Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Hiraya (Washington, DC)

Hiraya Restaurant & Bar
1250 H St NE, Washington, DC 20002
Wed 02/21/2024, 06:40p-09:30p

Hiraya Exterior

I've had a budding interest in contemporary Filipino cuisine ever since the first Lasa pop-up back in 2016. Thus, when I found out about Hiraya on my last trip to DC, I put the new tasting menu spot on my short list of places to check out on my next visit to the District. The restaurant is the brainchild of Chef Paolo Dungca--who actually started his culinary career in Southern California--in concert with partners Jeremy Canlas and Juan Canlas.

About the Chef: Dungca was born in January 1991 in the city of San Fernando, the capital of Pampanga province, but grew up in Parañaque, part of Metro Manila. When he was 13, he joined his mother and brother and left the Philippines, eventually settling in Cerritos, California. After graduating from Artesia High in 2010, he started nursing school, but also got a job washing dishes at Golden Vine Winery, an Italian eatery at Disneyland. Dungca was intrigued by the energy of the kitchen, and was soon able to transition to a line cook position. He quickly fell in love with the craft, left nursing, and enrolled in the culinary program at The Art Institute of California in Santa Ana. To expand his skills, he briefly worked as a tournant at Flores at the start of 2014. However, in March that year, he left GVM and joined the team at Kevin Meehan's Kali pop-up.

That lasted until September 2014, when Dungca decided to move to DC after visiting family there. Now in Washington, he quickly landed a job at Jeffrey Buben's Vidalia. In February 2015, he helped start Timpla (along with JR Rena, Katrina Villavicencio, and Kristina Villavicencio), a Filipino-American supper club that lasted until around late 2017. While still at Vidalia, Dungca was tapped to be opening sous at Bad Saint, under Tom Cunanan; the place debuted at the start of September 2015, but he only stayed until the following February. From there, he was sous (and later CdC) for Cathal Armstrong at Restaurant Eve in Alexandria, Virginia, and in March 2018, became opening Exec Chef for Armstrong's new restaurant Kaliwa, which served an amalgam of Filipino/Korean/Thai cuisine (Eve, by the way, shuttered at the start of that June).

However, Dungca departed in mid-2019 and linked up with Erik Bruner-Yang to become CdC at ABC Pony, an Asian-inflected Italian eatery that bowed in Navy Yard that December. The gig only lasted until May 2020, and from there, the Chef helped develop Ni Hao, a Chinese restaurant in Baltimore headed by Chef Peter Chang that opened in July that year. In October 2020, Dungca held a series of pop-up dinners at Tiki TNT, and took top prize at the Capital Food Fight fundraiser the following month. He then teamed up with his old compatriot Tom Cunanan (who'd left Bad Saint in August 2020), and in January 2021, the two debuted PogiBoy, a fast food-inspired stall at The Block Foodhall. A year later, he launched Piccoletto, a pasta spot that shared a kitchen with PogiBoy, as well as the first iteration of Hiraya, which ran as a weekends-only, progressive Filipino pop-up at the food hall (it lasted about nine months).

In September 2022, Dungca started collaborating with Supreme Barbeque in Annandale, Virginia, which was owned by the father-and-son team of Juan and Jeremy Canlas. The collab ended up being so popular that the Chef's changes were made permanent, and the restaurant was rebranded Sari: Filipino Kusina that December. PogiBoy, meanwhile, closed in early 2023. With that shutter, Dungca and the Canlases then focused their attention on the permanent version of Hiraya, which actually comprises two different concepts. The first is the all-day cafe, which arrived at the end of September 2023, while the fancier upstairs dining room bowed just recently, on January 20th.

Dungca's second-in-command at Hiraya is Executive Chef Julie Cortes, a native of the Philippines who actually worked at Wildflour (co-owned by the Manzkes) before moving to DC and cooking at Del Mar and Kaliwa. We also have Jaerron Felipe (Kaliwa) and Carlos Lorenzo Rufo (PogiBoy), while the sweet stuff is handled by Pastry Chef Pichet Ong, whom Dungca worked with at NiHao, and who was also involved in DC spots Spoken English, Brothers and Sisters, and Maketto, not to mention numerous places in New York.

