Kushi Izakaya & Sushi

KushiKitchen1 Last March, Kushi opened its doors in the Mount Vernon Square neighborhood, and brought a new kind of restaurant to Washington DC -- the Izakaya. An Izakaya is a sort of Japanese gastropub, a drinking establishment with a wealth of small plates, suitable for mixing, matching and sharing with friends over a few glasses of sake. It seems owners Darren and Ari Norris have hit upon a recipe for success, with their young sushi bar being called "the year's most exciting restaurant" by Washingtonian Magazine, and ranked 22 in their much vaunted "100 Best" list. It took awhile, but late last month, I was finally able to make the trek over to check it out.

KushiOutsideFirst of all, Kushi wins big points on personality and presentation. Coming through the doors on a frigid night, we were met by a blast of warm, savory smelling air from the giant central kitchen. The space is bustling, but pretty wide open, dominated by the open kitchen / sushi bar, with a smaller bar area and several tables placed in its orbit. The fun and lively atmosphere is accented by the hectic but disciplined kitchen, which is a great show in itself, with the chefs slinging maki and stoking the wood and charcoal fired grill. The staff worked well and cohesively through the night; while there was the occasional bit of confusion, all the servers and runners were very friendly, and happy to field questions or just shoot the breeze.

  KushiSakeSpread In addition to a handful of draughts and a decent wine list, Kushi has an extensive sake list, with some 15 sakes available by the bottle or carafe, and five different plum wines, to boot. It looks like they are working on developing an innovative cocktail program, too, which may be something to keep an eye on.

KushiFishGrill The food menu is so huge as to be a bit overwhelming. It is split into several sub-categories, reflecting the numerous styles of cuisine available, including the full range of sushis, Robata (wood grill), Kobachi (small plates), Gohan (rice and soup) and Kushiyaki (Charcoal Grilled Skewers). Frankly, I wish I had gone with more people, for being only a party of two, we could only try so much. Of course, we made a valiant effort, and did try SO much, so I'll just hit the highlights for ya.

KushiSalmon+Uni   The sushi was, across the board, of very high quality, and very well cut. The seared fatty salmon was melt-in-your-mouth soft, and served up nice and warm; the uni was clearly very fresh, and not nearly as fishy as some I have had. I was a bit disappointed that they were out of every variety of toro, but the Japanese swordfish we had instead was well textured, and also quite fresh.

KushiCustard One of the best features of the night was the special Chawanmushi, a soft egg custard made with mirin, mushrooms, and seafood. The texture was exquisitely silky, and the flavor an ethereal mix of subtle fishiness, a salty / sweet contrast, and earthy mushroom undertones. I believe they change this one up on a weekly basis -- in any case, for $7.00, this is a dish well worth trying.

KushiOctopus The grilled items were a mixed bag. While the grilled oysters we had were perfectly cooked and delicious, the clams were overcooked and rubbery. Likewise, the grilled squid legs, while pleasantly crunchy on the edges, were tough and rubbery otherwise. We also tried the grilled chicken livers and found  them overly grainy, another sign that what we were served had been overcooked. Finally, we sampled the grilled okra and leeks, which were good, and a novel approach to vegetables, but not much of a bargain at the price -- $3.00 per small portion, versus $6 to $10 for the more sizable meat plates.

KushiClam+OysterAll in all we had about 12 plates and three drinks apiece, and the bill came to just over $100.00. Not too shabby for a night out for two. Despite the hiccups in the grilling department, we had a great time, as the staff and atmosphere go a long way. If you can gather up a small group of adventurous eaters and drinkers who like a good time and don't mind the occasional failed experiment, get yourself to Kushi early and see if you can stake out some bar-space.


Kushi Izakaya & Sushi 
465 K St, NW 
Washington, DC 20001
(202) 682-3123 ‎

Omakase at Sushi Taro

Taro1 Last week I received a fabulous surprise birthday gift, when Eliza took me to Sushi Taro for omakase. For those that don't know, omakase pretty much means "your call," an instruction giving the chef carte blanche to serve up whatever he thinks is best. This is a commonly offered option in Japan, but not widely available in DC -- I'm told it took quite a bit of research to track the service down. So this is something I had wanted to do for ages, but other than eating way more fish than my stomach can technically hold, I had no idea what to expect.

Sushi Taro has taken quite a bit of flack on the internet since its complete restructuring back in late 2008; I'd never been, but it seems they converted from a typical Japanese sushi and noodle shop to something a bit more upscale. Lots of people on Yelp call the new Taro "soulless," and other equally unflattering things, swearing to never come back. That said, the place was bumpin' when we arrived around 7:00 last Saturday, and were led by the perfectly lovely front of house staff to a small room at the back of the restaurant. Inside was a small six-seater sushi bar, at the corner of which sat another couple sipping sake. We ordered a couple drinks, settled in, and waited for the chef to arrive.

