Tonari Brings Italian Wafu Cuisine to Washington Directly from Japan

Wafu cuisine is well known in Japan, but not as well known outside the country. Tonari wants to change that.

WASHINGTON. Daikaya Group’s new restaurant Tonari gets underway. But his mission did not start where one might expect.

The people behind Daikaya own several ramen shops scattered throughout the district, including his eponymous ramen shop (with Izakaya on top), Bantam King, Hatoba, and Haikan fried chicken and ramen.

Tonari is next door to Daikaya and around the corner from Bantam King. But for the band’s next gig, they didn’t want to open another diner.

According to Daisuke Utagawa, co-owner of Daikaya, when they entered what would become Tonari, they knew what they had to do.

Tonari’s concept is Italian vafu cuisine.

“The word wafu means Japanese style,” Daisuke explained. “It usually means something that isn’t originally Japanese, but is made in a Japanese style.”

Daisuke says Tonari’s Italian wafu isn’t a new style of cuisine, but it’s new to DC and the United States.

“Italian wafu is not something we invented,” Daisuke said. “It’s something that exists in Japan but is little known outside of Japan.”

Daisuke emphasizes that Italian wafu is a fusion of cultures, not what some might call a “fusion”.

“Personally, I don’t like the word merger,” he said. “Not because of what it means, but because of its connotation. There is a difference between the natural cultural phenomenon of two things meeting and becoming something almost organic, and something that is brought together by force.

This is the mission of Tonari: to introduce people to the concept of Italian vafu cuisine. Show the history of two cuisines that have naturally converged over the decades in Japan.

Wafu pasta dates back to the 50s with a restaurant whose name translates to “hole in the wall”. Daisuke said that the reason the use of Japanese ingredients in Italian cuisine has become popular in Japan is because the two cultures have a similar approach to cuisine.

So why bring this style of cooking to DC eateries?

“Here’s a simple answer for you,” Daisuke says, pointing to a massive black pizza in the center of the kitchen. “This oven.”

It was clear to Tonari’s team that they wanted to use this huge oven in some way. This is where the concept of pizza and wafu pasta was born. But while wafu pasta has roots and history, wafu pizza was something completely new, something that Daisuke and his partner took a dip in.

Having already established a ramen supplier in Sapporo, Japan through their other businesses, this supplier told them that they also make pasta and that it tastes different from any other pasta they can get because of the way it’s made.

“They have the technology for making ramen and they have applied it to pasta, which is a completely different thing,” Daisuke said.

The pizza was more work. Since there was no established wafu pizza, they had to start from scratch.

“If we want to make wafu pizza, we have to define it,” Daisuke said.

This sent Daisuke and his Daikai partner, chef Katsuya Fukushima, to Japan to develop a dough inspired by Japanese milk bread — what Daisuke calls Japanese miracle bread.

“We went through iteration and iteration and iteration and came to the conclusion, ‘Oh my God, this is really cool,’” Daisuke said.

He said the whole process took about three months, through a lot of trial and error. They worked on everything from the ingredients of the dough, to the cooking pot, to temperature and time, before settling on a test.

What ends up on your plate at Tonari looks like a regular deep-dish pizza, but tastes completely different. It is crunchy and crunchy, yet soft and chewy at the same time. This is very desirable.

What prompted Daisuke and his partner to develop this new pizza? The short answer is an oven, but it goes deeper.

“There are many ways to look at a restaurant. First, you are hungry, you feed people. But you can do it anywhere,” Daisuke said. “But when you go to a restaurant, you have to have an extra reason to go there. After all, this is a community, right? When you create a community, you must have an ideal. Ethos is very important to us. We are in this every day. If we’re doing it just because ‘yes, it’s a business’, you sort of lose your enthusiasm.”

This enthusiasm was tested when Tonari first opened its doors in 2020. A few months later, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the restaurant had to change, briefly offering takeaway options, closing, and eventually offering a tasting menu when the doors reopened.

Now Tonari is back in full force, they have abandoned the tasting menu and offer a la carte dishes. They have also just been added to the 2022 edition of the DC Michelin Guide. From where Daisuke stands, this restaurant is not to be commended. The goal is not to get a Michelin star.

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“Our goal is not to be a Michelin-starred restaurant,” he said. “Our goal is to talk about what people eat in Japan now.”

This drive to make a name for itself is shared by Nico Cesar, head chef at Tonari. Chef Nico is a graduate of the Michelin-starred Italian restaurant Masseria, so he puts his experience to good use.

“It is a blessing for me that I can simultaneously learn how to cook Japanese and Italian dishes, which makes [wafu cooking] it’s a little easier for me to approach because I know that I can use this or that ingredient or that technique,” ​​Cesar said. “It’s easier for me to approach it this way than to stick to classic Italian or classic Japanese. What we want to do is make sure that we honor this food culture in Japan and present it to the world… Letting them know that there is such a thing as Japanese-style Italian food. We’re not trying to mix things up for the sake of merging two cultures, you want to make sure it pays homage to this cultural eating style.”

While preparing Neapolitan spaghetti, a dish that has been on the menu since Tonari opened, the chef explains the importance of noodles and the fresh ingredients used to prepare this simple dish.

“I think it surprises people when they try a dish they think, ‘Oh, that’s spaghetti with ketchup, how good can they be?’ It’s just the way it works,” Cesar said. – Ordering goods during the high season. The best you can responsibly get. Something sustainable. This is what I want to promote on the menu that we have, just making sure we stick to the same idea of ​​presenting Italian food and Japanese food… making sure we pay homage in a respectable way without trying to reinvent the wheel. After all, I want the Japanese to come here and say, “Oh, that still makes sense.” This restaurant makes every preparation or technique worthy and presents it well.”

The menu, which Cesar would like to change every month, includes several pizza and pasta combinations that may turn off some diners, but Cesar hopes those who come to Tonari will be adventurous and want to try something new. For example, Mentaiko cream is a sauce made from cod roe. Now it is on the menu in both pasta and pizza.

As he loads the mentaiko and corn pizza into the all-important pizza oven, he explains that the pie is filled with cheese, and that the cheese helps the pizza get ridiculously crispy in the pan.

“It’s almost like a lasagne corner, but everyone gets a corner,” he said.

Cesar says that developing new menu items and recipes can be challenging, but he loves it.

“The beauty of learning Japanese cuisine is that you appreciate the subtraction as you go,” the chef said. “You only use what you need, which is very difficult for a chef.”

He said that it goes back to the mission of spreading the word about wafu cuisine.

“How you train people is the hard part,” Cesar said. – If you blindfold someone, they will think: “It’s a pepperoni pizza.” Yes, but do you feel the subtlety of the ingredients that go into the sauce? It’s a challenge. I think we’ve done a good job. I hope that in the future we will have many more curious people who will come and say: “I want to see what you guys are doing.”

Visit Tonari

707 6th Street NW
Monday and Tuesday – day off
Wednesday and Thursday – from 17:00 to 21:30.
Friday and Saturday – from 17:00 to 22:00
Sunday – 17:00 – 21:00

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