Hiraya Café Interior
Situated in the Atlas District/H Street Corridor/Near Northeast, Hiraya occupies a long-vacant, 4,800-square-foot building that's a stone's throw from Toki Underground. The downstairs café is pictured above, and sports a bit of a tropical vibe.

Hiraya Restaurant Chef's Counter
And here's the view from my seat at the upstairs chef's counter. That's Jaerron Felipe and Julie Cortes in front of me, while Dungca was off to the right, expediting.

Hiraya Restaurant Chef's Tasting Menu Hiraya Restaurant Bar Menu Hiraya Restaurant Beverage List
Tonight's seven-course, modern Filipino tasting menu was priced at a pre-paid $145, plus $17.69 tax and $31.90 service. We also see Hiraya's à la carte bar menu, as well as the restaurant's selection of cocktails, wines, and beers, which are managed by GM/Beverage Director Chris Walker (Garten and Preserve in Annapolis). Corkage is $65, limit two. Click for larger versions.

Amuse Bouche Tower
The evening's first four bites arrived together, served on slabs of sliced tree trunk.

1a: OLDE SALT OYSTER | calamansi sabayon.
My first canapé demonstrated potent, nearly overpowering citrus notes up front, before training to the clean, sharp brine of the Chesapeake Bay oyster and finishing with somewhat of a bitterness.

1b: KINILAW | hamachi. watermelon radish. nori.
This kinilaw-inspired tart was wonderfully refreshing, yet also multifaceted and unexpectedly intriguing. I was impressed by the interplay between the yellowtail, the umami notes from the nori, the tobiko, as well as the dish's overarching sourness. It all came together surprisingly stupendously, making for one of my best bites of the year.

1c: BUCHI | foie gras. chestnut. sesame.
Here we have essentially a Filipino take on jian dui, which turned out to be another highlight. I loved the chewy texture of the sesame ball, while its sweet, nutty flavors paired flawlessly with the headier nature of the foie.

1d: KUTSINTA | kaluga caviar. crème fraîche. chives.
The last of the first bites combined a dense, springy, caramel-y steamed rice cake with the utterly classic one-two punch of caviar and crème fraîche. It was a smart combo of sweet 'n' savory, though I would've preferred a smaller portion of the cake for better balance.

Dirty Passion ♥
Dirty Passion ♥ (serves 2) [$30.00] | oloroso. manzanilla. sloe gin. falernum. cappelletti. almond orgeat. passionfruit. lemon
Though my first drink was designed for two, I had absolutely no issue demolishing it all by myself, which I can't say was too surprising. What I can say was surprising, though, was just how damn good it was. In fact, it was probably the best cocktail I've had all year (though admittedly, 2024 is still young). What really impressed me was how perfectly the oxidative notes of the sherry married with the tropical fruit, making for a complex, yet somehow easy-going libation that really gratified.

KALDERETA TARETARE | roseda beef. olive. crisp potato.
Following the amuse-bouches was a caldereta-inspired beef tartare, which was definitely another highlight. I loved the wonderfully crisp, salty, satisfying nature of the potato, while just as important were the supple cuts of beef, which matched swimmingly with the dish's olive-y piquancy. Fantastic, and easily one of my best tartares of the past couple years.

2: BITSO | maine uni. crabfat doughnut. lardo.
This rather decadent bite paired the sweet brine of sea urchin with salty shards of lardo in clever fashion, but even more clever was how that tomalley-boosted donut and its unabashedly crab-y character figured into the equation. Very neat.

Boracay [$16.00] | buko pandan rum. torched pineapple. cappeletti. apertivo. togaroshi
My second cocktail featured loads of sweet spice all over the place, and actually tasted of gingerbread cookies at times--a rather lovely sensation.

3: RAVIOLO | sunchoke. morel mushroom. périgord truffles.
The earthiness of morels was forcefully displayed in this next course, and only further augmented by the oomph of those truffles. At the same time, the ravioli offered up a bit of sweetness, while the curry sauce helped tie everything together.

4: INASAL | maine lobster. green papaya. lobster-annatto oil.
Next came another standout course. The lobster itself ate sweet and supple, with a delightful smokiness, and I much appreciated the tartness provided by those papaya pickles. However, the hero here was that lobster mayo, which had this incredible depth and oceaniness that really took the dish to the next level. And interestingly enough, I somehow tasted flashes of nigiri sushi when sampling the condiment.