What followed was a magical three hours, and one of the greatest food experiences of my life. I wasn't even planning on reviewing it (hence the few, mediocre pictures), but we had such a fantastic time I just had to share.

TaroApp1 The meal is split into three distinct courses: Appetizers, sashimi, and finally sushi. The appetizers consisted of a mix of traditional japanese small plates. The chef's signature starch cake, a soft, almost gelatinous brick served in bonito broth and topped with Uni, was not my favorite thing in the world; its completely foreign texture made a pretty scary start to the meal, leaving us both wondering if we were up for what we had gotten ourselves into. From there, it was only uphill. Next came a fried cake made from tiny shrimp available only in the spring, and then a plate of seasonal fishes, including a whole firefly squid, and fantastic miniature conch that had been slowly braised for almost seven hours. With each plate came a description by the chef, explaining to us the dish's origin, and how it was prepared. A consistent theme throughout the apps, which would continue through the other courses, was an emphasis on using rare seasonal fish.

Next came the sashimi. The chef pulled out five square boxes from the refrigerator beneath the bar, which contained the day's fish offerings. He spent the next ten minutes showing us all the fish, and describing each in detail. We were welcomed to select whatever fish we wanted, but being a bit overwhelmed by the choices, we left ourselves in his hands.

The fish was of a quality I had never experienced. I love toro, and I thought I knew it well; the piece that the chef expertly sliced and plated before me was so sweet, rich and velvety, I am hesitant to even compare it to toro I have had in the past. This course was six or seven servings long, the highlights being the aforementioned toro, white salmon (which was in fact real salmon, but so high in fat that it is white), and the live scallop, shucked and prepared right before our eyes.

Right after we finished the scallop, the couple down the bar asked the chef if they served something in particular; the word was Japanese, and I didn't understand. The chef laughed, and said no, because it was not popular, but that he would gladly do it for them. He proceeded to open another scallop, and described the process, as he removed the innards (liver, intestines, etc), then separated the nervous system, and minced it into a sort of sauce, which he served on top. And hey, it turns out he'd made enough for four! Now, earlier I had already eaten a whole squid and some transparent baby eels served as noodles, so I couldn't really balk at this -- fortunately, it was delicious! The texture of the liver was almost like foie gras, and the sauce had a briny, low-tide flavor the likes of which I have never tasted.

TaroShabu Our sashimi plates were removed, and replaced with a one foot square ceramic box. This is the traditional vessel for preparing Shabu-shabu - meat or vegetables lightly cooked in hot broth. Typically patrons are given a piece of raw wagyu beef, which is steeped in the broth for about a minute before eaten; we picked a lucky day, as the chef had some special seasonal toro which was perfect for the preparation. I kind of thought it a perversion to cook such a piece of fish, but the quick broth bath really enhanced the fish's flavor, and made the resulting meat even more buttery and delicious.

The final course -- because we clearly hadn't eaten nearly enough -- was a round of sushi. Again, we let the chef do the picking, though I did insist that we try my favorite go-to, the unagi. The fish was prepared as a simple nigiri, served with two different soy sauces, one standard, and one spiked with ginger. My beloved eel, while pleasant, paled when compared to the smoked salmon and the tuna cheek meat, which made a normal cut of tuna seem dry by comparison. I got the impression that the chef would have kept serving us until we couldn't move, but we stopped at about five or six rounds. The whole affair was capped with a small jelly of fresh fruit and a pot of green tea.

TaroDessert At the meal's conclusion, the chef actually apologized for the lack of attention, as the restaurant was packed, and he was doing a lot of the prep for the main dining room. In fact, the chef (who as it turns out was also the owner, Nobu Yamazaki) was extremely gracious, informative, and friendly, not to mention super talented with that knife. We had absolutely no complaints about the service, which makes me wonder how attentive they are on a quiet night!

Rates for the sushi bar seem to vary with the market; at the time, we were told that we would have to purchase a "minimum" of $120 worth of sushi each. I am not sure how they meter that, as there is no menu, but we accepted everything offered, and did not incur any upcharges. The sake list is a bit expensive, so we brought our own bottle from home, which the chef was more than happy to open and serve us, for a $25 corking fee. All told, with tax and tip, the bill came in at just under $400, which I believe is actually cheaper than it would have been had we ordered all that sushi ala carte.

Though the price keeps this from being a monthly sort of event, Chef Yamazaki's emphasis on seasonal ingredients makes me very curious to visit sometime in the summer or winter, and see what crosses my plate. The entire experience from beginning to end was beautiful; the food, the ambiance, and the adventure of it would be incredibly hard to match. I absolutely cannot wait to go again.

Sushi Taro
1503 17th Street NW
Washington, DC 20036-6230
(202) 462-8999

Fun with Japanese Cultural Studies!

