A picture may not be worth quite a thousand words, but it is unquestionably worth the price of an expense-account dinner. Credit a keen use of pics from photographer Greg Powers for the buzz that has surrounded Wren, the restaurant and lounge inside The Watermark Hotel in Tysons. Add in craveworthy Instagram shots from invited influencers, and you’ve got the makings of a new hot spot.
Not that the story behind Wren isn’t enough to generate heated anticipation. First, there’s its location, in a modern new hotel adjacent to the much-ballyhooed Capital One Hall. Then, there’s chef Yo Matsuzaki, who honed his chops under the tutelage of Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto at Nobu, studied French technique in New York, and was corporate chef for Ozumo Concepts International. He came to DC to be executive chef at Zentan but says that the city wore on him. The promise of a menu that would fuse his skills with Japanese and Western techniques made Wren one of the hottest tickets of the season.
And the food reaches many highs. But understand that Wren is still very much a hotel lounge. Often, the group that congregates at the bar is more along the lines of weary travelers looking for a beer than the in-crowd seeking to try one of Matsuzaki’s raw fish dishes. There is a pool table. There are TVs playing sports and Guy Fieri. It can be tough to score a reservation, but that seems to be less because the cuisine is in demand than because there is only a smattering of tables surrounding the bar.
This is to say, exercise caution if you’re planning a special occasion here. Wren, despite its sometimes high prices, is not fine dining. Though some servers are highly capable, another asked me the same question, “How are we doing so far?” every single time he visited my table, which was always after a lengthy absence, including a 40-minute-long wait for dessert.
But I also do not want to deter guests who know what to expect. You will be paying a premium to sit to the side of a hotel lobby—albeit a stylish one, where elevators are operated using tablets—and share some well-executed Japanese American dishes. As Matsuzaki puts it, “I don’t like stuck-up restaurants. I like to have a good time … I believe good food creates good conversation.”
This augurs hopefully for a social night at Wren. Matsuzaki chafes at the word “fusion,” but his Japanese fare is aimed at an American palate, mostly to great success. I questioned the wisdom of adding olive tapenade to his flower-dotted hamachi tartare. “The olive tapenade makes the flavor easier,” he says of the fish. And the flavors don’t battle it out as I anticipated. In fact, the lusty olives, combined with earthy truffle, contribute a Rubenesque body to the otherwise austere fish.
The umi masu is another deft balancing act of approachable Japanese flavors. Cured steelhead trout sashimi is obscured by a wreath of herbs—mint, parsley, and dill—and popping trout roe that surround a shaved onion-and-fennel salad and a creamy center of citrus aioli. The aioli makes the dish heavier than many crudos, but the herbs and dill brighten up the combination in a most satisfying manner. Its combined elements, in fact, make it feel more like a Scandinavian dish than a Japanese one.
For a master with raw fish like Matsuzaki, it might come as a surprise that some of his menu’s other highlights are fried. But don’t forget: Agemono, or deep-fried foods, have their own rich history in Japan. Tempura dates back to the 17th century. Karaage, known as Tokyo Chicken on Wren’s menu, traces back to the 1920s.
The Tokyo Chicken is a minor masterpiece in not only creating a juicy, tender fried chicken thigh, but also doing it in a way that’s absent of gluten. Matsuzaki uses gluten-free soy sauce in the poultry’s marinade and then coats it in a combination of tapioca starch and cornstarch before frying. The tangy tare sauce that dresses it does nothing to diminish the chicken’s crispiness. “It’s the perfect bite,” Matsuzaki argues. “Everything has a reason to be on the plate.” That also includes lightly pickled cucumbers and a cabbage salad, both of which cut through the fat of the chicken.
Just as satisfying is the corn kakiage tempura, crunchy pancakes of painstakingly extricated corn kernels and skinny cross-sections of sugar snap peas. The soy-based dipping sauce helps to temper the sweetness of the vegetables with a hint of fishy funk. And at just $9, the plate includes three hefty pancakes.
It seems like cost and size of a dish are sometimes inversely proportional at Wren. Though listed among the “large shareables,” the Chilean sea bass comprises two slightly larger than bite-sized portions of fish and four blistered shishito peppers. It’s a scrumptious plate of food, with melting fish marinated in a sweet saikyo miso and sake lees. But at $26, it can’t help but feel like a disappointment. The $30 steak is more generously portioned, but it isn’t big enough not to be a letdown, too, especially when, at first bite, the wasabi mashed potatoes seem to be missing the horseradish.
I recommend mostly steering clear of the larger plates in favor of the less expensive and just as filling small ones. But don’t skip dessert. Priced in the $10 range, both that I tried were fun enough to spawn the conversation Matsuzaki hopes for.
Light, chewy mochi beignets are dusted in powdered sugar and paired with matcha crème anglaise. The chocolate mousse, combining hazelnut, caramel, and dark chocolate flavors, is an ethereal treat, decorated with silver crunchies and fresh fruits. It might also be the right time for one of beverage director Luis Mantilla’s three creative gin and tonics. The Japanese one features sansho pepper, shiso, and yuzu peel.
Is Wren the destination restaurant the dishes you see in this article might have you think? No. At its heart, it is still a hotel bar, and a damn good one. It’s appropriate for a casual meetup, a sensible choice for a first date. And if you’re staying at The Watermark or seeing a show at Capital One Hall, it’s exactly the stylish spot you’ll be craving.
See This: It’s a hotel lounge, but a modern one, with a bar surrounded in a canopy of metallic fringe. There’s compelling art all around, but also a pool table and TVs playing sports and the Food Network.
Eat This: Hamachi tartare, corn kakiage tempura, Tokyo chicken
Small shareables: $5–$21
Large shareables: $15–$30
1825 Capital One Dr. South, Tysons
Open daily for dinner
★ Fair ★★ Good ★★★ Great ★★★★ Excellent ★★★★★ Superior