<<EDIT: 9/11/09, 5:00 PM – As a result of Tim Carman’s post about Makoto’s erroneous kaiseki classification over at Young & Hungry, we’ve gone back and edited each reference here to reflect the more appropriate “kaiseki-style.”  Thanks for letting us know, Tim!>>

Unless you know what you're looking for, you just might miss Makoto.  All images thanks to Toro E. at Yelp.comI wanted to do something special to celebrate Elizabeth’s new job.  Rather than going back to a favorite restaurant or trying one of the higher-profile chef’s tasting menus around the city, I decided to take her to a place that I had heard about and filed away for just such an occasion.  When she posted about our love of Sushi-Zen, I knew that Makoto was going to be a winner.

If you haven’t heard of Makoto, don’t feel bad.  Despite offering what has been described as the most authentic Japanese dining experience in the entire city, it seems like very few people are aware that Makoto even exists.  With only twenty-seven seats in the entire restaurant, that’s probably for the best.  Makoto serves an assortment of sushi, sashimi and traditional Japanese dishes like soba noodles a la carte, but the restaurant is primarily focused on the presentation of multi-course kaiseki-style meals.  This ‘chef’s choice’ approach results in an impressive 8-to-10 course meal that presents a subtle and balanced series of tastes and textures.

More about our experience after the jump.

The bar in Makoto offers a view of the chefs at work.We drove across town to MacArthur Boulevard and found plenty of street parking in the area around Makoto.  The entrance to Makoto is actually below street level, so we walked down to a plain wooden door where we were reminded that proper attire is required – no jeans or sneakers.  Stepping inside, we found ourselves in a curtained-off front room where guests exchange their shoes for black slippers (disposable socks are available).  After putting on the sandals, we entered the dining room and were seated right away.  Most of the other seats were already occupied by the time we arrived, and the rest of them filled soon after we were seated.

When ordering the $60 tasting menu, you are only given three choices: which of the grilled dishes you want (orange roughy, salmon, yellowtail or beef), what you would like with your soba noodles (wild vegetables, mushrooms, seaweed, yams, radishes, or fermented soybeans) and whether you want to upgrade the sashimi course by substituting toro (fatty tuna) or fatty yellowtail for an additional charge of $15.  After that, you just sit back and let the meal unfold before you.  Because the menu changes from day to day depending on what the chef deems freshest and most appealing, you may not end up with some (or any) of what we had, but our meal gives a good idea of what you can expect:

An older version of Makoto's menu, courtesy of Toro E. at YelpFirst course – A seafood soup containing mussels, clams, conch and vegetables in a rich, savory broth, this ended up being our favorite course.  It was also the most artistically presented, served in a conch shell perched atop a decorative bed of salt and accompanied by a small,flaming hill of sterno-like fuel.

Second course – This could best be described as a salad, offering a large wedge of perfectly ripe avocado served with slices of red pepper, shredded radish and a lightly fried wonton chip.  It was all topped with a sweet and spicy sauce reminscent of what many sushi restaurants use for their spicy rolls.

Third course – Sashimi.  We each opted to upgrade from the basic sashimi: I went for the toro and Elizabeth tried the fatty yellowtail.  They were both delicious and rich without being heavy, definitely unlike sashimi we’ve had elsewhere, but I’m not sure they were quite worth the $15 upcharge.  The course was accompanied by a mound of freshly grated wasabi root – which has a mild sweetness and a more vegetative heat (like that of a spicy pepper) than the reconstituted powders that are served by most sushi restaurants.  We were provided with the root itself and a small grater, but the shavings they had already provided for us were more than enough to accompany the sashimi we had.

Fourth course – Chilean sea bass served in a sweet soy sauce.  The fish seemed to have been lightly poached and easily flaked as we ate it.  A delicate flavor that was a nice transition to cooked textures after the raw sashimi we had just eaten.

Fifth course – A trio of ‘appetizers’ that included a broiled eel canape, a marinated scallop on a bad of salty seaweed, and a plate of four or five baby squid served in a spicy wasabi sauce.  Each component was a delicious blend of flavors and textures on its own, but the combination of the three into one course was even more impressive.  Somehow, everything seemed to complement each other no matter what order you ate them in.

Sixth course - A soft-shelled crab in a crust made from rice cackers was served with small piles of green tea-smoked salt and chili powder.  Interesting but not unique, and probably our least favorite dish because it was most reminscent of what we’ve had elsewhere.

Seventh course – Sushi.  A welcome change after the heaviness of the previous dish, we each received three nigiri – one piece of yellowtail, one of tuna, and one of skipjack (a less commonly found tuna).  Elizabeth was amazed that the sushi was so carefully crafted as to allow her to take a bite from each without having the piece disintegrate on her chopsticks.  I was impressed that they took the time to brush a bit of wasabi paste onto each oval of rice (the traditional way of serving it) before laying on the fish.  A light dip into the soy sauce that was provided gave all the additional flavor necessary.

Eighth course – Our grilled ’entrees.’  I had ordered the orange roughy in the miso paste, and Elizabeth tried the yellowtail.  We both agreed that my roughy was the better choice, with a salty sweetness coming from the glaze and a texture that seemed to have held up better for the grilling.  The yellowtail was still tasty, but it did not have the same depth of flavor and was burnt at one end.

Ninth course – Soba noodle soup.  I’m at a loss to identify the wild vegetables in the version I selected, but Elizabeth’s mushroom broth was earthy and had plenty of small caps and larger pieces of shiitake throughout.  At this point in the meal, soup was a satisfying way to bring our savory dishes to a close.  Only dessert remained as our:

Tenth course – A traditional Japanese sorbet of lemon and aloe vera.  Shreds of lemon peel and small green flecks of aloe confirmed that the sorbet had been made from fresh ingredients, and the taste was at once sweet and rejuvenating.

We finished feeling sated – not uncomfortably full.  Because each course is small enough to be enjoyed in a few bites and because the service is paced to prevent rushing through, you eat far less than you might in another restaurant setting.

Although a traditional kaiseki-style meal is meant to be accompanied by sake (and Makoto has quite a few options at a wide range of price points), we’re not big fans of the beverage and so we stuck with water.  The only complaint we had is one that has been shared by others who dine at Makoto – they don’t offer tap water.  Period.  Not at all.  Your choices are bottled still water (Evian) or bottled sparkling water (Perrier) at $3 per bottle.  Pace yourself, because the very attentive servers will continue to refill your glass and offer another bottle every time you finish one.

As we left, we found the entryway crowded with diners waiting for the evening’s first service to finish.  Despite their reservations, the limited seating meant that there was simply no way to accommodate them until we had finished.  So if you’re planning a special occasion at Makoto – and believe me, you should – you may want to think about making a reservation for 7 PM or earlier to avoid having to sit around and wait.

Makoto’s atmosphere and attention to detail were exactly what I was looking for as a way to celebrate with Elizabeth.  If you want a Japanese meal unlike any other you’re likely to encounter in DC, I’d recommend giving this Hidden Gem a try.

Makoto on Urbanspoon

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