News & Politics

2011 Restaurateur of the Year: Darren Lee Norris

Norris, chef and co-owner of the innovative Japanese grill Kushi, is thinking outside the box

Darren Norris and his wife, Ari, are behind Kushi—the year’s most exciting restaurant. Photograph by Scott Suchman.

Until recently, Washington had almost no midrange restaurants with really interesting—or really good—food. They’ve started to arrive, mostly in the form of wine bars, small-plates spots, and pizzerias. This year brought one groundbreaking departure: Kushi.

The restaurant, in DC’s Mount Vernon Square neighborhood, isn’t the casual sister to a fancy flagship or the second act of a chef with a big reputation. In fact, few people had heard of chef/co-owner Darren Lee Norris, who had worked at the Oval Room, Red Sage, and Ridgewells Catering. Before Kushi opened in March, Washington had never seen an izakaya, a popular pub-like watering hole in Tokyo where twentysomethings knock back sake shots.

Kushi upends many expectations of a Japanese restaurant: In place of a meditative hush is loud indie rock; instead of kimono-wrapped waitresses, servers wear jeans and T-shirts; and there are concrete floors, not tatami mats. The restaurant’s energy radiates from its centerpiece—a 30-seat, U-shaped grill where chefs turn meat-and-vegetable skewers (kushiyaki in Japanese) over charcoal and wood.

Norris visits Tokyo yearly with his Japanese wife, Ari, a co-owner and the artistic mind behind the layout; there, he says, sushi and skewers are never under the same roof. But because izakaya was such a new concept to Washington, “sushi was a way to get people in the door,” Norris says. Not that it’s a toss-off: He has fish shipped in daily from Japan and serves rarely seen delicacies such as uni in its shell and live sea scallop.

Customers have caught on quickly: Norris says that on slow nights he serves 300 people. And he isn’t done bringing us new ideas: He’s looking for a space to dish out house-made soba—Japanese buckwheat noodles—in curried soups with pork belly, for example, and in dishes with duck and vegetables. He’ll also have kaiseki (similar to a tasting menu) and a 30-seat counter like Kushi’s setup.

With the success of Kushi, Darren Norris has sent a message to restaurateurs with plans in the works: Think outside the box.

This article first appeared in the January 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.