Sei, a recent addition to the vibrant Penn Quarter dining scene, does a commendable job of walking the line without crossing it. The restaurant is decked out in an all white interior, from the banquettes to the mother of pearl curtains to the white leather chairs laced up the back, corset-style. We are immediately transported from Penn Quarter to another realm – one that is sexy, fresh and very cosmopolitan. The design alone made me eager to order an upscale cocktail, which is exactly what we did.
Mike and I stopped by Sei recently for pre-theatre dinner before a tango performance. Although Sei’s focus is Asian small plates, the atmosphere and experience feels like a milongas tango: restrained, sophisticated, dramatic and at times surprising. Mike began his dinner with a Liquid Wasabi made with sake, lime juice, and a simple syrup of habanero and ginger. The spicy kick of the syrup mixed with lime juice kept our tastebuds active and kickstarted his stomach for dinner. Meanwhile my Silver Samurai – sochu, fresh cucumber, vanilla syrup and crushed black pepper – was bright, clean and crisp. The cracked pepper kept the drink down to earth and balanced what could have been a too-sweet concoction.
Dinner started with a spicy wasabi guacamole, served with wonton chips. The guacamole arrived with a bright mound of pico de gallo salsa, a cool relief to our tongues with the kicky and creamy guacamole. Our wonton chips were light and airy – a great treat until you need them as tools to scoop up guacamole.
After that our plates began arriving fast and furious. While my seaweed salad was about what you’d expect, the fish and chip sushi roll was anything but. Made with flounder, malt vinegar, wasabi and french fries, the spicy roll was balanced nicely between all of its flavors, tasting neither gimmicky nor fake. The malt vinegar was mild enough not to distract and must have been used sparingly as it didn’t seep into the roll’s rice, upsetting the harmony of the overall flavors. This is a must-try and truly unique roll.
The caesar salad roll, while clever in theory, was so-so in practice. I’d love if the Sei chefs took a few cues from their neighbors at Minibar when it comes to updating the caesar. The sundried tomato roll, which featured avocado and green tea salt, was a little more savory than I typically like my sushi rolls but Mike adored its acidic tang.
The pork buns were one of the few non-sushi items of the night for us. Made like an upscale dim sum, they arrived pre-sliced into neat little triangles. The buns were soft and pliant, easily giving way to the savory, well-seasoned pork: the perfect finger food. I wish plates like these were served in lunch trucks in Rosslyn – I’d be out there every day for my tiny little pork bun lunch.
Overall we enjoyed Sei. It’s a bit too pricey to become regulars but the restaurant is a sophisticated addition to DC’s dining options. The combination of fun food, adventurous cocktails, smooth service and heavenly interior could make it an ideal destination for a bachelorette or cosmopolitan sweet sixteen birthday party.