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

Kaz Sushi Bistro


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.

Kaz Sushi Bistro
1915 Eye St NW
Washington, DC 20006
(202) 530-5500
Lunch: Monday through Friday, 11:30am to 2:00pm
Dinner: Monday through Saturday, 6:00pm to 10:00pm
Closed Sunday
Dress code: Casual