People might expect a lot things from an urban wine bar—buzzy vibes, a crowd of regulars, funky wines—but teriyaki hamburgers, okonomiyaki, and house-made Kewpie mayonnaise? Masako Morishita’s Japanese-inspired comfort food reimagines the way people traditionally pair food with wine at Maxwell Park in Washington, DC.
Maxwell Park established itself as a popular neighborhood wine bar when it opened its doors in DC’s Shaw neighborhood four years ago. Helmed by sommelier Brent Kroll, the spot features esoteric bottles that invite the visitor to sip off the beaten path. The menu diverged little from the classic wine bar staples until this summer when Morishita joined their team as the first executive chef.
Morishita came to the culinary sphere from a less-conventional route. She grew up in a family of restaurateurs in Japan before immigrating to the States. In DC, she worked as an NFL cheerleader for the Washington Football Team and eventually started to explore her cravings for the fast foods and family recipes she grew up enjoying in Japan. She launched her pop-up, Otabe, and took flavors of Japanese comfort foods to destinations around the DMV area. Now, at Maxwell Park (which opened a space in Navy Yard this year), she calls upon nostalgic foods and flavors that give regulars and newcomers a rotating selection of fare to sample and a taste of the unexpected.
We caught up with this rising young chef to learn about how she’s redefining wine bar fare and a few of the comfort foods we should add to our rotation this fall—including what to drink with them.
MASAKO MORISHITA ON COMFORT FOOD AND WINE
The Local Palate: Tell us a little bit about your culinary journey. Did you receive any formal culinary education or training or are you entirely self-taught?
Masako Morishita: My family runs a ninety-year-old family restaurant/bar in Kobe, Japan. My grandparents started the business and my father and mother still run it now.
My family’s restaurant is on the first floor and we live on the second and third floor of the restaurant, so I basically grew up in the bar/restaurant. When I was a baby, my mom used to carry me on her back while she was cooking.
I did not go to any culinary school or anything, and all I learned about my cooking is from my mother and my grandmother. What I cook is what I used to eat and learned from my chefs (my mom and grandma) with my own twist.
They taught me to always have fun, do what makes me happy and think outside of the box in cooking and life in general. My goal is always for people to get to know my heritage and culture through my cooking, and make my family proud.
TLP: How did you connect with Brett Kroll and the Maxwell Park team?
MM: Maxwell Park has been my favorite wine bar since they have been open and I used to hang out with my friends. One day, I received a text saying if I was interested in doing a tasting with them, and it went from there.
TLP: You made the career shift to leave your pop-up Otabe and join Maxwell Park as their executive chef. What elements of the wine bar made you think it could be a good fit for your dishes and style?
MM: Otabe is actually still alive! Just haven’t done any pop-ups or events recently.
When I thought of wine in the past, I always thought it’s high-end and fancy, but Maxwell Park actually broke that barrier and stereotype I had. They make wine so easy and accessible and super fun. I can say the same thing about my cooking.
Also with my background, my mother and grandmother are the experts of making snacks for the drinks, and I am definitely following their path.
TLP: What dishes have been “crowd favorites” since starting as Maxwell Park’s executive chef?
MM: Crowd favorites are Petit Okonomiyaki and Teriyaki Wagyu burger.
MAKE THE FAVORITES
Pair with: Okunomatsu sparkling junmai daiginjo sake, Japan. This is super refreshing with soft bubbles and negroni-type flavors. A total palate cleanser that makes the dish even more refreshing, while adding orchard fruit and floral notes to the dish.
Pair with: 2019 Quinta de Cabriz, Encruzado Reserve, Dao, Portugal. Texture is so important here and this is the white Burgundy of Portugal. A ton of value and this will layer in some nutty and baking-spice flavors to the dish.
Fried Rice Stuffed Roast Chicken
Pair with: 2018 Lagler, Gruner Veltliner, Burgberg Federspiel, Wachau, Austria. This is a rich and ripe gruner veltliner from plantings coming off the Wachau river. It has ripe Asian pear notes and a mineral component that balances the sesame, garlic, and vegetables that aren’t always the easiest to play with.
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