As any traveler knows, restaurant foods from different cultures rarely taste like they do in the country of their origination. The North Americanized version of curry is a far cry from that found in Indian restaurants in Asia; you’d be hard-pressed to find General Tao’s chicken on the menu anywhere in China, and truly Italian pizza and pasta just fascinate with distinct flavor when one is actually touring Italy.
Adapting a culture’s food to a separate culture’s taste palate isn’t something only Americans do. In fact, almost all cultures create their own fusion foods. But when a fusion food is introduced to an entirely new place — that’s third level flavor flipping!
This is the case with a new restaurant that celebrated its Grand Opening last week in Washington, DC. Tonari serves westernized Japanese style — or wafu — pasta and pizza.
Now, this is not the first wafu-style pasta restaurant in the mainland United States. As far as our research can tell, that distinction goes to Los Angeles’ PASTA e PASTA which opened in early 2017. PASTA e PASTA was the first foray into the U.S. market for Allegro, a chain of Italian-focused restaurants in Japan. It continues to experience strong success, with consistently favorable customer ratings and reservations almost always required.
There are also a few wafu-Italian restaurants on the islands of Hawaii.
Just what makes Japanese-Italian food different? A wafu menu looks full of familiar Italian pasta dishes, except its plates incorporate typical Japanese ingredients. It has been catered to Japanese tastes and prepared with Japan’s locally available ingredients.
And this has been a big hit in Japan! In fact, Japan so loves its Italian that it opened its own mega-mart Eataly a full two years before NYC got one. So The Land of the Rising Sun has embraced wafu-pasta and pizza… but will the United States?
The Washington, DC area Daikaya Group’s Yama Jewayni, Katsuya Fukushima, and Daisuke Utagawa believe so and were willing to try something different with their fifth DC restaurant. So the group took over the location next door to their popular ramen outpost, Daikaya, and opened Tonari, which literally means ‘next door’ or ‘neighbor.’
“It’s very exciting and fulfilling to be able to introduce something from Japan for the first time to our D.C. customers,” said Utagawa.
“Whenever we do a new restaurant, it’s usually something that we want to eat and we can’t find it here,” admitted Fukushima, later sharing items on the menu that his own children were particularly enjoying.
And so, building off the Italian-esque pasta and pizza craze in Japan, the trio opened the East Coast’s first in the wafu comfort food category.
Tonari’s pastas and proprietary Japanese-style pizza dough mix are sourced from Yokoyama Seifun, a flour mill in Sapporo. While the pasta noodles look like traditional Italian versions of pappardelle, tagliatelle or bigoli, they have a much chewier consistency — much as does the sticky rice in Japanese sushi. The pizza dough has a bready texture that cooks up fluffy with a toasty, almost tempura-like crunchy crust.
Standouts on the pasta menu include the Uni (Bigoli) with uni, soy, mirin, butter, sake, kombu dashi, and aonori; the Mentaiko (Spaghetti) with cod roe, butter, olive oil, usukuchi, shiso, and nori which contains absolutely no cheese yet you’ll swear was covered in pecorino romano; and the Shirasu (Tagliatelle), a Japanese cacio e pepe derivative with olive oil, baby sardines, garlic, and red pepper flakes.
But where Tonari uniquely excels — and this you won’t find on the menu at PASTA e PASTA — is in its pizzas, which are dense and toothsome heaping portions of Japanese-centric ingredients topping that patented crust.
Those nervous to try something completely new can easily start with Tonari’s Hawaiian, with hickory ham, pineapple, tart tomato sauce, japanese and brick cheese, and amazu; or Pepperoni, reminiscent of a deep dish at an unnamed chain favorite (that’s insanely popular with over 370 outlets in Japan) but with a Tonari twist. The more adventurous will crave the Clam pizza with oregano, garlic, pecorino romano, wakame, clams and miso.
Tonari opened Friday, February 7th with dinner service. Lunch and a dessert tasting experience are slated to launch at this Washington, DC restaurant in the coming weeks.
Kate Michael is a Writer, Emcee, On-Camera Host and Fashion/Commercial Model. Follow her at @kstreetkate