With all the innovative cuisine available to the contemporary gourmand, it is amazing how the simplest preparations still have the ability to impress. For lack of human intervention, its hard to top sushi; little is any cooking, very little spicing to speak of, and when it comes to sashimi, there is naught to be done besides slapping the fish on the plate. In a world where foams and fusions are now commonplace, it is surprising that a sushi chef, using the most ancient and ascetic of processes and products, can still even raise the occasional eyebrow.
Kazuhiro Okochi (Kaz to his friends) comes from an unusual background for a sushi chef, having studied fine art in Oklahoma before a lengthy stint in Osaka, where he studied traditional Japanese, French, and Chinese styles of cooking. In 1988 he returned to the US as Executive Chef at Sushi-Ko, the oldest and most esteemed sushi bar in DC. After a decade, Kaz set off on his own, founding Kaz Sushi Bistro, which celebrated its tenth anniversary this year on April 14th. Many years ago, when both KSB and I were pretty new to the city, this place really widened my horizons, exposing a guy who could hardly stand overcooked salmon to the joys of raw fish. I have made a point of going as frequently as my checkbook will allow ever since. Realizing that it had been almost a year since our last visit, Eliza and I went with some friends during August's Restaurant Week to reacquaint ourselves with Chef Kaz's simple but extraordinary style.
Kaz does indeed have a very "bistro" feel; it is small, a little cramped even, with bare black tables and an open kitchen / sushi bar in the back. We were led to pleasant little four-top facing Eye Street. For Restaurant Week, I had always considered Kaz to be a bargain, so I was disappointed to learn that, despite the price increase, the menu structure had not changed. For $35.09, patrons are given a choice of one appetizer, six pieces of nigiri, two maki rolls, and one dessert. While options and portions are plentiful, it would have been nice to see a complimentary plum wine thrown in with the deal, or another such add-on that other restaurants have done to off-set the change. But no matter -- by the end of the night, we had ordered so much ala cart so as to render the RW menu moot.
I'm gonna cut right to the chase here: Kaz has gotten its share of mediocre reviews online from first time visitors who were left less than impressed. The California Roll, the Spicy Tuna Roll... yeah, they are good quality, but do little to justify shelling out the extra dough. Don't get me wrong -- the fish is all great, and Kaz has some of the best unagi I have found in the city. However, if one were to go in and order the usual suspects, I could totally see where he would find the hype unjustified. At Kaz, it's all about the signature stuff. The Restaurant Week menu featured a few of these -- including the Tuna with roasted Almond, which is beautiful for its balance and richness -- but we soon lost patience and started ordering some old favorites off the regular menu.
On the specials that evening was the smoked mackerel, offered both as an appetizer with seaweed and vinaigrette ($10.25), and a two piece nigiri with herb miso ($5.50). The Norwegian fatty mackerel is smoked in house, and still had that almost campfire aroma when it arrived at the table. Blissfully reminiscent of pulled pork, the mackerel was stringy and pleasantly firm, with more of that intense wood smoke on the palate, along with a slightly salty, nutty finish. This dish perfectly encapsulates the chef's ethos of combining new world flavors to a traditional dish, and is a must try if you still see it on the menu.
The previously mentioned tuna with roasted almond ($6) is also delicious, and has a wonderful crunchy and buttery texture contrast that works far better than you would expect. If your tastes are a bit more on the decadent side, the tuna with fois gras miso ($7.50) features the same great tuna richness, amplified by the tangy, gamy, fatty topping. The Kaz tuna experience is further improved by the addition of Hon, real crushed wasabi root available for $3 a teaspoon. Unlike the powdered stuff normally served, Hon is not bitingly hot, but more mildly spicy, with a pleasant green flavor, and a novel, stringy texture.
Far and away, for straight up hedonistic pleasure, nothing in town beats Kaz's seared salmon belly with soy-lemon sauce ($6.50). This sizable piece of nigiri looks obscene, all pink and glistening with fat, and smells like very mild grilled salmon. Once eaten, the sushi melts away like butter as you chew, all the
while bursting with fatty goodness, balanced perfectly with the acidic sauce. Dear lord, I swear we ordered at least eight orders of these things for the table, and even if everything else had been wretched, I would have deemed the meal a success.
If any of these sound appealing to you but you still feel a bit timid, take a friend and go for the Kaz Sushi Tasting 009 ($32), which features eight different pieces of nigiri (chef's choice, mostly from the signature menu), and one signature roll. It's a great tour of what Kaz has to offer for $16 each (assuming you don't mind splitting each piece), and I have never been disappointed or felt cheated by the chef's selection. If you are a sake fan and have some money to spend, Kaz also features a sizable selection of bottles and carafes. Though the menu is categorized by type, with a brief primer on the side, I find sake types to be ridiculously vague and unhelpful, so bring an aficionado who will know them by name. For beginners, I suggest a bottle of Kaguyahime ($38 / 500ml), which is light, floral, and just slightly off dry. All in all, though, I felt just as well served by a big ol' bottle of Kirin for nine bucks.
After such a long absence, it was nice to see that Kaz was just as grand as I'd remembered. Though undeniably pricey for a casual sushi joint, the culinary adventure that is the signature menu, and the universally fresh and high-quality fish make Kaz well worth the price paid.