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Jason Zheng is hankering to get his hands on some fugu. That’s Japanese for pufferfish or blowfish, perhaps the world’s most notorious seafood. Sure, it’s potentially poisonous. If prepared improperly, it contains a neurotoxin that’s reportedly about a thousand times more deadly than cyanide. (And that’s the conservative figure.) But it’s also supposed to be delicious.
“In Japan, people shovel it in,” says Zheng.
The short-statured 32-year-old head sushi chef at The Hamilton has been dicing and dishing raw fish for more than a decade. But even he’s not qualified to handle the dubious Asian delicacy. So he’s going to need some help before he can put it on the menu. Legally speaking. “We’re trying to hire a guy who has a license in Japan—you need a license to cut that type of fish,” he says.
Generally, the puffer’s toxic parts are removed before it’s shipped overseas. It’s illegal in Europe and only a handful of places in the U.S. dare to serve it. In the District, at least one spot, Kaz Sushi Bistro, has previously plated the infamous fish. The Hamilton boldly hopes to join that exclusive club. “We want to give it a shot,” says Zheng.
It’s a risky move for Clyde’s Restaurant Group, which owns and operates The Hamilton. And not just because of the possibility, if low probability, that patrons could become stricken with tetrodotoxin paralysis. In fact, serving sushi of any kind is an entirely new concept for Clyde’s, a company better known for grass-fed burgers and jumbo lump crab cakes at its eponymous eateries in the D.C. area. (The Hamilton serves that stuff, too.) Clyde’s also owns the hallowed Old Ebbitt Grill and serves more high-end grub at Georgetown’s esteemed 1789.
But none of those joints is known for its exotic aquatics.
The Hamilton, its owners say, isn’t about playing it safe. Spanning some 37,000 square feet, seating up to 850 diners and operating 24/7 (with the lone exception of Christmas Day), the restaurant—which also includes a vast downstairs concert hall—is the group’s most ambitious project to date. And to hear Clyde’s president Tom Meyer tell it, the fare needs to be just as daring.
That’s why he says he’s enlisted Zheng, who previously made his maki at celebrity chef Susur Lee’s lounge-y hotel restaurant Zentan in Thomas Circle. The new hire has been tasked with rolling out something completely different, at least for Clyde’s. Company brass is expecting Zheng to push the seaweed-wrapped envelope beyond the ubiquitous California roll. “I want him to really do hot shit,” says Meyer. “I want the live uni, I want the abalone, I want the toro.”
(For the record, California rolls remain on the menu, alongside other non-hot shit like salmon and cream cheese rolls. No one ever said you could please 850 eaters with abalone alone.)
Meyer seems more impressed with Zheng’s out-of-town credentials than with Zentan’s presence on the chef’s CV. Zheng earlier wielded his shiny cutlery at Blue Ribbon in New York—a favorite of Meyer’s. “They were kind of the first people to put a sushi bar in a restaurant that’s kind of, you know, cool,” he says. The Chinese-born Zheng, a former busboy turned toque, helped open three locations of the upscale Big Apple sushi chain.
But Zheng says he’s never worked at, much less seen, a restaurant as massive as The Hamilton. “It’s a big job,” he says.
Behind the 12-stool sushi bar, adorned with bronze statues of Japanese kitchen gods, Zheng now has more underlings doing prep work than he had in his entire sushi-rolling crew at Zentan. Some 30 staffers are assigned to sushi service alone, including one guy who does nothing all day but make rice from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Zheng, it turns out, is a stickler for doing right by the tiny white grains, spurning D.C. tap water for the bottled spring variety in its preparation. He declines to say which brand. The chef insists the fancy mizu enhances the flavor.
Just one week after the behemoth eatery’s Dec. 18 opening, Zheng, whose English is not nearly as bad as he claims, told me he’d been cranking out about 100 pounds of tuna each day. And that was before the first live musical performances began downstairs, where he would be operating a second sushi bar. (Sushi is served throughout the entire venue, from 11 a.m. until 2 a.m. daily.) “You have to use a walkie-talkie to communicate [between the two sashimi stations],” he says. “We’re not used to that.”
Likewise, the logistics of running an 850-seat restaurant also require some departures from the ordinary. You can sit right there at that intimate sushi bar and watch the chef work, for instance, but don’t try ordering from him or anyone else behind the counter. Servers still circulate to take orders, just as if you were sitting at a table.
Right now, you won’t find fugu or any other particularly unusual fish on the menu at The Hamilton. Zheng says the kitchen crew needs some time to get settled before rolling out more innovative offerings.
For instance, the Tasmanian ocean trout, priced at $7 for two pieces, only sounds exotic. Its white-marbled pinkish flesh looks almost identical to salmon. And it doesn’t taste much different, either. Plated side by side with slices of the more common upstream swimmer, the sea trout is, however, a slightly brighter hue and comes topped with tiny dark caviar. (Zheng says he served the same stuff at Zentan.)
Meanwhile, Zheng’s playful take on fish and chips, featuring tempura, sea bass, and crab topped with sweet potato flakes and a tartar-esque sauce for $12, certainly seems accessible enough for the crowd at, say, a Clyde’s outpost in one of Washington’s less sophisticated suburbs.
The hot shit Meyer touted? None yet. A pair of spicy scallops, priced at $8, appear as bright orange blobs in their green wrappers, less offensive to the palate than the eyes. The advertised inferno of an eel-covered, spicy tuna-injected Fire Dragon ($13) is virtually extinguished in a mush of avocado. The Tiger Fur (also $13) similarly proves tamer than its name, with slivers of tuna, salmon and yellowtail wrapped up in green-striped kelp.
The Rock ‘n’ Roll (again $13), which contains a fried oyster and comes topped with yellowtail and jalapeño, is a slight variation on another Zentan standby, Zheng says, which incorporated crispy calamari.
“Come back in two months,” Zheng says. “You’re going to see it’s very different.” Among other things, Zheng plans to put out plates from the creepy-crawly category. Just imagine: live Santa Barbara shrimp, live sea urchin, and live abalone to go with your live music.
“This is just the beginning,” he says.
Photos by Darrow Montgomery
The Hamilton, 600 14th St. NW, (202) 787-1000
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