Love, Makoto restaurant review: A food-hall-size mash note to Japan

Whoever said you can’t go home again hasn’t been following the restaurant scene in Washington.

This year alone, we’ve seen French chef Gilles Epié, who launched his American career in 1993 at the Watergate hotel under the great Jean-Louis Palladin, return to open the luxe L’Avant-Garde in Georgetown, and Spanish superstar José Andrés finally open his dream restaurant, the Bazaar by José Andrés, in the Old Post Office building — after a wait of three decades.

Spring saw the homecoming of Makoto Okuwa, the Japanese chef who came to Washington in 2001 to learn English and further his culinary education at Sushi Taro before following a mentor, celebrity chef Masaharu Morimoto, to Philadelphia. In May, Okuwa, 47, rolled out arguably the most ambitious project of the year: Love, Makoto, in the Capitol Crossing development.

The high-end Japanese food hall, brought to life with business partners Eric Eden and chef David Deshaies, spans 20,000 square feet and features three full-service dining draws: Dear Sushi, host to an $75 tasting menu; Beloved BBQ, an ode to steak outfitted with tabletop grills; and Hiya Izakaya, a neighborly Japanese tavern with a menu of skewers and cocktails. In July, a fast-casual venue was added to the sprawl between Chinatown and Union Station. Love on the Run asks customers to order at a kiosk with touch screens (or online) and retrieve their food — made-right-there spicy ramen, chicken sandwiches, sushi rolls, Japanese chopped salads — from a counter. Meals can be eaten at sleek wood tables.

That’s a lot to eat under one roof. In the interest of time and attention — yours and mine — I’m focusing on the sushi and steak components for now. All four attractions benefit from the business partners’ past successes. Eden and Deshaies are the talent behind Unconventional Diner near the convention center and Love, Makoto’s Italian neighbor, L’Ardente. Okuwa’s scores include seven restaurants, most called Makoto, the first branch of which opened in Miami Beach in 2010.

The restaurant’s theme — passion — surfaces in details small and large. Your menu, a faux love letter to sushi from Okuwa, comes with a red wax seal, and soy sauce is poured into saucers designed to form liquid heart shapes. All together now: Awww.

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As you’re settling in, a waiter with the pacing of an auctioneer previews the omakase, or chef’s choice: some snacks, some hand rolls, an assortment of sushi representing the chef’s journey followed by something sweet. (Vegetarian and gluten-free options are offered upon request.) The bullet-train speed with which the meal is described leaves our heads spinning; a little salad of chrysanthemum flower, sparked with a yuzu vinaigrette, calms the storm, as does a steaming bowl of miso soup swirled with tofu and wild parsley.

Hand rolls are introduced, two per person and side by side in little wooden cradles. One, bound in crisp black nori, contains tuna scraped from the backbone of the fish mixed with fresh wasabi and sweet Tokyo green onions. If the nori tastes distinctive, it’s because Okuwa imports umami-rich seaweed from the Ariake Sea in Japan, where it’s roasted and FedEx’d to Love, Makoto. “Old school,” our server informs us.

Salt & Vine draws you in with its looks. But then your food arrives.

The second roll, wrapped in white soy paper, is filled mostly with Maryland blue crab bound with spicy mayonnaise, but also imitation crab, which the chef slips in for its sweetness. “New school,” says the waiter of the warm creation. The worldly approach is explained by the chef’s extensive travels. After the young Okuwa left Washington, he went on to work for Morimoto in Philadelphia and New York and eventually open a place of his own in Miami, where he first met Eden. Spinoffs followed in Panama, Mexico and Brazil.

An assortment of sushi arrives, one-bite pieces of art that, like the hand rolls, are introduced so quickly, you recall only half the fine points. Thank goodness for the cheat sheet, er, mash note, from the chef. As with the hand rolls, the sushi contrasts old and new. Tradition is salmon flavored with kelp and freckled with white sesame seeds. Contemporary is salmon with filings of earthy truffle and a hit of lemon juice as a leveler. “Old” snapper is cured in kombu and finished with salt-pickled cherry blossoms, or sakura. “New” snapper benefits from white soy sauce and bottarga, golden yellow after roasting. Both pieces of bluefin tuna are red as rare beef. The classic nigiri is marinated in soy sauce and lit with wasabi, while the modern version is gilded with a leek and miso sauce and a sliver of blow-torched foie gras.

