Izakaya Seki: The very good and the very bad
We had our first meal at Izakaya Seki last week. Given partner's travel schedule taking him to SF and LA a lot, we are very familiar with the Izakaya style of eating and very much welcomed the idea of one for DC. Our experienced was mixed to the point of split personality:
Excellent selection of sake, well curated. Our waitress was a little timid in making recommendations, but we would up with two very good examples. She was seemingly well trained, just not willing to commit to a recommendation.
Tsukune: Chicken Meatballs are a regular feature at Izakaya and Yakitori bars. These were among the best we have ever had. The sauce was less cloying than most , although scant. The meatball itself was fluffy and flavorful. Needed salt and shichimi tōgarashi which were lacking on the counter. We only got two and all the rest of the plates that went out had 3. We want our missing ball!
Takana Rice Ball: a super good dish. While I prefer grilled onigiri, this ungrilled one was fantastic. $3 for a small sized ball, however, is a lot.
Sublime, well almost, but not:
Trio of side dishes: three salads, one seaweed, one dried radish and kinpira or burdock root. All outstanding but bland overall. Needed basic seasoning and more punch. But when so many Japanese restaurants give you pre-made versions, these were a winner for the first half that devolved into boring by the time we finished them.
Tako Wasabi: raw octopus with wasabi was great if bland. A little spicing up would ahve made this a truly memorable dish.
Grilled Horsetail Mackerel: super. Simple. Needed salt and lemon and shichimi tōgarashi
Grilled Tongue with miso mustard: the tongue itself was fabulously yummy. But the sauce was poured on thickly and just didn't work. I am used to this served with salt and lemon and it would have been better. The sauce was too rich for an already rich ingredient.
Ankimo or Monk Fish Liver: the liver itself was just so so, grainy instead of velvety and smooth. The very same miso mustard sauce again overpowered its ingredient. While I love ankimo, and invariably order two plates to avoid fights with the boy, one was more than enough. He let me finish the dish, a first.
Pork Trotter with Miso Mustard Sauce: again, the same miso mustard. Again, way to rich to go with the pork, which was in places nicely crisp but half of it was limp and fatty. Pork was not particularly a great flavorful pork.
Why on earth is a place with a very short menu offering the same sauce on three different dishes? Once, it was described as Yuzu Miso, once Yuzo Miso Vinaigrette and once as Miso Mustard, but all three were exactly the same!
We received a complementary soft boiled egg, slow cooked. It was again bland and a little watery.
We sat at the counter in front of Master Seki. He had piles of raw fish sitting out in front of him, not wrapped or refrigerated. It was all very oxidized, to the point that if offered at a fish market, I would not buy it. Needless to say, we did not order any sashimi. We only ordered the Ankimo when when we saw it taken from the cooler. The tataki was similarly out of refrigeration and pre-seared.
Overall experience: we paid $122 including tip. It was a light meal for us. We came hungry and left needing a snack. Izakaya should not cost $200 or more for a full meal. If this meal had been 2/3 the price, and the food properly seasoned, it would have been a good value.
As it was, it's hard to justify a return visit. Washington DC still lacks in Japanese food that doesn't cost an arm and a leg. In New York City, I can think of 3 or 4 places to go to where we would have got way more food properly seasoned for less money.
Thanks for writing this up. My wife and I are just back from Tokyo and were considering hitting Seki in the next week or so. You've convinced me to give them some more time to work out some bugs.
I think we are mighty lucky to have Izakaya Seki in DC. I felt privileged to be able to saunter in on a cold Friday evening and take my place at the counter and feel transported.
I sampled five dishes:
Raw- vinegar-cured mackeral
Trio of salads
Grilled - Chicken meatballs
I was expecting the vinegar-cured fish to have a strong flavor, so I was disappointed at first that it was bland. But after I got into the dish, I really loved the subtle flavor and the pristine quality.
The rice ball had a gorgeous flavor. The mero was devastating. So rich. One of the best small plates I've ever eaten. Salads were surprisingly rich, intricately prepared and flavored.
My only setback was the chicken meatballs. I've never had these before. I am pretty sure the execution was fine, but foamy chicken dipped in a salty glaze? No thanks. Too many other great things going on here to get excited by this.
I was skeptical when I first heard about Seki, so it took me quite a while to get here. But now that I've found it, I will happily return. I could see popping in for one or two dishes casually on a regular basis.
