The side-by-side entrance doors to Dashi beckon evocatively, offering only the broadest hints at what’s behind their frosted glass panels. The one on the left is labeled simply “Ramen.” The one on the right, “Bar.” Like a television game show contestant, it’s up to you to choose: what’s behind door No. 1, or what’s behind door No. 2?
Enter the one on the left, and your eye is drawn toward clouds of steam billowing up to the hood over an open kitchen near the far end of the narrow dining room. At a counter facing the action, patrons sit mesmerized by the assembly-line precision of the kitchen crew as they ladle broth from large pots into bowls, completing each order with a skein of ramen noodles and a kaleidoscopic assortment of toppings.
Just to be clear, we’re not talking about the cheap instant ramen noodles sold in packets in grocery stores. These are fresh, not dried or frozen, and they’re made by Sun Noodle, supplier of the renowned Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York. As Nick Hawthorne-Johnson, one of Dashi’s owners, puts it, “Comparing our ramen bowls to instant ramen is like comparing instant coffee to an expertly crafted latte made from artisan-roasted beans.”
Hawthorne-Johnson and his wife, Rochelle Johnson, also own The Cookery, a kitchen incubator and event venue a few blocks away. The couple teamed up with Toast Paninoteca owners Billy and Kelli Cotter, who had put on a wildly successful three-day Japanese restaurant pop-up at The Cookery a couple of years ago, to open Dashi in February. With a resume that includes a stint as sous chef at Magnolia Grill and three years in the kitchen of Lantern – both James Beard Award winners – Billy Cotter is abundantly qualified to play the artisan role.
Cotter’s artistry is evident in the Tonkotsu, one of a half dozen variations on the noodle bowl theme at Dashi. Pairing the springy-firm noodles with shiitake mushrooms, escarole, pickled onion, a soy-marinated soft egg and an unctuous slab of roasted pork belly in a 10-hour pork bone broth spangled with chopped scallion, this is one soul-satisfying bowl of comfort.
At the other end of the spectrum, there’s the clean salinity of the Shiso: smoked local chicken, N.C. catfish kamaboko, wakame seaweed, enoki mushrooms and nori in a seaweed-and-salt broth. Other options cover the spectrum from the sweet umami of Miso to the spicy bite of Mazemen, with local pork meatballs, broccoli rabe and crispy garlic, tossed in chile oil for a presentation evocative of a plate of Italian pasta.
Optional à la carte supplements multiply the possibilities. Add some N.C. shrimp to your Shiso, say, or double up on the pork belly with your Tonkatsu. Cotter is offering yet another choice for summer: a cold ramen noodle dish that ought to hit the spot on a sweltering night.
Enter the izakaya
If, on the other hand, you choose the door on the right (which you can enter only after 5 p.m.), you’ll find yourself climbing a flight of stairs. At the top is a room whose clean lines, soft lighting and umber hues of exposed brick walls and black walnut woodwork – like the noodle bar downstairs – strike a surprisingly cozy balance between traditional Japanese austerity and contemporary urban chic. This is what the door downstairs referred to as the “Bar.”
More accurately, it’s an izakaya – an establishment that in Japan has many variations but here might be best described as a Japanese tapas bar. Chef Cotter’s seasonally evolving take on this aspect of the Japanese culinary repertoire is, if anything, even more impressive than his ramen.
In fact, after sampling widely across the small plates offering, I can only nitpick about one detail: baby sardines that didn’t quite live up to their “crispy” promise on an otherwise fine red watercress salad. I can, on the other hand, offer plenty of snapshots of memorable dishes.
Flawless steamed N.C. clams, for one, with green garlic butter and pickled smoked new potatoes. A plate of homemade kimchee and house-pickled radishes and beets, as vibrant on the palate as on the plate. Bamboo-skewered morsels of pork belly and king oyster mushroom, two of the 17 yakimono listings (others cover an authentically varied spectrum from chicken heart to beef tongue with wasabi). Monday is Yaki Monday, when you can sample yakimono at a discount: three for $8, four for $10.
Gyoza Tuesdays aren’t bad, either. I had the good fortune to hit Dashi on a Tuesday (the only night that Cotter offers his seasonally inspired riff on the theme), and scored an absolutely stellar rendition of shrimp gyoza.
But no dish I ate at Dashi was more memorable – or more surprising – than curried beef tendon crackers. Think pork cracklings, but with the deep, beefy flavor of marrow. Lightly dusted with Japanese curry powder, this is a peerless companion for pretty much anything from the bar – a sweeping, thoughtfully curated selection that includes sake, shochu (sake’s potent distilled-alcohol cousin), beer (from draft Ponysaurus Rye Pale Ale to bottled Nipponia Imperial Pilsner), wine and specialty cocktails such as the Hosoi (shochu, plum liqueur and yuzu). If you’ve been wanting to taste for yourself why Japanese whiskeys have been winning international awards lately, here’s your chance to do so without taking out a second mortgage on the house for a whole bottle.
Rounding out the experience is a wait staff that’s friendly, attentive and impressively knowledgeable for a new restaurant – especially upstairs, where the diverse bar offering adds to the challenge.
Still, it’s safe to say that at Dashi, whichever door you choose, you win.
415 E. Chapel Hill St., Durham
Atmosphere: urban chic meets Japanese austerity – but cozy
Noise level: moderate
Recommended: take your pick (but don’t miss the beef tendon crackers)
Open: lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday; Izakaya: dinner Monday-Saturday.
Reservations: not accepted; “call-ahead” seating available with the NoWait smartphone app.
Other: full bar; get a sitter; modest vegetarian selection; parking on street and in the parking deck across the street.
The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: ☆☆☆☆☆ Extraordinary ☆☆☆☆ Excellent. ☆☆☆ Above average. ☆☆Average. ☆ Fair.
The dollar signs defined:$ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.