No need to come to dinner with talking points; this nigiri invites plenty of conversation.

The common denominator among the sushi is fish that shines no matter its treatment. Hints of yuzu salt and shiso flower do not detract from the delicate sweetness of a slice of hamachi, for instance. Starting when he was 15, Okuwa trained under three master chefs (first at a restaurant coincidentally named Makoto outside the city of Nagoya, his home) before he came to the United States. For Dear Sushi, he relies on the esteemed, Japan-based Sakasyu for product.

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The little wet naps on your table signal Okuwa’s wish that you use your digits, not chopsticks, to eat sushi. Part of the pleasure is tactile, says Okuwa. And one bite rather than two, so you can experience the complete concert of flavors.

Diners can supersize their meals with different hand rolls for $25 or “splurges” including Japanese sea urchin and Ossetia caviar, but I’ve left sated after dessert, a fetching “strawberry” — strawberry mousse and jam robed in white chocolate — fixed to its tray with a pale-green butter cookie: a light bite after some bright lights.

Where the light-drenched Dear Sushi is all concrete columns, outsize mirrors, sky-high ceiling and blue banquettes, its meat-minded neighbor is dim, dark and loud. The tableau — smokeless grills set in black tables arranged with kimchi and other salads — will be familiar to patrons of the increasing number of high-end Korean barbecues in Northern Virginia. Only here, the featured attractions contrast beef from two countries cooked over ceramic charcoal.

The United States is represented with prime short rib and wagyu New York strip; Japan’s ambassadors are A5 kalbi, or short ribs, and A5 sirloin prized for their tenderness and buttery texture. (Meats can vary, based on the market and price.)

To keep the beef from sticking, a cube of tallow is swabbed over the grill. Servers offer cooking instructions (“45 seconds for medium-rare,” our guide says). As at Dear Sushi, the service proves engaging and knowledgeable, if too fast with all the details. Allow me to clarify for anyone planning to push some meat around: the sauces include pineapple and honey, perilla leaf (think mint crossed with licorice), and lime mixed with salt — accents that are best deployed after trying the grilled beef by itself, later inside a lettuce wrap.

The drinks are serious, and seriously fun. The Kinoko Manhattan comes topped with a little dish of grilled shiitakes that gets removed so a cloud of smoke can escape from the glass and join the party. (Like the garnish? It’s offered as a skewer at the izakaya in back.) And you really want to start dinner with the stunning avocado paved with orange trout roe and topped with crab salad and a citrus gel. The sides of the avocado are coated in what looks like Easter grass but is in fact chopped herbs, including shiso, a decorating trick as clever as the radishes and carrots carved into little cow shapes I encountered on my maiden cookout. (Sadly, the pickled vegetables are no more. Deshaies says they took time to make and no one was eating them.)

Everyone talks up the udon “mac” and cheese here, and in this case, everyone telling you to go for the side dish — udon noodles in a pot of melted Gruyere, mozzarella and parmesan — is right. The comfort food was added as “a little American touch,” says Deshaies, a regular presence at Love, Makoto.

As at Dear Sushi, you can add upgrades to your meal; Beloved BBQ also enjoys the services of an in-house butcher.

The steakhouse shows diners some love through dessert. The prettiest ice cream sandwich in town, made with matcha ice cream and Japanese wafers, looks like a miniature pumpkin and gets bolder at the table following a drizzle of chocolate sauce spiked with Sichuan pepper.

Love, Makoto? The feeling is mutual.

200 Massachusetts Ave. NW. 202-992-7730. Dear Sushi: Open for indoor dining 5 to 10 p.m. daily. Price: Omakase $75 per person. Sound check: 80 decibels/Must speak with raised voice. Beloved BBQ: Open for indoor dining 5 to 10 p.m. daily. Price: Omakase $85 per person. Sound check: 81 decibels/Extremely loud. Accessibility: No barriers to entry in either restaurant; a ramp leads to ADA-compliant restrooms.

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