Before I begin, DCFoodies.com would like to congratulate Samantha Cummings, winner of our Savor trivia raffle! We got a great response with over 100 entries, just about half of whom responded with the correct answer, California Common. Samantha's entry was picked at random from amongst all the correct responses. Thank you all for playing!

Cherbloss1_2In 1912 the mayor of Tokyo made a gift to our fair city of 3,000  Japanese Cherry Trees, initiating a local love affair with the trees' annual blossoms for which this town, after corruption and humidity, is most well known. In time with the flowers' height, DC hosts a surfeit of Japanese cultural events, including bonsai displays, kabuki theater, productions of The Mikado (because few people know that Gilbert and Sullivan were born in Okinawa), and the like. I don't know about you, but thoughts of Japan immediately turn my mind to that most esoteric of beverages, sake. This unfortunate drink is oft misunderstood and mischaracterized, relegated to the bottom of wine shop shelves and abused by many a sushi joints' microwave. In point of fact, sake is a fantastic beverage as diverse in style and as nuanced as any wine, and as significant a cultural touchstone as any product of Japanese art.

The most prevalent misunderstanding as regards sake is its characterization as "rice wine," which is an egregious misnomer. Unlike wine, whose base ingredient is possessed of enough simple sugar to allow easy fermentation, sake's main ingredient, rice, needs be broken down by outside agents before it may be set upon by yeast. In this, sake is actually a much closer relation to beer, though where the grain that makes the base of our favorite brews needs only a simple malting (or, partial germination), sake rice requires a further helping hand.

For fermentation to occur in any circumstance, simple sugar must be present. Where barley and other beer making starch bases are rich in enzymes which aid in breaking down the complex sugars, rice grains are not so pliable. Legend has it that in olden times, entire Japanese villages would gather together near feast days and chew copious amounts of rice and other grains, which they would then spit into large tubs left open to the elements — though they could not have known why, the hypothetical Nipponese primitives had discovered that the chewing action plus saliva and air equaled a kick-ass harvest celebration! In fact, the enzymes in human saliva are some of the most powerful in the animal kingdom, and the villagers' expectorate was interacting with wild yeast in the air to make alcohol! So, it is said, sake was born. (Neat, huh?)

Contemporary producers, of course, are far more gracious when it comes to making sake: they use mold. The wonder spore, when placed in the presence of rice, heat, and water, will begin to break down the starch into dextrose, upon which the yeast is free to act.

Cherbloss2 The other major inaccuracy harming sake's reputation is the misconception that it is always served hot. In fact, heating sake serves the same purpose that spawned mulled wine and food seasoning — that is, to transform something nasty into something consumable. Before and during World War II, the Japanese were experiencing shortages even greater than those on our own home-front. In the interest of keeping their troops fed and the populous well supplied, sake breweries began adulterating their product with copious amounts of grain alcohol. As the amount of "sake" was often trebled in this process, the result came to be known as "triple sake."  Though this innovative beverage might have been good for the bottom line, it was not exactly palatable, and in order to cover up the foul odor of straight booze, Japanese drinkers would heat the "sake" to the point where it didn't smell like much at all! While triple sake is not easily found on these shores, a low grade, partially augmented product known as futsushu, or "ordinary sake," is legion, and also requires some double-boiler action before it may be choked down.

Most quality sake is made from just four ingredients: rice, water, mold, and yeast. These sakes, called junmai, take on an array of unique flavor characteristics derived from production method, minerals in the water, type of rice and so forth. As such, in order to get the most out of a junmai's ample bouquet, it is best served between slightly cold and room temperature. Kurhak2_3 Junmais may run from intensely sweet to mouth puckeringly dry, and flavors cover the spectrum from berries to grains, vanilla to pepper. Prices vary depending on method and quality, but just as with wine, price does not dictate your level of enjoyment. Also, though sake has not the body to stand up to, say, a porterhouse, food pairing options go far beyond the tuna roll.
Look for more on sake down the road. In the meantime, for the novice seeking an intro to sake without a huge initial investment, I suggest picking up a carton of Kuromatsu Hakushika Junmai. Though a bit off-putting in it's 900ml carton, this sake is one of the best I've found for the price, being widely available for less than $15! Chill the carton to near ice cold, then sip the sake as it warms up and evolves, expressing notes of rice pudding, vanilla and umami. Oh, and feel free to invite some friends — I mean, no one can be expected to drink 900ml of sake alone on his first try.

Kotobuki Japanese Restaurant

Last night, Amy and I had our first dinner out with our son Noah. We were pretty nervous about what would happen. Would Noah fuss the entire time and make everybody's dinner miserable or would he be the adorable little angel that he usually is? Only time would tell.

We decided we wanted to go somewhere really casual. It'd been about nine months since Amy had eaten sushi, and she really had a craving for it -- I didn't blame her. If I'd gone that long without sushi, I'd probably go out of my mind.

