Some people come into your life and you just never want them to leave. My ex-boyfriend, Ben, is one of those people. Four years ago, I went on a horrible first date to Churchkey, and was instantly smitten by a green-eyed, blonde guy working at the bar. I ended up leaving the awful date, and spent the rest of the night bar hopping down 14th street with this man instead, which then led to a two and a half year relationship. It is a great “how we met story”, but in reality we were completely incompatible for each other, and fought for the majority of the relationship. When we finally broke up, we both realized that it had been a very long time coming. And of course, we did not stay very involved in each other’s lives once I started dating someone else a few months later. But this does not mean that I do not appreciate his love for me, or that I do not still feel a connection with him. After my ex-bf and I broke up, Ben and I occasionally checked up on each other, and my feelings for him transitioned to a strange form of a brotherly affection. Recently, he found out he is not doing so well, health-wise, and so we have started spending a lot more time together as we try to get his mind off of this strange new reality. Last week, between two of his treatments, we made plans to get dinner and I had Maketto all over my mind.
One of the most anticipated openings this year has been Maketto, a mixed-use spot from Toki Underground’s Eric Bruner-Yang, Durkl’s Will Sharp, and Vigilante Coffee’s Chris Vigilante. Actually, Maketto has been on the “Most Anticipated Openings of the Year” lists every single year since 2013. The H Street restaurant/cafe/Durkl retailer finally opened at the beginning of April, and I instantly put it on my personal list of places I need to make it to ASAP. The Washington Post then published a wonderful review the day of my scheduled dinner with Ben, which pumped me up even more.
Ben and I got to Maketto around 6:45pm, and found it relatively empty. In terms of first impressions, we found the space absolutely beautiful and incredibly unique. Stepping inside Maketto made me feel as though I was leaving DC and walking into a downtown LA spot. The first part is the retail space (selling Durkl shoes in a giant display case), followed by the downstairs bar, where we were greeted by a host. The host was definitely a bit odd, and he only got odder after he asked what we would like. We explained that we wanted to sit down for dinner, and he warned us that the outdoor patio had been reserved for a private party. I then asked if we could still order dinner, and he said yes. It literally took us to five minutes to figure out where we were going to sit, since the host did not seem to understand and left us standing awkwardly holding menus in the middle of the bar with no real explanation. Eventually, we found our way to some bar stools near the open kitchen after wandering through the beautiful outdoor patio between the bar and kitchen.
We decided to order three appetizers (the Pork Steam Bao, Khmer Tamarind Salad, and Pickled Vegetables), but were torn between the Taiwanese Fried Chicken and the American Wagyu Bao Platter for our shared entree. We decided to ask our waitress for help, but when we asked for her recommendation, she robotically went into an explanation of how the menu works (“On this side you have small plates. Then there is the family style options..”). Ben responded, “Yes, we understand that. Do you recommend the Wagyu bao platter or the fried chicken to share?” She then started at us awkwardly for an additional five seconds (which felt like an hour) and replied, “I dunno. I guess they are both good. I’ll give you guys more time to decide,” before spinning around and walking away. Ben and I just looked at each other, dumbfounded after she so quickly disappeared. As someone who has been in the DC bar/service industry for seven years, Ben was totally confused. Had the staff just not been trained, or did Maketto just want to hire the least helpful staff possible? Did the staff just not know anything about the menu? Or had we totally offended this waitress for some unknown reason? We decided to just go with the Wagyu Bao Platter (I love all forms of bao) and placed our orders with significantly less trouble once she returned.
The first dish to arrive was the Pork Steam Bao. I love the steamed buns at Toki, and these buns did not disappoint me. I hate when the buns are overly chewy or thick, but these slightly sweet buns are very thin, and contain incredibly tender and flavorful shredded pork inside. Of course, I slathered the tangy Hoisin sauce all over each bite.
Next up came the Pickled Vegetables, which were so unmemorable I did not even think about snapping a picture. Really, though, it was just a plain plate of pickled vegetables (which I considered overpriced for $6). The Khmer Tamarind Salad arrived shortly after, and was similarly unremarkable. The salad looked bright and beautiful, with fresh lettuce, pea shoots and watercress flowers but just tasted like a something from a Whole Foods salad bar. I could not actually taste any tamarind in the dish. Perhaps it was in the dressing, which was light and citrusy.
Ben and I were disappointed with the two vegetable appetizers so we were really looking forward to our final dish. Our giant platter arrived with a generous amount of American Wagyu steak slices, five bao buns and traditional accompaniments which included chopped cabbage, greens, and more pickled vegetables.
We then built our own buns by sliding the tender meat into the clam-shaped steamed bao. I love the combination of the slightly sweet, pillowy bao combined with the rich, salty meat and the crunchy vegetables. While I was a fan of the fluffy bao buns, Ben did not like it as much and just ate the meat with the vegetables and fried onions. shredded cabbage. The meat was extremely tender, and the crunchy fried onions made each bite satisfyingly salty.
Our meal was good, but not outstanding. Perhaps I had just overhyped Maketto in my mind. While the two bun dishes were decent, I would not go out of my way (and H street NE is usually out of the way) to make it back to Maketto. One of the things that really stood out to me is the actual space: the set up is the most unique set up in DC. Perhaps if I lived on H street I would make a point to return for coffee. But living in Shaw, I would hesitate to return to Maketto for a meal, unless they consisted solely of the bao buns.