The Hot Plate: Wasabi Central

Penn Quarter’s New SEI Fuses Asian Styles

Posted May 13, 2009 at 4:32pm

The best part about SEI, one of the newest restaurants to open in Penn Quarter, isn’t the sushi, the small plates or any of the food. Instead the place where this Japanese restaurant shines the most is in its bar.

From delightfully sweet pear sangria all the way to the liquid wasabi (which packs quite a punch thanks to habanero and ginger-infused simple syrup), the generous servings of creative cocktails are the highlight of any visit to this swanky sushi spot. Served in what look a lot like stemless wine glasses, the cocktails are a bit steep at $12 apiece, but bartenders are happy to serve them by the carafe if a table is looking to share. Drinks can be enjoyed at the large bar or with dinner in the 50-seat dining room.

That being said, the food at SEI, which was opened at 444 Seventh St. NW in January by the owners of Oya, is quite tasty and reasonably priced, too, as long as diners realize that sharing multiple small plates can run up a large tab. Chef Noriaki Yasutake, formerly of Perry’s in Adams Morgan, offers rolls between $7 and $12 per serving, with the exception of one containing Kobe beef. The nigiri selections top out at $10, and all dishes are served as small plates.

The wasabi guacamole, served with wonton chips, appeared to be regular guac at first, but when the wasabi was added — customers can add as much or as little as they wish — the dip became a spicy sensation. The guacamole isn’t the only Mexican treat with a Japanese twist on the menu. The toro dip — made with the wasabi guacamole, salmon roe and lemon soy espuma — is equally delightful. Resembling an Asian seven-layer dip, the toro is smooth and buttery.

[IMGCAP(1)]SEI offers 14 specialty rolls ranging from the basic, such as the California roll, to the more creative like the SEI Caesar salad. While it is a fun idea, the Caesar salad roll — composed of romaine, crunchy tofu, anchovies and Caesar dressing — doesn’t quite work, primarily because the anchovy is too potent.

The sushi is prepared in plain sight at a counter on the far side of the restaurant. The two rolls I enjoyed most were the spicy tuna and the sun-dried tomato. The spicy tuna — featuring spicy miso, pickles and scallions — was smooth with a wonderful kick, while the sun-dried tomato roll — composed of avocado, green tea salt and a ponzu sauce made up of the Japanese herb shiso and garlic — was subtle with just a hint of garlic.

Meat is an afterthought on the menu, though it is available for those who shy away from fish. The Kobe sliders are particularly tasty, as is the Kobe tataki roll.

SEI also offers a small dessert menu featuring ice cream, sorbet, roasted tea crème brulee, chocolate fondant and other treats, but I recommend skipping it and grabbing another sweet cocktail instead.

While the food is good and the drinks are fantastic, the major flaw in SEI is the service. On my first visit, a few weeks after the restaurant opened, the service was an odd combination of slow, yet over-attentive. While the food took a while to come out, a server was constantly hovering, topping off my water or sake after only a few sips.

During my second visit, after SEI had been open a few months, the food was thrown at my friend and me. Despite being recognized upon entering the dining room, we were given drinks, appetizers, entrees, dessert and the check in 45 minutes. Not to mention that our appetizers came before our drinks were even served.

One of the main draws of an upscale restaurant is the chance to linger with friends and take the time to savor each course. If I wanted to eat sushi in record time, I would have popped into one of the many restaurants that pepper H Street Northwest rather than spend the extra cash at SEI.