Friday, July 12, 2024

Review | Necessity drives innovation — and great coffee — at Tonari Cafe

Katsuya Fukushima relishes a challenge. Just as opening the Japanese-Italian joint Tonari required him to get over his apprehension toward pizza dough, launching Tonari Cafe — a weekend-morning venture operating out of the same Chinatown space — tasked him with conquering coffee.

“I’m not a barista, but I’m trying to act like one,” the chef joked in a recent interview.

Experimentation drives Tonari, which opened its doors four years ago. Tonari Cafe, which started last year as an attempt to generate more revenue, is no exception. Both pay homage to wafu Italian cuisine, or Japanese-style Italian food, a devotion underscored by the array of pizza boxes and goofy Italian paraphernalia displayed around the airy space. The cafe runs weekends from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

Fukushima studied coffee — and visited cafes in Italy and Japan — to help craft the drinks menu. In addition to drip coffee, cold brew and the usual slate of espresso-based concoctions, the cafe offers tea, both hot and iced; a coconut shakerato, or iced coffee shaken with sweetened coconut cream; dalgona coffee; and a few kinds of homemade milk. The banana milk, which is made using both the peel and the flesh of the fruit, speaks to Fukushima’s view of himself as “a cook at heart.”

He didn’t embrace this identity right away, earning a double major in math and art at the University of Maryland before a catering gig convinced him he could pivot full time to food. He trained at L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg before working for years with José Andrés, a mentor whose culinary empire Fukushima helped develop before embarking on his own journey. Fukushima is currently a partner of the Daikaya Group, which runs Daikaya, Bantam King and Haikan in addition to Tonari.

While a trip to Tonari usually requires time for pasta or pizza — which falls somewhere between Detroit-style and focaccia — you can swing by the cafe on a Saturday morning and grab a pastry to go. Consider the nori croissant, or the chocolate-sesame if you prefer a sweeter treat. The egg and cheese sandwiches are extra fluffy, thanks to their omelets being cooked on “really high heat.” Fukushima uses his father’s recipe for the miso honey butter banana bread, which is encased in plastic wrap and aluminum foil as soon as it comes out of the oven.

“That’s the secret” to moist banana bread, he explained. “But I just told everyone.”

Not that anyone else’s attempt would compare. Fukushima’s miso honey butter is so delectable that a former barista once incorporated it into a coffee drink. “I gotta bring that back,” the chef noted to himself. The cafe finds other ways to get the most out of its quality ingredients. The French toast, crisped up with a sugar brûlée, uses the same sweet whipped cream as the coffee gelée. The latter dish, an absolute must, is a classy take on the packaged gelatin dessert you can find at Japanese convenience stores. Tonari Cafe makes its gelatin with leftover drip coffee and espresso grounds.

So maybe you do want to sit down after all. There’s plenty of room in the 32-seat dining room, which houses an additional 12 bar stools, or at the handful of tables outside. (When needed, the upstairs floor seats 22.) You might request the tamago salad, which is an open-faced version of a tamago sando, or Japanese egg salad sandwich, topped with sunflower sprouts and seeds. The pesto ramen, offered with a few other noodle dishes after 11 a.m., is the only item from the cafe to make it onto the restaurant’s dinner menu as well. It was just that popular, and reverses the wafu Italian equation by putting a European spin on a traditional Japanese dish.

For those who dine in, Tonari Cafe offers alcoholic drinks as well. They pale in comparison to the restaurant’s more inventive offerings, but sometimes an Aperol spritz is all you need to accompany lunch. You probably don’t want that trademark sesame martini at 11 a.m. anyway but might feel differently about the espresso martini, which is jazzed up by adding shochu to the vodka and liqueur.

The cafe offers a bit of everything, because that’s what it takes nowadays to get people through the door. Fukushima is a realist, and didn’t hesitate to share how difficult it has been to run a business in Chinatown these past few years. Plus, Tonari suffered the unfortunate timing of opening right before the pandemic. It shut down after six weeks and didn’t reopen until late 2021.

“We didn’t realize we’d be waiting that long,” Fukushima said. “Our honeymoon period was shot.”

When Tonari finally reopened, it felt like people had forgotten about it. There weren’t as many office workers in the area anymore, and the outdoor streatery faced some obstacles (as it is located across from Capital One Arena’s loading dock). Though business seems to be picking up a bit — and the cafe contributes, too — Fukushima said they still “need a little bit of help from the government.”

In the meantime, the grand experiments continue. Fukushima is trying to figure out a lobster-roll-style croissant, maybe incorporating yuzu butter. He might add some gluten-free options to the menu, swapping bread for little pucks of rice. And then, of course, there’s the coffee. Maybe he’ll bring the miso butter drink back. Or start frothing the banana milk to serve with espresso.

“People love coffee,” he said. “It’s like a drug. They’ve got to have their coffee.”

707 Sixth St. NW, 202-289-8900.

Hours: 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Nearest Metro: Gallery Place-Chinatown, with a four-minute walk to the restaurant.

Prices: $3 to $17 for all items on the cafe menu.

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