For my birthday, Lee took me to Makoto, a tiny Japanese restuarant reputed to be one of the best in DC. All I can say is, I never thought I’d love raw fish so much.
Makoto has seating for all of twenty people, crammed into a long, narrow room. Reservations with your credit card are required (trust me, it’s worth it). There is seating either at the counter or at a table, neither of which is particularly comfortable or more desireable, as there is hardly space to delineate each seating area. The restaurant is warm, bright in light colored woods and neutral walls. When we arrived (late, as Makoto is located in the western reaches of Georgetown), a kimono-clad waitress instructed us to take off our shoes and put on a pair of slippers. The slippers were, for some reason, only available in mens sizes and look like something my grandfather would wear. After this, we were escorted to a small wooden table. “Put coat and shoes in seat!” the waitress barked, and she lifted the seat of the chair to reveal a storage compartment underneath. While this was clever, these were perhaps the most uncomfortable stools I have ever had the displeasure of sitting on for an hour and a half.
However, the stools were the only downside of my dining experience. Makoto serves a strict fixed price menu, plus sushi ala carte and a wide selection of sake. The dinner menu changes daily, allows minimal substitutions, and is $49 for an eight to ten course meal. This is really reasonable for fabulous Japanese food, the sophistocation and quality of which is probably only available at a handful of US restaurants. If you’re looking for a meal that has been elevated to an art, in flavor and presentation, Makoto is perfect. If you come to a Japanese restaurant expecting your usual California roll and tempura, then please, take your money elsewhere. Now, for a brief description of my nine blissful courses:
1. The fiirst course was a delicate mussel soup - clear broth with finely minced garlic, onions, and peppers. I felt this dish was a tad under salted, but Lee and I were impressed at how the garlic flavor permeated the broth without being overpowering or sharp.
2. Following soup was a plate of three different items - persimmon pieces coated in a beancurd sauce, a raw oyster, and a spicy prawn. The presentation was stunning - three items arranged diagonally across a square black plate, each one a small landscape in itself. The persimmon pieces were served inside the hollowed-out fruit; the oyster came in a single porcelain spoon, acommpaointed with salmon roe and a delicate ponzu sauce, and the prawn was decorated with a fan of chive flowers cooked in toasted sesame oil. I have never been a huge persimmon fan, but the oyster was cool and wonderfully refreshing and complex in my mouth. Also, the chive flowers were tender and deeply infused with the sesame flavor.
3. We were then presented with a small selection of sashimi slices. While I’ve always had some sense of high vs. low quality fish, I think Makoto has forever ruined me. I don’t know how I can go back–the tuna was so meltingly tender and sweet. I can’t even remember what the other cuts of fish were. They were fine, to be sure, but all I can taste is the sweet, soft tuna, with a little soy and hot wasabi on my tongue.
4. Next was fried shrimp. First of all, I have never met an Asian-fried shrimp that I didn’t like, so it would be pretty hard to disappoint me. These shrimp were wrapped in soft, spongy tofu, tied with a piece of seaweed, and then fried to golden brown perfection. This was served with a small mound of green tea and chili flavored dipping salts. Flavored salt is sooo trendy, but the green tea salt imparted an almost lemony flavor to the shrimp. A crispy, mouth-puckering sensation.
5. At the half way point in our meal, the small restaurant started to get rather smoky as a team of Japanese waitresses brought hot metal grills to each table. Grill perhaps is the wrong word. This was clearly some sort of traditional Japanese cooking method whose name I have since forgotten. This was a skillet of very hot, black metal heated from underneath until the oil was smoking, then our waitress placed pieces of mushroom, scallop, shrimp, and beef into the pan. The whole thing reminded me of a cross between Korean bbq and Chinese hot pot, because we were given a sauce base and a number of mix-ins, including scallions, bonito, and chili. The sauce was a very light, lemony, ponzu. My only complaint was that scallop and shrimp tasted oily, while the mushroom and beef stood up better to this cooking method.
6. This was followed by a very petite selection of sushi: three very small pieces of blisteringly fresh tuna, fatty tuna, and flounder pressed onto rice. I’ve already mentioned how good the fish quality was, so of course the sushi was superb. It was a perfect, 1″x2″ mouthful of pleasure.
7. While the chef is strict about substitutions, the last two courses do allow the diner some flexibility. This course was the grilled course and we had a choice of meat, fish, or vegetable. Lee ordered the beef - a very rare medallion of tenderness, drizzled with a rich brown sauce and a few artfully arranged mushrooms. I ordered the yellowtail tuna - salty and crusty on the outside, and tender and sweet on the inside. Both pieces were only about 3″-4″ on each side, but this was an ideal size for a nine course dinner.
8. The last meal course was soup with soba noodles. Some sort of vegetable matter also came in the soup; I choose seaweed and Lee had grated potato. The sweet potato was more like a cloud of very fine white stuff rather than discernable pieces. I don’t think that the vegetables we picked did much to enchance the dish, but it was a delicate, clear vegetable broth.
9. Dessert was a red grape granita. I honestly couldn’t taste the red grape, but instead tasted lime and Grand Marnier. I was quite puzzled about why my sorbet was a beautiful pink until I later read in a review that it was red grape. Fresh red grapes have a subtle flavor, which was somewhat overtaken by the citrus. That said, I found it to be very refreshing–not too sweet or tangy–and a perfect palate cleanser at the end of the meal.
Makoto is probably the only restaurant where I can eat nine courses and actually feel comfortably but not overly full, as well as healthy and not heavy. The food comes in rapid succession, so don’t expect to linger between courses in a protracted 3 hour meal. I think they do too much business for that, plus it just wouldn’t be very Japanese. If you want to eat for hours, I might suggest an Italian restaurant. Normally I dislike recieving my courses so rapidly because I need time to digest. However, the food is so tasty and the portions are so petite that I never felt overstuffed.
While I think Makoto is worth a trip simply for the food, I think it’s also worth mentioning the service. The service is very Japanese. It’s also top notch. The waitstaff is all women, all Japanese, and all clearly born in Japan. They bustle around the small room in their kimonos barking, “Hai! Hai!” to each other. We did not have one waitress but instead three or four, each of which was very attentive and speedy with our courses. One of them also escorted us to the door and then engaged in a contest of who could say the last “Thank you” before we changed shoes and walked outside. Six bows later, I think she won and I wished I’d worn slip on shoes.
4822 MacArthur Blvd. NW
Washington, DC 20007