Not Seeking Sushi?
[from November 2005 issue]

Tucked away on the far end of Georgetownís M Street, Cadyís Alley has woken up to a new life, spotlighting designer-worthy shops and a restaurant or two. At the end of the alley on 33rd Street, one of DCís most newsworthy and offbeat restaurants is now serving an amalgam of home-style Japanese dishes. It is NOT serving a parade of sushi, and for a citizenry that has come to equate Japan with raw fish, Chez Mama-san charts a very different culinary course.

Slipped into an elegantly cool townhouse with up-and-down dining areas, Chez Mama-san also heralds a new look for Japanese restaurants. No more the rice screens or calligraphic works of Samurai swordsmen. Instead, jade-green silk cushions, exposed bricks and ceiling beams, and classical piano background music tell you that this restaurant is onto something new. It is also owned by -- and probably cooked for -- the former owner of DCís Japan Inn restaurant on Wisconsin Avenue. Rather than offer much the same Japanese fare as served elsewhere, the owner wants us all to revel in a different spin on Japanese food. How about a slice of Mama-sanís Meatloaf or a portion of beef curry, Japanese style?

If this sounds startlingly non-Japanese, donít be alarmed. I can vouch for the same careful planning and artful presentation -- even in something as seemingly all-Western as a pork cutlet sandwich -- that traditionally goes into each Japanese meal. And, by the way, this sandwich puts all other ham or pork sandwiches to shame: Pounded flat as a cracker and dredged in crumbs, the cutlet is pan-fried to a very gentle crispiness before it is precision-sliced into finger-sandwich pieces and stacked, Club Sandwich-style, in layers of toasted Japanese white bread. Adding mystery and intrigue, the toast is then moistened with a thin spread of a sweet-hot jelly and tonkatsu sauce. Talk about explosive flavors and textures. And then thereís the side scoop of potato salad. Forget cloying mayonnaise and predictable flavors. Think, instead, of uniform slices of cooked potato, raw apple, and red onion in a creamy base.

But purists neednít be alarmed, for no one has forsaken traditional Japanese cooking or ingredients, though such things have a very contemporary expression here. Lunchtime offerings include a cold noodle salad composed of shredded chicken and vegetables over egg noodles; grilled eel in a sweet sauce over rice; okonomi-yaki (the Japanese savory pancake with pork, scallion and cabbage); and Chirashi-Sushi Kansai Style, or slices of raw fish served on a bed of sushi rice.

And even if you order what seems like a ham sandwich, you can keep yourself Japanese-centric by adding on yaki-onigiri, or a grilled rice ball made of sweet rice grains pressed together, and then grilled over a hot flame. Sear marks beautify the exterior, and the sour plum filling adds an unexpected interior flavor accent. To the side: a tidy pile of pickled vegetables, artful and simple.

If evening hours are the only times you can slip over to M Street, then think about all the treasures that await: a three-seaweed salad to start, a small plate of poppy seed chicken p‚tŤ, and Kurobuta pork confit are worthy components for any dinner menu. Or maybe you want something simpler still: why not a bowl of Japanese rice porridge with crab, chicken, and vegetables paired with fried chicken wings with soy-ginger seasonings?

At either meal, consider one of the Mama-sanís exotic desserts. You can pick out a slice of a soy cheesecake, or a serving or mitsu-mame, sweet agar and mixed fruit with ice. But if I were you, Iíd order the mochi ice cream, which has the distinction of looking like an ice cream sandwich, only the sandwich part is made from compressed sushi rice, which is then filled with your choice of chilly ice flavors. Yum.

Chez Mama-san, 1039 33rd St., NW; tel., 202-333-3888. Lunch, Tue.-Sat., 12noon-2:30pm; Dinner, Tue.-Sat., 6pm-10pm; Fri. & Sat., to 11pm; Sun., dinner only, 5:30-9:30pm; Closed Mon. Entrťe prices: $13.00-$21.00; major credit cards accepted.

Copyright (c) 2005 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Alexandra Greeley. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

Alexandra Greeley is a food writer, editor, and restaurant reviewer. She has authored books on Asian and Mexican cuisines published by Simon & Schuster, Doubleday, and Macmillan. Other credits include restaurant reviews and food articles for national and regional publications, as well as former editor of the Vegetarian Times and former food editor/writer for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.

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