There are two kinds of Japanese restaurants: ones where you’re permitted—nay, encouraged—to drop sake bombs, and ones where that amount of ruddy-faced rabble-rousing would get you escorted out (don’t dare try it at Makoto).
Umaya Izakaya is the former, according to owner Charles Zhou, who gives a emphatic “yes” when asked if he’ll encourage diners to jubilantly drop shot glasses of Japanese rice wine into pints of beer when his restaurant opens downtown Wednesday. Umaya, after all, is an izakaya (Japanese pub) characterized by a fun, boisterous atmosphere where drinks are to be followed by food and then more drinks.
The 147-seat restaurant has counter seating looking into the kitchen, a chef’s table, a fish tank, a DJ booth, and a sound system that says, “Let’s party.” But, Zhou (who also owns Cafe Asia) says Umaya is a restaurant not a club. “Kind of like STK, we’ll play soft music during regular dining times and as the night progresses, the volume will increase a little,” Zhou says. “But are we a nightclub? No we’re not.”
That said, the noise-averse Post critic Tom Sietsema better bring his earplugs if he doesn’t want to ball up sushi rice as make-shift sound protection if he dines.
The menu at Umaya is comprehensive. It spans bento boxes ($13-$18); donburi rice bowls ($9-$18); noodles like beef sukiyaki udon ($8-$12); small plates like mixed tempura or spicy tuna tartare ($4.50 to $24.50); four styles of ramen ($13-$14.50); robata-grilled skewers of meat, seafood, and vegetables ($3 per skewer and up); and sushi ranging from nigiri sushi and sashimi to rolls.
Zhou calls the menu moderately priced, especially when considering Umaya’s address at 733 10th St. NW. “I think the CityCenterDC area has a lot of high-end [restaurants], but there’s not a lot in the middle,” he says. “If we’re too pricey, we’ll need to throw our concept away because if this place doesn’t have the volume business, it will lose the character because we need a lot of noises.”
While most dishes are moderately priced, there are some big ticket items like a Wagyu beef tartare ($24.50) and still-moving whole lobster sashimi (price TBD).
Zhou has tapped three men to carry out the ambitious menu of sushi and street food. Executive Chef Nick Hoang has been cooking Japanese and other Asian cuisines for two decades including stops locally at Kushi Izakaya (closed), Tsunami Sushi, Ping Pong Dim Sum, and Cafe Asia. Sous Chef Walter Lainez also spent time at Kushi Izakaya where he tended to the robata grill. Before that, Lainez studied ramen under Chef Erik Bruner-Yang at Toki Underground. Finally, Sous Chef Calvin Yim joins the team after working at Cafe Asia and Arlington’s Sushi Rock.
Much like Kushi, the robata grill is the focal point of the kitchen, where chefs stand carefully turning splayed-out shrimp or cubes of glistening pork belly between bricks over blazing hot coals while guests watch.
General Manager Christian Mallea created the drink menu which includes Japanese whiskey; cocktails with Japanese flavors like the rye-based “Smoked Ginger;” infused sake; and rare Japanese beer. Mallea was even able to find Japanese vodka—a shot of Kissui reveals a product that’s smoother than its Russian counterparts.
Umaya will start serving lunch and dinner starting this Wednesday. Lunch is served from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and dinner is available Sunday through Thursday from 5-10 p.m. and Friday through Saturday from 5 p.m. to midnight. Zhou is calling this phase a soft opening and expects their grand opening to fall after inauguration. Umaya also plans to launch brunch and late night dining. Reservations will only be accepted for the chef’s table.
Umaya Izakaya, 733 10th St. NW; (202) 854-8408; umayadc.com