Haikan Feels Like Dinner
“Tuesday has no feel. Monday has a feel. Friday has a feel. Sunday has a feel.” — Newman on Seinfeld
805 V St, NW, Washington DC
Breakfast has a feel for some people. They need something hot. Or they need a glass of OJ or a cup of coffee right away in the morning to feel like they had breakfast and can start their day.
To me, breakfast has no feel. A piece of fruit, a bowl of cereal or a three-egg omelet with a side of pancakes, it really doesn’t matter. I can eat just about anything and check breakfast off my to-do list. I feel the same way about lunch. A salad from Chop’t qualifies but so does a double Hell Burger with fries, a bowl of wonton soup from Full Kee or an Indian buffet.
But dinner is something else. Dinner has a definite feel. If I don’t get that feeling I feel cheated — and usually spend the rest of the night puttering around the kitchen looking for something to fill the void.
Take soup, for instance. To me, a bowl of soup doesn’t feel like dinner. I don’t care how filling or how fancy the soup is. You could sit me down in front of the finest bouillabaisse in Marseilles but it’s not dinner unless you give me a salad to go with it. Same with matzo ball soup or a bowl of pho. Either could be a fine lunch. But they can’t be dinner without something — maybe some chopped liver or a couple of spring rolls — to complete it.
You’ll be glad to know that I’m in the vicinity of making a point. Thanks for your patience.
Many of the better ramen joints in town stick to the Japanese model of focusing on the soup with a very limited list of appetizers or side dishes. That’s essentially the model at places like Toki Underground — which has the best ramen in town — Ren’s, Sakuramen and Daikaya. They might have some dumplings or buns but generally they are pure ramen plays. Daikaya makes that distinction brutally clear. When you enter, you have to choose between having ramen on the first floor, where the only side dish is gyoza, and the second floor Izakaya, which has terrific tavern fare but no ramen.
Which brings me to Haikan, the relatively new ramen shop in Shaw and sister restaurant to Daikaya. Not surprisingly, Haikan’s ramen compares favorably to its sibling, which puts it a step below Toki Underground but roughly on par with other ramen-focused options like Ren’s and Sakuramen. But unlike any of those, Haikan has a wide range of other things to eat, from salads to mussels to deviled eggs. True, its non-ramen offerings are a bit shakier than its ramen — perhaps two or three steps below the likes of Izakaya Seki or Daikaya Izakaya — but the point is it has lots of non-ramen options that can fill out a meal.
So there are better choices in town for ramen and there are better choices for izakaya. But there aren’t many places that do both reasonably well. You could even go to Haikan with people who don’t eat ramen at all or share a bowl with your loved one and fill up on other dishes. The nice thing about Haikan is you don’t have to choose. You can have your ramen and eat a real dinner too.
Haikan doesn’t take reservations. This is the crowd on a recent Friday evening just after they opened at 5:30 pm. By 6:30 pm, every seat was taken and a gaggle of twenty-somethings was congregating near the door waiting for the next available.
“Pea-Sar” Salad — snow peas, pea shoots, edamame, sea beans, soft boiled egg, shaved parmesan, fried baby sardines. Asian take on a Caesar salad provides a nice contrast to heavier items and smartly relies on ramen-shop expertise in producing perfect soft-boiled eggs.
Smashed cucumber salad in rayu-shoyu dressing. I love me some smashed cucumbers, the rough surface area absorbing flavors in ways that sliced cucumbers simply can’t. This particular version is decent but could use a bit more acidity or heat to offset the soy. In other words, a little more rayu (chile-infused oil), a little less shoyu (soy).
Crispy pig ears with chashu reduction and yuzu vinaigrette. I wish menu writers would stop using “crispy” as a code word for “fried.” I know it sounds better to the health-conscious, but (a) you’re not doing the health-conscious any favors by hiding the fact that those Brussels sprouts just came out of the fryer, and (b) if you’re ordering pig ears, “health conscious” is likely a wee bit of a stretch. Anyway, these pig ears are nicely porky and FRIED to a crisp crunch for easy snacking.
Japanese “deviled eggs” with nitamago (seasoned egg), kewpie mayo, salmon roe and scallions. Delicious combination, again using the soft-cooked eggs they use in the ramen. Here, the addition of salmon roe, scallions and perhaps the world’s best mayonnaise — kewpie mayo — turns this into an excellent cultural mash-up.
Chashu bao slider. Good bun with soft, almost BBQ-like pork.
Roasted kabocha squash with ricotta cheese, kale and browned butter-honey vinaigrette. Kabocha squash is having its moment. This version is just ok. It lacks any real zing or imagination, like a steakhouse chef’s idea of what a good vegetarian entree might look like.
Crab Rangoon — Fried crab and cream cheese wontons. Creamy, tangy and crabby with a whiff of Old Bay.
“Kitamura” Japanese Mapo Tofu Poutine — French fries, mapo tofu, ground chicken, mozzarella curds, freshly ground Szechuan peppercorns. The dish I was most looking forward to turned out to be the most disappointing. What sounds like an interesting cross-cultural flavor bomb showed up with a whimper: wan fries doused in a sticky sweetish sauce that lacked any zing from the promised Szechuan peppercorns. This is a great idea that somehow never made it onto the plate.
There’s a beautiful choreography to a ramen restaurant that can only be captured by video. Check it out. (Video credit: my cousin Matt Chessen)
Shoyu ramen with corn, mushrooms and spice bomb. The soy-based shoyu broth is less complex than some of the others, making it a good choice for the additional punch of the spice bomb.
Miso ramen with egg. A solid version of the classic ramen.
Vegetable ramen with chashu (pork) and corn. I usually don’t like vegetable broth but this one is remarkably good. You can get the best of both worlds by adding pork.
Bottom Line: Haikan is a good choice when you have a hankering for ramen but want more than soup. Go early or be prepared to wait. The good news if the line is too long — you can try Hazel right across the street.
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