The instructor of the only real cooking class I ever took was a doomsday paranoid and a bad poet. He sold furniture by day and pimped himself as a gourmet by night. He spewed an apocalyptic doctrine that held that the availability of chow mein outside major urban areas constituted a threat to meat and potatoes and the values they represent. He didn’t understand sushi, and he criticized the way I crossed my legs. At least that’s what I remember from the night he taught my Webelo troop to bake bread.
I think about that guy when I eat at Zuki Moon Noodles, because I doubt he’d approve. There are fewer signs of an increasingly claustrophobic planet in here than at any multitude of pan-whatever restaurants, but chef Mary Richter traffics in Japanese cuisine as if it’s no real biggiea right, not a gimmick. The New York sirloin would be familiar turf for my baking teacher, but the mirin and soy that it’s brushed with and the miso soup that precedes it might scare him right back into the bomb shelter.
It would be easy to miss Zuki Moon on the bottom floor of the George Washington Inn; from the street, the Inn wouldn’t strike anyone as a happening place, and with its funky but small sign, you could pass by Zuki thinking it’s some upstart graphic-design firm.
The restaurant itself, which opened about six months ago within walking distance of the Kennedy Center, actually feels a little like L.A. (or do I mean Tokyo? Richter did cook at Cities for many years). Inside, despite occupying a basement with low ceilings, the place opens up. It’s all soft colorslime and blond, mostlyand sharp angles, with two noodle bars and a cozy back lounge I’d never have known existed if I hadn’t gone to the bathroom. The setting is pleasant even if the furniture isn’t; I’m lanky, and the low-to-the-ground wooden chairs make me feel like an origami work-in-progress.
Relative to the sensuous, aromatic broths that are the foundation of Zuki’s noodle dishes, physical discomfort is a minor quibble. No matter if the stock is derived from pork, chicken, vegetables, or fish, down-to-earth flavors are constant, stimulated in part by the firm, wheat-based soba, udon, and somen noodles that settle on the bottom of the deep ceramic bowls.
Which isn’t to say there’s no variety. Both the pork udon and the seafood somen are described as “spicy” for good reason. Both soups are feisty, redolent of red chili and (like just about everything on the menu) ginger, making the lean pork and the festive, spaetzlelike noodles of the former and the savory shrimp, scallops, and lobster of the latter seem like a bonus. Even though the ingredients are all caught in the same tangled web of pasta, nothing has been allowed to get weird and soggy from a long soak in the broth. You can taste that the salmon, duck, and chicken breast have been grilled before being submerged, meaning that the meat is good enough to hold its own on a plate. Less sturdy vegetables such as mushrooms and mustard greens are soft and wilted, as they should be. But bite into a leek or carrot and you’re bound to make some noise.
Only a few of the appetizers are as remarkable. The fried squid, the gyoza, and the shrimp tempura are each gracefully presented on a bamboo mat, but they are prepared with little invention. I’d stick with the salads, in particular the medley of seaweeds or the cool mixture of smoked trout, scallions, and soba noodles. Better yet, skip the appetizers and save room for dessert. I’m expecting to undergo withdrawal after eating Zuki’s homemade ice creams. The ginger ice cream is just one more example of the great things this kitchen does with that ugly root, but mostly I’m thinking of the caramel ice cream, a concoction so ungodly rich that every bite seems to contain an entire bag of Werther’s. I tend to wear my opinions; it takes just a bite of the stuff for my roommate to notice something in my expression that he hasn’t seen since I “found out Little Debbies were better than Ho-Hos.”
But perhaps the most eventful portion of Zuki’s menu lists some entrees that constitute the kitchen’s more eclectic experiments. This is where you’ll find the steak, as well as seared tuna in a wasabi sauce so powerful I’m held hostage for a few moments after every bite. Shiitake and oyster mushrooms are appropriately oily and served with tofu and Swiss chard. And a waiter doesn’t need time to consider the options before telling me that the grilled squid is the best thing in the house. He’s right. These suckers are fragrant with lemon and soy sauce and buried in a jungle of gingery greens, both steamed and raw. In the center of it all is a mound of sticky rice that soaks up all the runoff, some of which will taste familiar, some of which won’t. No matter what some psycho tried to tell me and my fellow Webelos, that alchemy is what makes this non-meat-and-potatoes fare so good.
Zuki Moon Noodles, 824 New Hampshire Ave. NW. (202) 333-3312.
Just ask, and someone behind the counter at Natural Jack’s Mineral River Soup Co. should be able to tell you there really isn’t any Jack, making the question of the Mineral River’s existence somewhat less pressing. What’s brewing depends on the day, but hope for the rich, creamy garlic or the chunky, vaguely sweet squash-and-bean. The guy behind the counter promises that a bowl, a simple bun, and a piece of fruit is enough for lunch. Factor in a bag of chips, and that equation works out.
Natural Jack’s Mineral River Soup Co., 523 8th St. SE. (202) 547-9512.Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.