Bao bun
Bao bun Credit: Rey Lopez

A Barcelona-born chef with a serious crush on Japanese cuisine and sake is behind Cranes opening on Feb. 8 in the space Ruth’s Chris vacated at 724 9th St. NW. Chef Pepe Moncayo’s modern tapas menu bonds the ingredient-driven philosophy and umami flavor profile of Japanese cooking with the Catalan cooking techniques he mastered while working for Michelin-starred Spanish chefs.

“The crane is a migratory bird,” Moncayo says. “I am a migrant in a life trip going all over the world bringing my passion with me.”

The 41-year-old chef had to grow up quickly after his mother died when he was 13. With his oldest sibling away completing mandatory military service, Moncayo was thrust into the kitchen to cook for the rest of his family. “Nowadays looking back, I’m sure it was horrible food,” he jokes. “It was survival, but it was fantastic because here we are.” 

He dabbled in culinary school in Barcelona, but dropped out after six months, opting for a literal baptism by fire in restaurants instead. “I started at the bottom of the bottom,” Moncayo says. But he advanced quickly and the chefs he worked for recommended him for cooking jobs the next rung up. 

Via Venetowas the first Michelin-starred restaurant Moncayo worked at. The Barcelona restaurant was led by a plate-throwing chef—Josep Muniesa— whose kitchen was a pressure cooker. “One day I walked out,” Moncayo recalls. “I couldn’t take it.” 

Moncayo also worked for renowned Catalan Chef Santi Santamaria. He’s as well known for his three-Michelin-star cooking as he is for his feud with Chef Ferran Adriàof elBulli—the former number one restaurant in the world. Santamaria evangelized tradition while Adrià showed the world the potions and powders of molecular gastronomy. 

When Santamaria went to open a restaurant inside the Marina Bay Sands casino in Singapore, Moncayo followed. But then Santamaria dropped dead dramatic fashion. “He died wearing his chef’s jacket on opening day in the very moment that 50 journalists from Spain were there for a media dinner,” Moncayo says. “Like a rock and roll star is how he died.” 

While working at the casino, Moncayo crossed paths with the team of chefs who ran a Japanese restaurant. “I started to fall in love with the cuisine and got to know the thought that goes into it, the seasonality,” he says. “That was Santi’s approach. It was all about the ingredients.” Moncayo was hooked. “When you stumble into Japanese ingredients it’s very hard to get off them.” 

Eventually Moncayo opened his own restaurant in Singapore, Bam! Restaurant, which has a culinary and sake focus not unlike Cranes. “One of the things I believe is how sake goes so well with food,” he says. The chef is still involved in the project.

Moncayo’s first D.C. restaurant both summarizes his culinary journey and thrusts his cooking into a new era because he now has access to “the American domestic pantry, which is amazing.” He’s already discovered the rarities offered by a boutique seafood company, Gulf of Maine. 

There will be two ways to dine at Cranes when it opens next month. Diners can order tapas a la carte or opt for an omakase-style tasting menu that consists of six courses, plus a few surprises. Moncayo hopes to price it at $88 per person before drink pairings. One of Moncayo’s goals is to be accommodating and flexible. If two people at a table of four want to do omakase and the other two want to order a la carte, no problem. “As long as people understand the omakase has a different rhythm,” he says.

Early highlights from the tapas and omakase menus include a fluffy bao bun filled with short rib, shiso leaves, avocado, and sea grapes; a parfait of sorts filled with green beans, shrimp, sea urchin, and ponzu gelatin with a rich crème fraîche base; capellini noodles served cold with aged balsamic vinegar, hazelnuts, nori, and preserved lemon; and tempura tripa de bacalao (cod) with umeboshi (sour plum) mayo, tororo (grated mountain yam), kombu (seaweed), and blood orange. See the opening a la carte tapas menu below. 

Moncayo says he assembled a “bad-ass team.” He tapped Pastry Chef Jonni Scott to handle the sweet endings. She comes to Cranes from Junction Bakery & Bistro in Alexandria. Both Japanese and Spanish desserts rely heavily on citrus and egg custards. One of her creations features a winter citrus tart made with yuzu, dehydrated citrus meringue, bitter orange, and mandarin sorbet. 

Monica Lee, formerly of the Daikaya Group, amassed an impressive collection of sake to serve, including some rare finds. The delicate drink has a way of unlocking the umami flavors in Moncayo’s dishes. 

Cranes has a dedicated sake lounge. It’s part of the 12,000-square-foot restaurant designed by //3877 that also boasts a bar with 50 seats, a main dining room that fits 175 people, and a 25-person private dining room. Some tables are good for a quiet date night, and larger tables closer to the open kitchen provide for a more boisterous dinner and a show. 

Starting Feb. 8, Cranes will serve dinner Thursdays through Sundays from 5 to 10 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays from 5 to 11 p.m. The bar always stays open an hour later. Happy hour will be available weeknights from 4 to 6:30 p.m. 

A few weeks after opening, Moncayo plans to start serving lunch weekdays from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. The focus will be on creative bento boxes. Cranes will take lunch and dinner reservations on OpenTable.

While Moncayo is quick to tick off why Japanese and Catalan cuisines are fast friends, he says the Cranes concept came to him organically. “This is not a concept where I was like, ‘I’m going to mix this!’” he says. “It happened naturally. I can look back and say, ‘This is why it happened,’ but I didn’t decide to do it.” 

Cranes; 724 9th St. NW;