purple gal with frothy, frizzante Lambrusco wine and housemade ginger beer which pricked the tongue with both its dense carbonation and its floral heat that balanced nicely against the sweet wine.
A light, clean start to our tasting was the Salmon and Ikura Donburi (Sakedon?). Slippery slices of sashimi salmon seasoned with a subtle soy-sesame dressing lain over rice and topped with flakes of nori, sesame seeds, and big, juicy beads of salmon roe. A no-fuss deconstruction of a salmon roll, there was even a small dollop of whipped wasabi to apply as needed to the fish. The salmon was fresh with a bright orange color and the perfect amount of fat running through it to give it a buttery texture, while remaining quite lean. This bowl is a great choice for those looking for a light, healthy lunch before that big meeting.Another great salad-fresh option is the Tekkadon, which replaces salmon for tuna, also sashimi-ed and lightly tossed in a soy-sesame dressing before being lain gently on a bed of white rice. The tuna is paired with fresh scallions and ginger, and topped with nori flakes and sesame seeds for some texture. Also in the bowl are some marinated cucumbers chopped to the perfect bite-size and kept crisp and fresh to complement the fresh fish. A deconstructed tuna-cucumber roll that left me light as a butterfly. Murakami’s Nakata loves eel. So do I. My favorite donburi was the Unadon, which came with slick, glossy grilled filets of eel and marinated cucumbers on a bed of white rice. I adore kabayaki style eel. Essentially, the filets are glazed with tare, a sweet sauce of soy, mirin and sake, and grilled until sauce and flesh caramelize and fuse together. The eel is then lain skin-side down over the rice and more tare is poured over the surface, some of which seeps into the rice and sweetens it as well. I suspect in this case the eel was steamed before being grilled, because the meat was fall-apart tender, slippery soft and flaky, melting on the tongue like fat, while still maintaining the texture of flesh. Unlike in the Sakedon and Tekkadon, I thought the marinated cukes in this bowl were wholly unnecessary, as their zesty, citrusy zing actually took away from the caramelized, syrupy comfort of the eel. Some may cherish the contrast. I prefer my eel untouched. For a slightly heartier but still very light and healthy lunch, I would recommend the Chicken Bowl, which has Yakitori style chicken over rice served with teriyaki sauce, topped with toasted coconut flakes, scallions and an Onsen egg. The texture of the chicken is great here, a bit chewy and juicy, not dry in the least. It is glazed over with a soy-based sauce similar to the sweet tare on the eel but slightly more savory, from what I could tell. Flakes of toasted coconut add a perfect toasted almond type crunch and a nutty, floral sweetness. Scallions add zing. An added treat in this donburi is the giggly Onsen egg which, when poked, floods creamy, smooth, bright yellow yolk all over the rice, binding it together and adding a luxurious texture. “Onsen tamago” literally means “hot spring egg,” as the original preparation involves lowering a rope net full of fresh eggs into the 158ºF waters of Japan’s Onsen hot springs and letting them cook there for 30-40 minutes. No hot springs around? A similar Onsen-y texture can be achieved by letting the eggs sit in water that has been boiled and combined with potato or corn starch, which prevents the water around the egg from convecting. The texture is similar to a poached egg in that it is loose, angelically soft and almost gelatinous. It differs in that it keeps all of its flavor tightly concealed during the cooking process. I feel a short history lesson is the necessary introduction to the next dish, the Pork Katsu Kare. Indian curry was first introduced by the British to Japan in the late 19th – early 20th century, back when India was still under British administration. Due to its potent, intense flavors, the spice wasn’t initially too popular among the Japanese, who have historically preferred subtler, milder flavors. Towards the 1960’s, however, frying up curry powder, oil and flour to make a roux and adding the latter to stewed veggies or meat poured over rice became rather popular. Nowadays, in fact, Japanese curry rice (kare raisu) is considered one of Japan’s national dishes. Kare is often combined with different types of protein, one of which is my personal favorite: tonkatsu. Tonkatsu is a pork filet that is dipped in flour and egg, then coated in panko breadcrumbs before being light fried. It is said to have been invented in 1899 at a restaurant called Rengatei in Tokyo, as a type of yoshoku (Japanese variation of a Western dish). Back then it was called katsu (after the English “cutlet”) but was renamed tonkatsu (“pork katsu”) in 1930. These crispy little schnitzels are served in a variety of ways, including as a sandwich called Katsu-sando with Japanese white milk bread. According to the menu at Daikaya, it was a man by the name of Kintaro Kawana, owner of a tonkatsu place called Kawakin, who first thought of putting tonkatsu on a curry rice bowl in 1918 and he named the dish Kawakin-dan. This was said to be the origin of of todays katsu-kare which has since then become super popular all throughout Japan (and, obviously, outside of it as well). Rightfully so, as it is awesome. The curry is very mild in flavor and does not overwhelm the palate