It's become one of our favorite places. We rarely order chicken or other meats there -- mostly seafood and vegetables. The sashimi is, with Taro's, the best in town. The mero, the mixed broiled "cheeks," the sardines, the Buri they had on special last week, mackerel, etc. Just ask Chef Seki what's freshest that day.
re: Marty L.
Yep, it's thanks to you I tried it. I had my eye on quite a few other items. There is also a sashimi omakase in which, I am told, an assortment of sashimi is served in a kind of mackerel boat and after you eat the sashimi the mackerel is deep fried- does that sound right? Also, they prepared an order of fried rice in front of me, and it looked and smelled great.
As far as I could tell, I'd say that three dishes per person are a full meal here, so it's not really necessary to spend a lot of money.
The problem with Seki is that it's in the middle of "busy action" in DC with little competition. It can charge a lot, with slightly better than mediocre food and still be packed to the gills due to its size and popularity with young people. Unless they start going half empty on the weekends, I don't think there is any reason for them to improve. There are a number of other Japanese places in the metro DC area that are Japanese owned. We found Yuzu recently and are quite happy with it.
I will check out Yuzu. Any particular recs?
If you don't like the food at Seki, then I don't think you will ever like it. This is not a place that is purposely making food that is mediocre. Seki makes it the way he makes it, and I don't see it as a business decision. I loved it, and I don't think it will change unless it just goes out of business.
FWIW, the downstairs was mostly empty late on Friday night, but it was a snow day.
For those who don't know, Seki is a tiny storefront on V St, an otherwise quiet, residential street. I didn't see the upstairs. The downstairs is a brightly lit wooden counter and there is little decor. You are unlikely to pass by it unless you go there on purpose. If you walk down the same side of the street, you will not know it's there until you get right in front of it.
We had our first meal here yesterday with great pleasure. As there's no Izakaya or good sushi joint in Baltimore, we are very happy to have followed this thread and your recs. Here's what we had: (along with bottle of sake and a serving of shochu)
Obanzai (cucumber, daikon, and one other)
Tako Wasa: octopus, fresh wasabi
Hokkaido scallop carpaccio w/ yuzu shiso
Ankimo: monkfish liver and yuzu miso vinaigrette
I would echo the praise for the sashimi as they were very good. While price for one order ranges from teens to high $20s, each order contains 7-10 pieces. The thickness of the each pieces are generous and correct to really get the sense of the texture of good quality fish. House-cured Saba is done with care and certainly refreshing change from packaged and overly cured and vinegary stuff served locally. Roughly grated wasabi had good flavor though I think the quality of soy sauce was average. For the quality and quantity, the price would be double in NYC.
Contrary to the OP I really enjoyed the Taco Wasa. As it is described under sake accompaniments any more seasoning and flavoring would be more fitting for shochu. Marinated raw octopus in wasabi had good biting texture and perfectly accompanied the sake at $5. Looking forward to trying the rest of the items in this group.
I did notice and agree that sauces tend to be overpowering for the dishes but that yuzu shiso was delicious and scallop, again, generous 5 cuts, quite fresh and generously priced at $15. The weakest link here I think were fried items. 2 items we tried would have been okay had we ordered another bottle of saki and were served after forgetting that I ordered it. Same for Obanzai and oshinko (better) as these can be sublime when done right. Udon was served hot, with soothing and good broth with much thinner than regular udon noodles (inaniwa), and made a good ending (egg and charshu optional).
Great find. Looking forward to returning to try more of their cooked/grilled items, but their sashimi is calling my name already...
I popped in for a couple of dishes last night, and I am still so happy to have an experience like this in DC. Had the tuna tataki and the fried rice. The tuna was just barely kissed with some heat and I loved the texture on the fried rice. Went well with a hot cup of green tea.
good point about the consistency.
As I posted above, I had the fried rice dish (Chahan). I think it smells better while it's cooking than it tastes while eating, but I really enjoyed it when paired with the green tea. I probably wouldn't order it again by myself, but I do enjoy the aesthetic of the restaurant, and it fits right in. I had something 'similar' in Japan, and the rice was drier and fluffier like you say. But the flavor of that version was more Chinese-y, so it's hard for me to know if any of it is typical.
I am surprised it is mentioned in the Post's Weekend section Top 40 "Essential DC Eats," because I can think of a few other items there I would consider 'more essential.' Or should I say, 'essentialer.'