Courtesy of edit lab at streetsense
Courtesy of edit lab at streetsense

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Japan has a knack for taking a cultural import and twisting it into something new and notable enough to stand on its own. Throughout the country there are restaurants dedicated to Japanese-style, or “wafu,” pasta and pizza. While the basics are borrowed from Italy, the Japanese have created distinct recipes with local ingredients worth seeking out. Later this winter, you won’t have to fly 14 hours to try them. 

The partners behind Daikaya, Haikan, Bantam King, and Hatoba are straying from ramen to open their fifth restaurant in D.C. Meaning “neighbor” in Japanese, Tonari will specialize in wafu pasta and pizza inside the former Graffiato space in Chinatown. The focus will allow Chef Katsuya Fukushima to repurpose the pizza oven. He and his partners—Yama Jewayni and Daisuke Utagawa—sought to take advantage of existing infrastructure rather than scrap everything and start anew.

Daikaya and its upstairs izakaya are located next door, and Bantam King is around the corner. Expanding their footprint on the block was attractive to the partners who felt it was a good opportunity to “set the tone for the neighborhood.”

Part of what has made the group’s ramen restaurants so successful is the emphasis they put on sourcing the perfect noodle. For Tonari, the partners looked to their ramen noodle supplier in Sapporo, Japan—Nishiyama Seimen—to make a custom pasta recipe using flour from the Hokkaido region. Nishiyama Seimen has had practice making Italian-shaped pasta for the Japanese market. 

“They make great products, but they’re great people,” Fukushima says. “I can’t imagine doing any further projects without them involved—if they’ll have us.” Company president Takashi Nishiyama even took on a PoPville commenter earlier this year. 

While wafu pasta may be new to D.C., the food genre dates back to at least 1953. Tiny Tokyo restaurant Kabe No Ana in Shibuya is believed to be one of the first to serve spaghetti, along with the Imperial Hotel. 

Fukushima says to expect some wafu pasta classics like spaghetti Napolitan featuring a tomato-based sauce whose sweetness is closer to ketchup than marinara; mentaiko spaghetti made with spicy fish roe; uni pasta; and even natto (fermented soy bean) bolognese. 

Wafu pizza is a more recent cultural phenomenon, according to Utagawa. This gives Tonari more room for experimentation. Their starting point was a dough recipe inspired by Japanese bread, which is known for its sweet, yeasty smell and pillowy texture. They once again turned to Nishiyama Seimen for advice. The noodle maker pointed the group to their flour supplier, a mill in Sapporo called Yokoyama Seifun. 

“We’re very small players compared to the bigger customers they have,” Utagawa explains. Nishiyama put in a good word with the flour mill. “It tickles their creativity, their identity. They’re very kind to us. They said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it!’” 

Fukushima and Utagawa visited Yokoyama Seifun’s test kitchen and landed on a recipe that uses Hokkaido flour and rice oil shortening. The shortening creates an extra crunchy crust, especially because Tonari will likely cook its pizzas in pans. “It wasn’t like any U.S. pizza,” Fukushima says, declining the opportunity to compare it to Detroit-style pizza or any other well known style of pie. “It tasted Japanese and had this texture that was incredible. It was almost mochi-like.”

There will be traditional toppings like tomato and pepperoni, plus some with greater Japanese influence such as tuna sashimi; clam and miso; and corn and crab. 

Brian Miller, senior design director, interior architecture at edit lab at streetsense, is heading up Tonari’s design. His decisions were informed by a recent trip to Japan when he spent the majority of time in Kyoto—a city that feels more like old-timey Japan than the more modern Tokyo. Since the food at Tonari won’t be as well known as other types of Japanese cuisine like sushi or ramen, Miller sought out a traditional Japanese aesthetic for balance. 

Look for a vinyl collection and vintage speakers downstairs in the 50-seat dining room and bar. “Nothing makes me feel more like I’m in Japan than walking into a restaurant and hearing American jazz playing,” Miller says. Record bars are a whole category of nightlife in Japan.

If downstairs is buzzy, the 60-seat, second floor dining room is more relaxed. Miller says they ripped out the tiled ceiling to reveal wood that adds warmth to the space, which also features a moss garden installed by a local Japanese garden specialist. About half of the tables upstairs will have horigotatsu seating, where you sit on floor cushions with your legs dangling beneath you in a hole carved out for comfort. 

Utagawa has been on a quest to bring new expressions of Japanese cuisine to the D.C. area for decades. First it was sushi with Sushiko and then ramen with his Daikaya group partners more recently. “Wafu pasta was something my family was missing in the U.S.,” he says. Utagawa first moved to Bethesda in 1969. Then he returned to Japan to complete his studies before settling in the area again in 1983. “When they found out that us partners decided to go for it, they were very excited.”

Tonari, 707 6th St. NW