Magandang Damo
Magandang Damo [$14.00] | lemongrass infused tequila. tamarind. ginger. lime
This next cocktail showed off a pleasant astringency at first blush, leading to a long-lasting sweetness and overarching notes of what seemed like anise, which actually had a cooling effect.

5: PARES | roseda beef. cabbage fondue. quail egg.
My main course was this duet of local beef. Melt-in-your-mouth short rib melded seamlessly with its center of foie gras, with the runny egg adding further decadence to the situation. Even better, though, was that rib eye, which had this amazingly delicate, tender consistency and crispy crust. Meanwhile, tying the two meats together was a garlicky pares sauce, while cabbage lightened the mood.

KINILAW [$24.00] | hamachi. granny smith apple. coconut vinaigrette.
At this point, the savory portion of the tasting menu had concluded, yet I still wanted to sample more, so I ended up ordering a couple items from the bar menu. My first à la carte selection brought together briny, fatty cuts of yellowtail with a mélange of sweet coconut and tart apple. It was a smart combo to be sure, though I would've liked daintier cuts of the fish to better match the broth.

Hiraya Fashion
Hiraya Fashion [$16.00] | old bardstown. don ciccio carciofo. alessio torino. banana
This old fashioned variation was certainly the booziest cocktail of the bunch, but really delivered thanks to how well the banana integrated with the drink's bitter, herby notes, all while I got a pandan-like warmth in the background.

SHRIMP TOAST [$19.00] | chili crab fat aioli. cilantro.
This unconventional take on prawn toast met the mark thanks to how perfectly the sweet-saline nature of the shrimp was conveyed, juxtaposed with a crunchy, salty, youtiao-like fried exterior. And if that wasn't enough, you also had this tomalley-enhanced aïoli, which presented the pure, unmitigated quintessence of crab--a little goes a long way!

CASSAVA CAKE | crab fat. lardo. ikura.
A bonus course combined sweet, dense, bouncy cassava cake with heaps of salt and brine, with the salmon roe providing some textural contrast to boot. Pretty cool I have to say.

Buko Pandan Rum Dessert Cocktail
To close, I was provided a cocktail based on coconut- and pandan-infused rum, one that showcased a wonderfully sweet warmth that paired beautifully with the desserts below.

Frozen Banana Cake
As a pre-dessert, I was presented with this whimsical-looking course, with its restrained banana mousse flavors set against coconut crumbles and the sugariness of butterscotch.

6: PUSONG FRESA | strawberry. grape. pandan.
Perhaps not too surprisingly, this rather cute dessert was a holdover from the Valentine's Day menu. I liked the glossiness of the heart, as well as how that strawberry mousse played with those coconut-pandan bits.

7: FLOATING LOTUS | coconut. mochi. vanilla.
This halo-halo-esque dessert was full of nostalgia thanks to its earthy, coconut-y flavors and grassy warmth from the pandan. Yum.

Closing out the evening was a quartet of mignardises. I began with the mango-passion fruit gelée, with its rich tropical fruitiness and slightly salty edge. Next up was a nutty, rich, dense caramel-toffee bonbon, as well as a chocolate loaded with passion fruit. Last up was a decadent combination of bananas Foster and chocolate--my favorite of the foursome.

Cotton & Reed Buko Pandan Rum Cotton & Reed Buko Pandan Rum (Poured in a Glass)
I was provided a bottle of Buko Pandan Rum (utilized in the dessert cocktail above) to take home, which was created by local distillery Cotton & Reed, in collaboration with Chef Dungca. Incorporating dried coconut and pandan leaves, the rum had this appealing aroma filled with warm, grassy vanilla. Taking a sip, I found it soft and smooth, its ricey, soothing, complementary pandan and coconut flavors undergirded by a touch of boozy heat. Delish.

My server at Daru recommended Hiraya to me back in January, and I'm sure glad she did, because I had no knowledge of the restaurant prior to her suggestion. Dungca and his team took the cooking of the Philippines to a bit of an unexpected place tonight, one that was largely delicious, but also fun, fanciful, and even a bit beguiling at times. It was a compelling take on the cuisine, and in fact, I'd go as far as to say that this was the best Filipino meal I've ever experienced (I'd love to see something like this in LA). Actually, given the strength of the dinner, I might have to return to give Hiraya's cafe portion a try.


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