Darren Norris is poised to serve Washingtonians Japanese food again. “It just speaks to me,” he says. “For the past 10 to 15 years, it’s really consumed me.”
He opened Kushi in Mount Vernon Square in 2010. The sushi and robata restaurant netted Norris the title of “Restaurateur of the Year” at the RAMMY Awards in 2011. Three years later, the restaurant closed. Then it was onto Maki Shop, a fast-casual sushi roll shop on 14th Street NW, which lasted just over two years.
Now Norris, who is also behind 14th Street NW bar Black Whiskey, is gearing up to open a triple-decker, multi-concept love letter to Japan in Adams Morgan. Shibuya Eatery, Shabu Plus, and Death Punch should open in the former Bourbon space at 2321 18th St. NW this winter. Each will have a separate entrance and dedicated focus, playing into Japan’s culture of mastery.
“You know how restaurants in Japan offer one type of thing,” he explains. “It’s either a soba place or a tempura place. It’s not like American restaurants that have a variety of different offerings. They have a single focus and they do it really really well. That was some level of authenticity that I wanted to bring.”
The basement level plays host to Shibuya Eatery—a fast-casual soba noodle restaurant with ten stools that will be open from lunch through 2 a.m. Norris says he was inspired by food stalls in the eponymous neighborhood of Tokyo. There will be several types of house-made soba noodles to select from as well as a variety of dashi-based broths and dipping sauces, including vegan options. “I don’t think this city could stand one more ramen restaurant,” he says. “In my mind, it’s not something you can eat that often at 2,000 calories a bowl.”
Diners can stand or sit and slurp their noodle bowls or take them to-go. In addition to soba, Norris is bringing back his grilled robata skewers he became known for at Kushi. He’ll grill “premium local organic produce, naturally raised meats, and sustainable seafood” over binchotan charcoal. The skewers can be eaten separately or served alongside hot or cold soba dishes. For those who like thicker, chewier noodles, there will also be udon.
Enter on the main floor to dine at Shabu Plus, specializing in Japanese hot pot. The tables at the 45-seat restaurant will have built-in induction burners so groups can gather around a bubbling pot of broth and enjoy a communal style of dining. “Shabu shabu has been around for hundreds of years, but I’m bringing my modern cooking techniques,” Norris says. “I think I can elevate this to another genre all in itself.”
He expects to offer a variety of vegetables and proteins to swish through the broth including cabbage, mizuna, tofu, shiitake mushrooms, Japanese leeks, wagyu beef, Kurobuta pork loin, and pork belly. There will also be a daily menu of small plates displayed on a handwritten menu.
After Shabu Plus gains its footing, Norris hopes to introduce a kaiseki tasting menu that’s mostly plant-based. “It’ll have ten dishes a day,” Norris says. “They’re ideas I’ve really been working on over the last couple years.” Norris has visited Los Angeles and New York on research trips. Shabu Plus will be open for dinner to start and Norris says he’ll consider adding weekday lunch.
The top floor, a bar dubbed Death Punch, will have the least Japanese bent. He says the name started out as a joke amongst friends as a Bruce Lee reference. “Then I started thinking about it and it made sense that kids drink fruit punch and adults drink death punch. It’s a humorous warning about alcohol.”
Norris expects the bar to have the look and vibe of Black Whiskey, but with better design finishes. “We’re not going to have 500 kinds of whiskey, but we’ll have a nice variety of great spirits.” Death Punch patrons will be able to order bento boxes with skewers and soba noodles from Shibuya Eatery that will be ferried up to them.
Death Punch and Shibuya Eatery will open at the same time and Shabu Plus will open shortly after. The space doesn’t need a full gut job, which is why Norris is anticipating a winter opening. He’s excited to join the surging Adams Morgan dining scene.
“I’ve been looking for a spot for well over a year,” he says. “When this came up, I was like this is perfect. The neighborhood is perfect, the time is perfect, the building is perfect.”