- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 5, 2005

Chez Mama-san, the new Japanese home-style restaurant in Georgetown, is a beauty.

Cozy and elegant, the little brick town house, built about 1900, with a graceful mural of a bouquet of poppies on the outside wall repeated inside the house as a single flower (the work of Ivo K. Koychev), retains its Victorian charm. Polished old wooden floors reflect exposed red brick walls and narrow ceiling beams.

The tables and booths are of wood, with comfortably upholstered benches. Table settings, in the Japanese style, are minimal: elegantly placed chopsticks encased in pastel-colored paper atop white napkins and Western silverware.

Chez Mama-san seats about 50 diners on two floors, and despite the intimate size, kitchen aromas never intrude into the dining room. Service can be a trifle slow at times, but the gentle smiles of the sweet-faced waitresses, endearing and eager to please, make the wait seem quite bearable.

Chez Mama-san is a new concept in Japanese cooking for Washingtonians. There is no sushi or sashimi menu; nor is there a grill table. This is no Japan Inn with teppan yaki cooking and a sushi bar, but Japanese comfort food, Westernized dishes as interpreted for the Japanese palate, called “yo-shoku,” the creation of Izumi Yoshimoto.

Mrs. Yoshimoto, who owns Chez Mama-san with her daughter Miki, owned the now-closed Japan Inn on Wisconsin Avenue. Miki Yoshimoto is responsible for the exquisite narrow paintings on the wall of the new restaurant.

Japan Inn, which opened almost 40 years ago in a tiny space on Connecticut Avenue just above Dupont Circle, originally featured classic Japanese cooking, such as teppan yaki and sukiyaki. When Mrs. Yoshimoto moved the inn to the much larger premises on Wisconsin Avenue, she expanded the menu to include a sushi bar. Chez Mama-san is Mrs. Yoshimoto’s latest dream — a small, modest Japanese restaurant where the dishes reflect her childhood in Japan.

The menu is a mix of soups and salads, small plates, entrees and a few desserts. At lunch, a sukiyaki beef sandwich and pork cutlet sandwich are added to the menu as well as a few side dishes of stuffed rice balls. Salads include a cold noodle salad with shredded chicken and vegetables over egg noodles; ahi tuna salad with a soy sesame dressing; and salmon salad.

Our serving of the salmon salad proved to be a layer of delicious thin-sliced beets covered with mache, topped with two pieces of somewhat overcooked salmon. The salad was topped with a mound of sliced red onions and a handful of little capers. Unfortunately, the greens were drowned in a sea of vinegar and the heap of sliced onions was overwhelming.

But tempura of shrimp and scallops over rice was delicious. The shrimp and the small scallops remained tender in their light batter coating. Tempura is deep-fried by definition, but Mama-san’s tempura is neither greasy nor heavy, but a delicate rendering of a classic Japanese dish. It is served over rice and could use a dipping sauce. The serving easily can be shared. Scallops and shrimp also appear in an au-gratin version.

A trio of cold vegetables is another dish to share. Black sesame spinach, bamboo shoots and string beans in peanut-butter sauce make an interesting and unusual combination. On a recent evening, Chinese snow peas were substituted for the green beans, and they turned out to be even more flavorful than the beans.

Several of Mrs. Yoshimoto’s unusual small plates are nanban kisu (deep-fried Japanese whiting in nanban sauce); pan-fried chicken marinated in nanban sauce; poppy-seed chicken pate; and cold tofu du jour. (Nanban sauce is based on a mix of rice wine vinegar and soy sauce.) Rice dishes include grilled eel in a sweet sauce; shrimp, eel, egg and vegetables over sushi rice; and zosui, a rice porridge with crab, chicken and vegetables.

Grilled fish — black cod, salmon and orange roughy — are entrees, served with vegetables, a choice of potato salad or a house salad, and rice or bread. The house salad is a pleasant mix of greens with a soy vinaigrette; the potato salad is a combination of thin-sliced potatoes, apples and onions in a light mayonnaise. The Japanese bread, sometimes with raisins, resembles challah, but without the eggs.

Mama-san’s meatloaf is baked in a somewhat heavy mushroom sauce, and her beef curry is unlike other Asian curries. Large chunks of chewy beef in a heavy, dense dark sauce, only mildly flavored with curry, are served over rice. Pork cutlets, lightly breaded and fried, resemble Wiener schnitzel made of pork rather than veal. These are tender and delicious.

Crab croquettes, beef and potato croquettes, fried Black Tiger shrimp, and pork confit with spinach are some other main courses. A lunchtime entree of okonomi yaki consists of two savory Japanese pancakes, a cross between American pancakes and French crepes, about 6 inches in diameter. The batter is filled with bits of chopped pork and cabbage and scallion slices and spiced with dried squid. The squid gives the pancakes a pronounced fish taste.

For dessert, there are green-tea and black-sesame ice creams, soy-milk cheesecake and delicious little beignets, which resemble cake doughnut dough rather than yeasty beignets. Served hot and sprinkled with powdered sugar, these little morsels disappear in a flash.

The restaurant offers a selection of hot and cold teas, hot and cold saki, Kirin or Sapporo beer and a very limited but well-selected list of five each red and white wines.

Chez Mama-san is different, interesting and an adventure into how Japanese perceive European cooking. The more the dishes reflect Japan, the better.

RESTAURANT: Chez Mama-san, 1039 33rd St. NW; 202/333-3888

HOURS: Lunch noon to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; dinner 6 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday

PRICES: Salads, small plates, rice dishes, $3 to $12 (lunch), $5 to $17 (dinner); entrees, $9 to $14 (lunch), $13 to $21 (dinner); desserts, $5 to $8

CREDIT CARDS: Visa and MasterCard

PARKING: Metered street parking; parking lot adjacent to restaurant at the corner of 33rd and M streets

ACCESS: Not wheelchair accessible

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