A pale yellow sheath of eggs, whipped with vegetable stock and heated in a cold pan in the style of a Japanese omelet, covers a block of fried rice like a weightless blanket. A roasted tomato sauce plays a role that ketchup typically fills, saucing slick kernels that make up most of the volume of the brick-sized package. A thick pool of dark brown veal demi-glace adds a third layer of richness for a spoon to carve before it hits the plate. This is the omurice at Cafe Spoken, and it explains the strategy behind serving hotel food in the COVID-19 era for one of D.C.’s most-trusted restaurant minds.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, the Line hotel in Adams Morgan had three separate restaurants and a coffee bar. Now there’s only one, Cafe Spoken, a new all-day spot from Erik Bruner-Yang that follows the template of the kissaten shops that serve coffee and Western-influenced comfort food all over Japan.
The Line reopened with limited capacity at the start of the month, but it lost two of its eating and drinking properties shortly before that. James Beard award-winning chef Spike Gjerde closed A Rake’s Progress, the high-end Mid-Atlantic restaurant on the second floor, in late June. He also left behind The Cup We All Race 4, the coffee counter located right through the front doors. Bruner-Yang’s Foreign National group oversaw the other two restaurants, lobby-level Brothers and Sisters and Spoken English, an award-winning, standing room-only small plates venue known for its chicken skin dumplings and a wood-roasted tribute to Peking duck.
Tasked with reconfiguring those restaurants to offer to-go food and serve a sparser crowd, Bruner-Yang decided to combine them all into a new place that doesn’t require an elaborate explanation from a server in a mask.
“Over the last couple of months, realizing how people want to eat right now, they just want delicious, easy-to-understand food,” Bruner-Yang says. “Instead of doing the food program where there was kind of like a marriage of a bunch of different cultures, we were like, ‘Let’s really focus on doing really clean flavors and keeping things true to what they are.’”
Cafe Spoken took over Gjerde’s coffee bar, which now serves as an ordering station for takeout or limited-capacity indoor seating at the tables that formerly made up Brothers and Sisters. Bruner-Yang says he’s “not emotionally there yet” to eat indoors, but customers who are will have limited interaction with employees who drop off food at tables. Foreign National has also enlisted medical spa Javan to provide on-site COVID-19 tests for its essential restaurant workers once per week.
At Cafe Spoken, there’s a breakfast menu (7 a.m. to 11 a.m.) with an oatmeal mushroom congee and a rice bowl that comes with grilled fish, soft eggs, pickles, and herbs. Grace Street Coffee supplies beans for cups of drip coffee brewed in a siphon system. Customers can also order cocktails from Brothers and Sisters, and there’s a chocolate chip cookie milkshake that can get spiked with Suntory whisky.
The all-day menu (11 a.m. to 10 p.m.) features the omurice among its more substantial plates, along with sections designating onigiri (rice balls), fried items such as panko shrimp or crab cream croquettes, milk bread sandwiches, salads, and a few Japanese-style pastas. Cafe Spoken’s version of pasta Napolitan uses the roasted tomato “ketchup” and has ramen noodles instead of spaghetti.
Omurice in particular gives the cafe an instant draw. It’s rare to find it in D.C. — Uzu ramen’s Conbini stall at Union Market served it a few years ago, and it’s on the menu at Temari Japanese Cafe in Rockville. Last year, novelist Bryan Washington wrote an article for the New Yorker about falling in love with omurice, calling it a “perfect recipe” and saying a version he had from an izakaya in Tokyo was “the best meal I’ve had in this life.”
Tsubasa Nagayama, the general manager at Spoken English who is back at work at Cafe Spoken, says omurice has a special place in Japanese hearts (she was born and raised in Yamaguchi Prefecture on Honshu Island).
“Of course it’s really popular on the kissaten menu, that dish, but also it’s like a home cook [speciality],” she says. “Everybody’s mom cooked it for you, dinner or lunch. All Japanese people grew up eating omurice.”
Chefs James Thomas and Dominic Shuey execute the fried rice omelets at Cafe Spoken. A more portable form of rice, the onigiri, come in varieties stuffed with seasoned beef, salmon, pickled vegetables, or chicken salad. Bruner-Yang says, like much of D.C., he loves the onigiri at nearby Hana Market, but he brought them to Cafe Spoken because they were a great way for the kitchen to repurpose meat scraps. Plus, he already had the molds.
Similarly, Brothers and Sisters was already baking milk bread, so Bruner-Yang says it made sense to put sandos (egg salad, chicken katsu, tomato) on the menu even if “it feels a little bit last year.”
A salad section includes a seared tuna tataki with slivers of wasabi-spiced snap peas. Bruner-Yang loves it because it’s a throwback to the ’90s, when U.S. steakhouses widely adopted the dish.
Larger plates that make for a hearty lunch or dinner include the omurice, a Japanese curry, and a yoshoku (Western-style) steak made with smoked wagyu and onions caramelized in rice vinegar. Bruner-Yang says lobster doria, a creamy, cheesy rice dish baked with bread crumbs and topped with lobster salad, is perfect for room service, because people may want a nap after they finish it.