I'd read about Kotobuki -- how its prices were extremely cheap and its sushi is optimally fresh. I figured this was a good time to try it. Getting to Kotobuki isn't the easiest task in the world. If you can find a direct route from Cleveland Park to Palisades, you know DC streets better than I. It took me a lot longer than it should've to get there.

On the way over, I could tell there was a possibility that Noah was going to have a fussy night. Usually a car ride puts him right to sleep, but this time he was fussing and crying on and off. Luckily, the drive was longer than I thought so he was asleep by the time we were there.

There's plenty of parking on the streets around Kotobuki, which is good because the only Metro access is via bus. The closest Metro station is Foggy Bottom.

The restaurant is located in a townhouse. The top level is Kotobuki, the ground floor is the restaurant's office and the bottom floor is Makoto, the excellent Japanese restaurant that DC Foodies are all too familiar with. I'm assuming that both Makoto and Kotobuki are owned by the same people, although I could be wrong.

We walked up to the second floor at about 8:30 PM. There isn't a whole lot of room up there. At the top of the stairs is a short sushi bar with five chairs. Around the room are small two-person tables that are as close to each other as seats on a Metro bus. Luckily, the waitress was able to clear a three-seater table in the corner so we didn't have to put Noah and his car seat on the floor.

There were a total of five people working the restaurant: two sushi chefs and three or four waitresses. I'd say the whole place can hold about 20 people at the most, and there was a full house that night.

The restaurant is decorated fairly makeshift, but with prices as cheap as you get at Kotobuki, who the hell cares. I took a look at the menu and my eyes nearly popped out of my head. I mean, seriously, it's $1 a piece for most of the Nigiri Sushi and prices peak at $1.75 a piece for Toro (fatty tuna). Most rolls are $2.55 or $3 for six pieces. I wondered if I'd been caught in some worm hole and shot back to 1984.

Noah continued to be the little angel that he is. He just sat there quietly. I think The Beatles music playing over the speakers was soothing to him. Plus, I've noticed from our few trips to restaurants for lunch over the last couple weeks that he's at home at a restaurant. He likes the white noise in the background.

Ok, so what was the sushi actually like? Well, we waited a while for our sushi to come -- probably about 25 minutes, so keep in mind that I was famished by the time our food was brought to out table. Kotobuki is certainly not a place to go if you want a quick in-and-out bite to eat. We ordered a couple rolls and about six or so Nigiri: toro, salmon, yellowtail and scallop. Surprisingly enough, I thought the BBQ eel roll was one of the best I'd ever had. The spicy tuna roll was quite spicy -- not hot, but spicy, and they didn't use Tabasco like some places. I saw some red pepper in the tuna which is why I think it was better. Every once in a while though, I'd get a little chewy fat in the fish which I didn't like so much, but I learned to ignore it.

The scallop Nigiri was similar. The scallop tasted very fresh and practically melted in my mouth. I was enjoying it until I got a few crunches in the flesh of the scallop that sent my opinion of the scallop sushi southward. All of the other Nigiri were very fresh and tender though.

One thing worth mentioning is that there are only two beers on the menu: Bud and Sapporo. That's not much of a choice, but Sapporo is as good a beer as any other, especially with sushi. We asked for iced tea and the waitress brought out two cans of Japanese imported green tea. I would have sent it back, thinking it would be like some sweetened Nestea or something. But I was glad I didn't because it actually turned out to be quite tasty.

The bill was very cheap in the end. For four rolls, six Nigiri sushi, two iced teas and three beers, we paid less than $40. That would have run us at least $60 at Sushi Sushi or Spices and at least $80 at Sushi-Ko. Now was it as good as those other places? It was certainly better than the sushi at Sushi Sushi and Spices, although I'd say that Sushi-Ko was better. But twice as good? Probably not.

I'll finish this review with a cute Noah story....About halfway through eating our sushi, Noah started to cry. Amy picked him up and was successful at calming him down. I continued to eat and a little while later Amy handed him over to me so she could eat as well. I liked the BBQ eel roll so much I asked for another and that was where the fun started. Imagine eating sushi (with chopsticks) with one hand and rocking a baby with the other and all the while singing "Love Me Do" softly. I mastered that act quite well I believe. For my next great foodie feat, I'll do the same, but I'll eat a whole lobster at Oceanaire Seafood Room instead.


4822 MacArthur Blvd., NW
Washington, DC
(202) 625-9080

Tue-Sat: noon-3 PM
Tue-Thu: 5-11 PM
Fri-Sat: 5 PM-midnight
Sun: 5-10 pm
Dress Code: Casual
Smoking: Not Allowed
Closest Metro: Foggy Bottom
Parking: Ample street parking
Reservations: Not taken.