Chinatown Sushi Stalwart Sei Resurfaces in an Unlikely Place

During its 12-year run in the heart of Chinatown, Sei was widely considered one of the top sushi and sashimi spots in town. But a lease dispute caused the glowing white mainstay to suddenly closed in 2019, with a departing sign on its 7th Street NW door signaling “something new and special,” in the future.

The sorely missed staple, which counted the Obamas among its last Chinatown customers, made good on that promise. At the tail end of 2021, Japanese sushi master “Noriaki” Yasutake and his greatest raw fish hits quietly popped back up inside Dupont’s French-themed Le DeSales (1725 Desales Street NW).

The idea for Sei’s unconventional reboot inside an unrelated restaurant came to life during the pandemic, while Le DeSales remained on hiatus like many sit-down restaurants. Le DeSales’ early praise and prime placement across from the historic Mayflower hotel appealed to Sei’s longtime general manager Erdenebileg “Billy” Jigjidsuren.

“The owner wanted to try something different and something they’ve never done before,” says Jigjidsuren, who’s now general manager at Le DeSales. “I told him it would work if we had the right team in place.”

A dozen former employees at Sei, including its second-generation Japanese chef, bartenders, servers, food runners, and kitchen staff, are now working at Le DeSales. Five-year-old Le DeSales maintains real estate on the menu for French fare from its opening chef Raphael Francois.

“We aren’t French, we aren’t Asian fusion — we are a French bistro with sushi,” says Jigjidsuren. “Both chefs have no influence on each others’ menus. They do what they do.”

Le DeSales’ menu is now one part Japanese, one part French.
Le DeSales

About half of Sei’s menu made the move to Le DeSales, which most notably includes its award-winning “Fish and Chips” roll (red onion, white fish, olive oil, malt vinegar, wasabi tartare, and potato crisps).

Other top-selling comebacks include the salmon-and-strawberry “SOS” roll, a salmon cilantro roll with spicy miso and baguette crisps, and beef tartare nigiri dressed with truffle aioli and nori paste. Popular two-piece orders also include hamachi teriyaki with fried ginger and scallop aburi with uni butter.

The “SOS” roll (salmon, strawberry, cucumber, avocado, orange miso).
Le DeSales

Yasutake revives his knife skills behind a sleek new sushi counter that replaced Le DeSales’ desserts station in the back. While there’s no mention of Sei’s name anywhere, Jigjidsuren says longtime fans instantly connect the dots when they spot the same sushi and familiar faces.

“You usually recognize who were regulars at Sei,” he says. “People look at the menu and see the fish and chips roll and say, ‘You used to be a restaurant in Chinatown.’”

Sei’s rare sake and Japanese whiskey collections also live on behind Le DeSales’ serpentine-shaped bar. Ten types of whiskey pours start at $13 and soar to $32 for a taste of Yamakazi 12-year single malt. The cocktail menu also has semblances of Sei, with a Liquid Wasabi with unfiltered sake, vodka, lime juice, habanero, and ginger-infused simple syrup. The 300-bottle wine cellar at Le DeSales maintains a strong list of French and European labels.

D.C.’s decade-old Panache transformed into modern, airy Le DeSales in 2017 with Francois behind the wheel. The seasoned chef, who came up through multiple Michelin-rated restaurants in Europe, New York, and D.C., has spent lots of time in LA in recent years. In 2018 he opened French-California restaurant Tesse off Sunset Boulevard and also leads the kitchen at Fanny’s, the anticipated anchor of the glamorous new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.

This summer, Francois plans to come to D.C. to bulk up the French side of the menu that currently includes duck pate, rabbit pasta, and whole branzino. Look for Sei’s sushi staples to stick around alongside seasonal additions.

Jigjidsuren compares the dual cuisine model to downtown’s Hamilton, which fits both a sushi counter and American menu under one roof.

There are some tiny menu tweaks that speak to Sei’s new home, however.

“Instead of traditional Japanese tempura batter, we use French beignet batter for our shrimp beignet rolls,” says Jigjidsuren.

Soy sheet-wrapped shrimp beignet rolls at Le DeSales feature orange curry tartar and asparagus.
Le DeSales

The 3,100-square-foot space features slick white subway tiles, blue velvet booths, gleaming hardwoods, and chic graffiti artwork, with French doors that swing open to a seasonal sidewalk seating area. “It’s a little rustic but almost feels like Sei’s distant relative,” says Jigjidsuren, of Sei’s modern look full of red, white, and gold accents. The 119-seat count is similar to Sei’s size, he says.

Cocktails at Le DeSales.
Le DeSales

Le DeSales, which is named after its quaint alleyway it shares with the Mayflower hotel, is starting to enjoy more tourist traffic back in town. Monday service joined the mix at Le DeSales for the first time in years this week, with all-night happy hour to drum up buzz.

“We’ve heard multiple guests say it’s hard to find a decent restaurant on a Monday night. We want to fill that hole,” he says.

Sashimi and sake at Le DeSales.
Le DeSales

Lunch, currently served on Wednesdays to Fridays, loops in beet tartare poke bowls and bento boxes. Brunch is still en route.

During the pandemic, another stellar sushi spot popped up in an unexpected place. After parting ways with the Wharf’s high-end Japanese sushi spot Nara-Ya, Hawaiian chef Lucas Irwin now showcases his snazzy knife skills at Navy Yard’s Sukuta — a pint-sized takeout and delivery operation attached to Side Door Pizza.