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“It’s something you have to see for yourself—it’s a little strange,” says Erik Bruner-Yang. His second restaurant inside The LINE DC Hotel opened over the weekend and requires some explaining.
Spoken English is inspired by tachinomiyas, standing bars that can be found down narrow, winding alleys or underneath train tracks in Tokyo. They often draw a boisterous crowd of suited businessmen eager to share snacks that pair well with beer or sake. Just like in Japan, guests at this restaurant that fits 12 to 16 people at a time are asked to stand and hopefully strike up a conversation with a stranger while they take in a meal.
Bruner-Yang says some patrons are in and out after a couple of grilled skewers known as kushiyaki, perhaps stopping by before or after a big meal elsewhere in the hotel or the neighborhood. But it’s just as easy to work your way through the menu and leave full, especially if you order the whole duck that comes with made-to-order tortillas, a rainbow of condiments, and a salad starring shards of confit duck leg meat.
Most dishes are small plates that ask you to trust the adventurous kitchen since the menu descriptions are intentionally sparse. “If you give too much information, the guest starts changing everything,” Bruner-Yang jokes. Even though a tachinomiya is a Japanese concept, the menu pulls from Taiwanese, Southeast Asian, French, and new American cuisines.
“Every time we try to do something authentic, it gives too much room for people to pull memories from great experiences that we can’t necessarily replicate,” says Bruner-Yang, who is also behind Maketto, Paper Horse, and Brothers and Sisters (The LINE DC Hotel’s lobby restaurant). “So, we decided to do something totally unique.”
A few highlights from Bruner-Yang and chefs de cuisine James Wozniuk and Matt Crowley include caviar on a Japanese pancake with seaweed jam ($15); a twice baked potato with two types of fish roe and uni ($15); and fermented durian curry with spaghetti squash ($13). The latter is a vegan preparation inspired by a Malaysian condiment called tempoyak. Fermenting the durian, a stinky fruit some say smells like diesel fuel, mutes the funk.
The one plate no one can skip is the chicken skin dumpling with ginger dipping sauce ($10). Bruner-Yang has tested the technique in the past, including at Toki Underground. He knew he wanted to serve “seven treasures” sticky rice that’s typically tucked into some kind of leaf during dim sum. But instead of something green, the chef opted to use the chicken skin to contain the rice.
“We were obviously going to go through so much poultry at Spoken English, so it made sense,” Bruner-Yang says. The dumpling is labor intensive. “You have to clean the skin, blanch it, steam it together, tie it, and deep fry it.”
If you love chicken, keep things going by ordering the other large-format menu item, chicken yakitori. For $25 you get a selection of skewers including chicken breast, chicken thigh, chicken meatball, chicken heart, chicken skin, plus some extras like chicken liver toast and chicken soup. See the complete food menu below.
The drink menu spans beer, sake, and three cocktails all from beverage director Colin Sugalski. He’s focused on highlighting sake from smaller breweries that have trouble breaking into the U.S. market. He met the head of United Kingdom-based import company Heathwick at Maketto a few years ago. That’s where he’s getting his supply. Sugalski hopes to bring sake brewers over from Japan to talk about their products and educate guests.
Sugalski’s cocktail menu mimics the food menu in that it doesn’t provide any specifics other than flavor notes. He’s eager to share as much information as guests crave, but didn’t want to weigh people down with information. Don’t miss the “We Started With a Sidecar” ($16), which stars an oleo-saccharum Sugalski makes with kumquats and osmanthus flowers the Spoken English team scored at an Asian grocery store.
Pastry Chef Pichet Ong and his team handle the desserts. There’s a refreshing goblet of shaved ice and an eggplant tart with miso ice cream. Ong also makes the show-stopping desserts for Brothers and Sisters.
The design was carried out by numerous parties. Design Army selected the colorful wallpaper that makes the restaurant pop, among other details, while Troy Hickman appointed the space with furniture and other fixtures. Finally, Spectrum Murals added the sculptures in the ceiling that give the space its unique texture. Perhaps the most eye-catching piece is an image of a woman sticking out of a piece of salmon roe sushi.
Even the plates are custom made by artist Kate Hardy. They may look like vintage thrift shop finds at first glance, but look closer and you might spot cartoonish characters, like a clown.
Diners have a full view of the Spoken English kitchen while they eat. You can almost feel the heat radiating off the Grillworks grill that burns both wood and charcoal to give the yakitori and kushiyaki their signature smoky flavor.
Spoken English, which has been in the works for years, was almost something else. “The original intention was to do a kaiseki-style tasting menu but you know me and James [Wozniuk],” Bruner-Yang says. “I can barely sit through a dinner like that so I could barely work at a restaurant like that. Over the last couple of years, it evolved into what you see now.”
Spoken English is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 6 p.m. to midnight. Reservations are not accepted.
Trumpet mushroom with pine ($3)
Leek with romesco ($3)
Blood cake with cilantro, peanut, and lime ($8)
Green Hill Camembert with fermented honey, smoked olive oil, and toast ($8)
Wagyu short rib with anchovy and fresh wasabi ($12)
Chicken breast with yuzu kosho and Kewpie mayo ($4)
Spicy Marcona almonds ($5)
Pickle plate ($9)
Carabinero prawn with salted egg yolk, burnt orange, and smoked chili ($15)
White asparagus with yuzu ricotta and caramelized white chocolate ($9)
Twice baked potato with roe and uni ($15)
Caviar on a Japanese pancake with seaweed jam ($15)
Fermented durian curry with spaghetti squash ($13)
Chicken skin dumpling with ginger dipping sauce ($10)
Chicken yakitori ($25)
Duck dinner ($98)
“Black” with cherry blossom, tapioca, and black lime ($14)
“Silver” with eggplant, miso, and fennel ($14)
Spoken English, 1770 Euclid St. NW; thelinehotel.com/dc/venues