with heat. It has a thick, creamy consistency much like gravy, resulting from the roux form in which it is introduced to the sauce. It coats the rice in a velvety smooth blanket, packing it with flavor and allowing it to stand up to the slices of tonkatsu. The pork is juicy and tender, the slight chewiness offset by the wonderful golden-brown, nutty crunch of the panko crust, a crunch which is thankfully not sogged down by the tangy, soy-based sauce squeezed over the top. Also on the plate was some shredded cabbage (a traditional accompaniment to tonkatsu) as well as some Fukujinzuke (a traditional relish-like accompaniment to kare). Fukujinzuke contains daikon among other veggies, which are pickled in a brine flavored with soy sauce. Here it has a brilliant purple color that adds a nice color contrast to the dish. Our next donburi was the vegetarian Curry Bowl, using the same mild curry as in the katsu-kare bowl but with sauteed potatoes, carrots and peas thrown into the curry mix poured over the rice. The sweet, gravy-like curry was fantastically comforting when mixed into the fluffy white rice and the veggies were cooked to the perfect consistency, softening but retaining a bite. Fukujinzuke again to offset the cozy warmth of the kare. A perfect meal on a cool winter day. One of my favorite meatier dishes was the Loco Moco. A fusion of a traditional Hawaiian meal with a Japanese one, this dish is an ode to the Hawaiian origins of Executive Chef Katsuya Fukushima’s father. Loco moco, said to have been invented in one of two restaurants in Hilo, Hawaii, is a rice bowl topped with brown gravy, a hamburger patty and a fried egg. It is meant to be a simple meal prepared quickly but satisfying enough to serve as a one-dish meal. At Daikaya, the dish is served with a yoshoku twist. Japanese Salisbury steak called hambugu is used as the meat, a combination of minced pork and beef which is moist, crumbly and perfectly flavorful. Between the rice and the meat is a wonderful little pool of red wine and Worcestershire sauce that takes the place of brown gravy. There’s also a nice smear of Japanese style hot mustard on the edge of the plate for an extra bit of heat. With this one, I advice breaking up the hambugu and poking the egg to mix the stuff all together, so that each forkful gets a bit of each ingredient. Simple and comforting, this dish brought me home even though I am not Hawaiian. The newest addition to Daikaya’s lunch donburi selection is the Sisig Donburi, a Japanese twist on a popular Filipino dish of sizzling pork face hash and egg served over white rice. The bits of face are boiled, grilled and fried along with onion before being served with some citrus-yuzu squeezed over the top for a slight sour tone, which is a traditional characteristic of this dish. The hash is served with a fluffy Onsen egg, some scallion and a tiny bit of gravy. The pork has a crumbly, crispy texture and a nice salty flavor picked up by the citrus juice drizzled on. Mixed all together, this dish is hearty and filling with brunch-y vibes but perfect for a nice, warm lunch as well. If the wonderful flavors aren’t enough of a reason to choose this donburi, an added benefit is that all proceeds from sales go to the typhoon relief efforts in the Philippines. To find out more, visit: https://www.wfp.org/donate/typhoon-philippines-a
We also tried the Pork Belly Domburi, which came with a fried egg and some “Japanese kimchee” flavored with miso. The fatty little slabs of braised belly melted on the tongue and added decadence to the eggy rice. The tart funk of the kimchee cut the fat and added a nice pungent flavor to the dish, as well as a crispy pickled texture.
A great hand-held lunch option at Daikaya is one of their 3 signature lavash wraps. The flaky, crunchy, brittle bread is wrapped around a choice of confit pork belly, chicken karaage or tonkatsu. Out of these, we tried the Pork Belly Wrap, which came with braised, juicy, fatty hunks of pork belly, tangy kimchee to cut the fat, kimchee-miso to add an extra freshness and moisture, and a fried egg to make each bite all the more substantial. We also tried the Karaage Wrap (shown above), with chicken karaage (lightly dusted with flour and fried to achieve a tempura), as well as bits of bacon, crispy cool cabbage and tomato. The wrap was hydrated with creamy shichimi kewpie mayo, which incorporated Japanese seven-spice powder (chiles, dried orange peel, sesame seeds, dried ginger, seaweed, etc.) into yolky Japanese kewpie mayo, which is made with apple and malt vinegar. Not your average crispy chicken sandwich, this was an expertly composed wrap. The chicken was moist with a crunchy tempura exterior that did not get soggy in the least, but maintained its grainy texture. Cool shreds of fresh cabbage and chunks of tomato contrasted the fried chicken, while bacon added an extra element of salty, smokey flavor to the meat. Above all, I really enjoyed the shichimi mayo, with the kewpie providing the perfect canvas for the bright flavors of the shichimi – an abrupt heat from the chiles, a zesty, floral sweetness from the orange peel and a marine tang from the seaweed. All of it went very nicely with the chicken and added a slaw-like moisture to the cabbage as well.
With the addition of these donburi bowls to its already powerful arsenal of midday favorites (a.k.a. ramen), Daikaya continues to be a contender on the downtown lunch scene.