At the risk of sounding like the leader of the bandwagon, I have to admit that I am getting pretty excited to head on down to H Street and check out the arrival of the newest restaurant on the block, Toki Underground. I know, I know…DC is all a-buzz about this hip new spot and local food fanatics are already a flutter with hype about its launch tomorrow. Well, maybe I am being seduced by the idea of inhaling large quantities of steamed dumplings, or perhaps I have a penchant for half cooked eggs served belly up at the bar alongside a nice karaffe of sake. Whatever the draw, I am decidedly buying the hype. Why you ask? Well thank you for your interest…let me tell you. Stick with me while I wax a bit poetic here.
I think what attracts me to this restaurant concept the most is that it represents a turning point for the DC food scene. In the past few years, DC has blossomed (forgive the unintended pun surrounding the burgeoning tree buds) and emerged as a force to reckon with in the foodie-sphere. Much like fashion has claimed its capitals in the likes of Milan, Paris and NY, so has cuisine, and we are starting to run with the big dogs. Perhaps this is due in part to the recent runs of Bravo’s Top Chef in our nation’s capital, and the ensuing return of multiple cheftestants to the screen, like Mike Isabella (Graffiato), Carla Hall (Alchemy), and now NY transplant Spike Mendelsohn (Good Stuff Eatery), where they dominated the recent Top Chef All Stars season. Whatever the reason for this transition, you won’t find me knocking it, no sir.
Having lived in Manhattan for years, the food scene was daunting and at times overwhelming. It’s make it or break it time for restaurants there to survive with the inundation of options. Innovative restaurants are a dime a dozen there and I remember constantly hemming and hawing over many a venue in which i would subsequently burn my hard earned dollars. When I think back on that time and what factors came into play with “picking my poison,” it always boiled down to creativity in a multifaceted sense.
Back in 2002, I lived at the intersection of Clinton Street and East Houston Street at the time, down in Alphabet City, and I remember a slew of restaurants popping up near my apartment. Most of them the size of an efficiency closet with a BYOB policy, but despite their shortcomings, you felt like you were a part of someone’s humble little dream. These were folks that had to scrimp and save and put their heart in soul into building their vision. They were making niche cuisine and getting by in whatever space they could afford. Of course those fun little pop-up hot spots are usually short lived after those ominous cloud-like figures of fat-pocketed investors begin to catch wind. After that, it seems its up with the chain restaurants or the types of establishments that require a six figure paycheck, in place of these humble little dream factories.
After all that I have read and heard about Toki Underground so far, it ushers back fond recollections of those days of misspent youth and and even more so, misspent paychecks in the city, when I didn’t have much, but I still managed to stumble upon some of my most memorable dining experiences to date. Toki is no different, with an atmosphere filled to the brim with creative whimsy. And despite its sleek, urban appearance, there is a definite warmth to the surroundings that make you feel at ease, as jaded wooden paneling meshes with a pop of colorful graffiti laden expanses, whose artful appearance resemble some sort of captivating wall tattoos that you are hard pressed to take your eyes off of. Thick wooden slats run across the ceiling on an arched angle, building the feel of a tunnel and giving you the sense that you have walked down steps into the most high class subway tunnel/platform you have ever seen. In my mind, it is what I imagine an adult playground to look like.
Overall, the appeal is the dichotomy of this place. It perfectly blends steely modern elements that are slightly austere, with weathered antique furniture and throwbacks to childhood and days past, bolstered by it’s kitschy wall encasements filled with anime figurines and faded old Duran Duran record album art, brushed ever so faintly across the walls. You definitely feel the push and pull of new and old throughout the space. It reminds me of a scene from that old 80’s film “The Running Man” where Arnold Schwartzenegger finds himself in a bar filled half with robots and half with their human counterparts that are left behind from another era. It’s that same sense of two worlds colliding, and it works in the best way…for my sensibilities at least. (And if you haven’t seen that movie, at this point you are thinking that I am nuts. It’s ok, I will own it.)
So…what makes me happiest about all of this? It brings that uprising of the niche restaurant to the forefront here in DC and I am looking SO forward to seeing what all of the young and talented chefs are ready to bring to this city to make it pop. I am so glad to be here while it begins to unfold!
So, this is really my assessment of atmosphere, but Toki’s opening day will be upon us tomorrow, April 1st, and after that, I can actually put my money where my mouth is and get down there to try some of what appear to be scrumptious little treats/see Toki’s new digs, and live the experience that has been likened to the Momofuku phenomenon that swept tha NYC. I was lucky enough to get my hands on the menus, so here is a sneak peek below! Sounds delicious and looks affordable.
And for me…I will take one of each please, but…yeah…hold the $495 bottle of sake…for now.
Be sure to check back for follow-up on my first visit to Toki, coming soon!
Toki Underground is located (at an awesomely sequential address):1234 H Street, NE (above The Pug)
Washington, DC 20002
Click for Google Map
T (202) 388-3086
F (202) 388-3085
Hours of Operation
Pastry Chef: Heather Wade-Benderly, Owner, Bakette