Last week we went to Makoto (4822 MacArthur NW, Washington DC, (202) 298-6866). After some of the mixed reviews lately, I really wanted to check it out...
Let me preface this by saying that the day before we went, I fell down a flight of stairs, ended up in the emergency room (nothing broken, thankfully), and was still in a substantial amount of pain, with only ibuprofen (I've got stingy HMO coverage) to comfort me. The sake took on a medicinal quality for me, so some of the precise details of the meal are foggier than I'd like, but the overall impression is still very fresh in my mind.
When we arrived at 7:30, the place was about half full. Despite the fact that there was a raging snowstorm outside, every table and spot at the sushi bar was occupied by 8:00. I wonder if it might be possible to walk in without a reservation on a weeknight before 6:00...
To set the scene:
The restaurant is in the basement of a rowhouse. You descend a set of stairs into a covered, and heated room. There are stones on the floor, cubby holes where you put your shoes and closets for you coats. You exchange your shoes for slippers and a waitress pulls back the curtain and you pass into the restaurant. To the left is the kitchen and sushi bar. The kitchen is situated a few feet lower than the dining area, so those at the sushi bar can really see the food being prepared and are at the same level as the chefs. I'd definitely try to sit at the bar next time. Just from the glimpses I had of it, it was the most serene and well-run kitchen I've ever seen. On the left side of the restaurant is a row of about four or five tables. The seats are small benches with lids (where you can also store your coat/purse.
Folks have recently complained about being required to take their shoes of in the anteroom. There really isn't space in the restaurant to do so and it is clearly a major cultural faux-pas. You would essentially be putting your shoes on directly in front of a table of diners. The outdoor room is heated, though dark. I probably wouldn't take my 79 year old grandmother to this place, because she wouldn't be comfortable on the benches, would have a hard time getting her shoes on and off in the anteroom, and is ample enough in a corporeal sense that she might not be able to navigate comfortably in the rather tight spaces. This place clearly isn't for everyone--it's just not big enough and that's part of what makes it special. That said, the place has real bare-bones charm and feels like it exists in a different place and time.
Now on to the food (and drink):
We decided on the kaiseki 9 course prix fixe menu ($45). I upgraded my sashimi to toro (fatty tuna), while SO had maguro (tuna). We also ordered a few extra pieces of sushi--eel and sea urchin. From start to finish it was truly a masterpiece--the most "balanced" meal (in a nutritional, spiritual, and philosophical sense) I've ever had. Each course had something important to say in terms of color, texture, flavor and presentation.
The first course was two small bowls of greens--snow pea leaves and leek flower--each in a very delicate, flavorful sauce. We ordered the warm house sake and it was a perfect complement to the food. The other courses started floating by like a dream, I apologize for omissions and for mixing the order up a bit...
The monkfish liver (pate) was of the best possible quality. An amazing melt-in-your mouth texture and enigmatic flavor. The beef yakitori (cooked tableside on a hibachi by the server) was fabulous--impossibly thin slices of beef cooked to perfection. There was also shrimp with a potato pure--a really interesting and exception textural experience.
The sashimi and sushi was without a doubt the best quality I've ever had in the past decade--anywhere. The toro was immaculate--the fat integrated completely into the flesh, beautiful color. Just spectacular! The maguro was also wonderful--so bright and fresh and clearly well-chosen. I haven't seen sashimi this pristine since a brief stint in Vancouver many, many years ago. I immediately swore off all other raw fish (and I've already reluctantly gone back on that...I'm so weak). The quality is clearly a result of excellent selection, but also the low and consistent volume of the restaurant.
The sushi course arrived--salmon, scallop and shrimp. It was wonderful and simple, nothing earth-shattering or gimmicky, just well-executed and of the highest quality. At this point in the meal, you can supplement the menu by ordering another round of sushi. We were both getting quite full, but we weren't ready for the meal to end, so we ordered unagi (eel) and sea urchin. I only order sea urchin in the best places, because it is really unpleasant if it isn't properly prepared and scrupulously fresh. Makoto's sea urchin tasted like the essence of the sea--salt water, seaweed, brine shrimp, driftwood, all of that. Probably something of an acquired taste, but theirs was wonderful.
Then came the soba--I ordered wild mushroom. Probably my least favorite course, but the broth really was subtle and cleansing.
The final course was a grape ice/granita. A light and lovely end to a lovely meal.
Really, this was unequivocably in my top five meals in DC in the last decade. The service was wonderful. The servers described each course in detail and were quietly attentive.
The only low points were a somewhat loud, overpowering table of "ugly americans" from-out-of-town. The place is small and a larger group can overpower the place a bit, particularly if they are partaking in too much sake. This table was talking about some unbelievably offensive stuff! They were giving the servers quite a hard time, but they seemed to manage it with dignity and somehow miraculously got them to quiet down.
Addressing recent complaints:
I'm sorry to hear that some have come away from Makoto still hungry. We found the quantity to be perfect and comparable to what you would find at any high end restaurant. I'd encourage anyone to supplement their meal with a few extra pieces of sushi, which you can order at the beginning or after the sushi course. As I said earlier, this place clearly isn't for everyone. Those who are ardent tap-water drinkers (I couldn't imagine wanting DC-tap water flavor with such a carefully and mindfully prepared meal), extremely tall, cheesecake-factory-quantity eaters, looking for cheap eats, need to keep their shoes on, or want an American-type sushi bar experience, might not be comfortable here.
Makoto is a real gem. It's refreshingly unpretentious, and a real bargain considering the quality of the ingredients. Careful thought has gone into every aspect of the experience. I think it is best experienced as a place where you can get swept away course after course by the chef's vision. Try to leave your American preconceptions at the door and really enter into a different world and way of thinking about food.
If I lived in the neighborhood, this would also be my sushi bar of choice. That said, it would be hard to pass up the all-encompassing experience of the menu, but you won't find better-quality sushi anywhere else.
P.S. As we were leaving the place the snowstorm was really raging. As we were waiting for our cab to appear (they never did call back), a bus pulled up and opened the door. We didn't realize we were standing at the bus stop. We hopped on and were in Dupont Circle in ten minutes. A perfect and surreal way to re-enter our regularly scheduled lives!