If you happen to live or work in a dining wasteland, as I once did, it helps to pray to the food gods for an accidental restaurant row to appear.
One day, you're eating drippy burritos and chicken Caesar salads from a lunch truck. Then - poof! - the next day you're slurping uni-topped oysters alongside sizzling stone bowls of bibimbap in a room of spa-like tranquillity. The recent arrival of Doma - and its tasty neighbors on the suddenly bustling dining strip of Callowhill Street - proves that such miraculous things can happen in an unlikely place. Even sushi, if you pray really hard.
For much of the last decade, you see, it's been an unofficial sport around the newsroom to grouse about the lack of good lunch options within a few blocks of The Inquirer. While the rest of the city was in full restaurant-renaissance mode, our highlights arrived in all-too-tiny bursts: Cafe Lift and Prohibition Taproom on a hideaway block of 13th Street; Jose's Tacos at the even more obscure corner of 10th and Buttonwood Streets; and upscale Osteria, of course, a few blocks north on Broad Street, although that is a rare splurge.
But what has grown organically to the west of the paper in the last couple years, rising amid the low-slung brick facades along Callowhill Street behind Family Court, has suddenly found some sustainable momentum - and with a diverse menu of venues few city planners could ever intentionally summon. On a stretch long anchored only by the aging Rose Tattoo, once more frequented for its proximity to immigration-law offices, nearby I.D. photo trucks, and community college classes, there is now a craft-brew bar with a packed beer garden (Kite & Key), a darkly-lit-but-friendly Indian (King of Tandoor), a once-frumpy coffee shop now transformed into an upbeat branch of a South Philly brunch legend (Sabrina's Cafe).
With the recent arrival of Doma, however, this strip is reaching for a new level of sophistication. The understated facade doesn't look like a sushi haven. But inside, the long and narrow space is surprisingly sleek and serene, with a pale palette of contemporary colors, mod Lucite chairs, and a cushy banquette that rides along a wave-textured wall beneath a sea spray of dangling glass votive bubbles.
This 35-seat BYOB is a second venture for Patti and Robert Moon, who hoped to create a more modern wider-ranging menu than the traditional Japanese fare at their Shiroi Hana. And the best things from Doma's kitchen are the ones that reflect the owners' Korean heritage.
Hot stone bowls of dolsot bibimbap cradle mounds of rice topped with beef, veggies, and a raw egg yolk that sizzles and crisps at the table, sending up the warm piquance of gochuchang chile paste and sesame oil when you stir the orange sauce in. That signature Korean chile-paste zing finds its way into myriad other winners, such as the chewy tubes of "duk" rice cakes whose taffy-like centers get the subtle contrast of a deep-fried micro-crust. Or the coffee-brined kalbi short rib, which had a nice tenderness to go with its gingery, sweet savor. Or the tuna yuk hwae, a fish variation on a traditional raw-beef dish that brings threads of tuna with a quail egg hemmed in by crunchy rails of deep-fried rice.
Doma also serves some of the best bao buns in town - a David Chang-influenced dish, rather than strictly Korean. The fluffy steamed white buns are smeared with a blend of hoisin and Kewpie mayonnaise, and come with quick pickles and a choice of tender pork-belly slices, chewy teriyaki shiitakes, or deep-fried oysters (my least favorite).
Sushi, of course, is Doma's calling card. But while there are several highlights, this is also where the restaurant's limitations and true identity as a neighborhood spot, rather than a citywide destination, are most evident. The Moons had aspired to feature some more expensive exotic fish, which some of the city's best sushi bars offer. But when no one bought it, Patti said, sushi chef Yong Sutanto was relegated to working with the usual sushi suspects, save for the occasional live scallop.
Of course, Sutanto artfully conjures some true delights with those familiar flavors. Topping raw oysters with an orange petal of sea urchin, ponzu, and jewels of salmon roe is an inspired stroke of contrasting oceanic textures - slippery, creamy, pop. Even something as seemingly simple as reimagining the presentation of sashimi can have an impact; rolling long strips of fish around a complementary accent (radish sprouts for tuna, shiso for fluke, avocado for salmon) revealed new personalities for each fish.
Along those lines, the luscious pads of salmon carpaccio topped with a soy-onion vinaigrette, and the "tuna club," a triangle-cut sandwich cleverly reimagined with rice for bread and spicy minced raw tuna for filling, are memorable efforts from the sushi bar.
The myriad variations on maki rolls, less so. These colorful multi-ingredient rolls are inevitably the most popular items at American sushi bars, but few of Doma's efforts were especially distinctive. I liked the contrasting textures of the lightly torched albacore wrapped around the "triple spicy double tuna roll," and the pairing of kiwi with yellowtail in "hamachi verde." But the lobster tail roll was poorly wrapped; its fried tail meat had long since lost its crisp. The Ooki eel roll was overwhelmed by too much spicy mayonnaise. The softshell crab was soggy. The crispy rice crackers beneath the "Naked Salmon" tartare roll were so chewy they stuck to my teeth.
All in all, Umai Umai (on 22d Street) is still the neighborhood's best sushi bar. But when it comes to sleek ambience and a strong cooked-food kitchen, Doma more than holds its own.
And that includes several dishes with a more traditional Japanese flair - an okonomiyaki pancake heartily filled with seafood and cabbage, then streaked with sauces and bonito shavings that flutter in the heat; perfectly crisped chicken cutlets for the straight-ahead tonkatsu. The simply broiled salmon, meanwhile, reposed on mixed greens with a side of gingery dressing, makes an ideal warm-weather lunch.
I only wish Doma did more with noodles than the simple udon stir-fry with teriyaki chicken skewers. Patti promises more soon - some cold buckwheat zaru soba for the summer months, and, perhaps by fall, a bowl ramen in soulfully rich pork broth that Robert is still perfecting.
Go ahead and call me greedy. But since the food gods already deigned to transform our dining wasteland into Callowhill's humble new restaurant row, are a few nice noodle dishes too much to hope for?
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews the South Philadelphia Tap Room. Contact him at 215-854-2682 or email@example.com.