Much of the Japanese food in DC is eaten in one of two ways: out of plastic trays delivered to your dorm room or office, or at the bar at one of two high-end establishments, eye to eye with the chef, and at great expense. The Sushi Taro of yore, which struck the precise midpoint between these two extremes, has been replaced by a third expensive (and excellent) restaurant.
Taro and its ilk are reserved for special occasions (say, engagements), and the other places are wholly unremarkable. So what's a gal to do when she wants interesting Japanese food that doesn't break the bank? Where are the mid-range, high-quality, lively-atmosphered Japanese restaurants? As it happens, they're across town.
It seems my corner of Northwest is less of a destination for aspiring restauranteurs than it used to be. The new guys are setting up shop in NoMa -- North of Mass (or, as it's been diminutively tagged, NoMan'sLand). Why? Beats me. 5th and K isn't exactly the center of town. But judging by the crop of promising new restaurants in the area, I'm gearing up for more trips that direction in the future.
The new guys, in this case, include Kushi, and thanks to the kind folks at Foodbuzz, I ate there on Saturday night with a few friends. The trip was part of Foodbuzz's 24,24,24 event: 24 blogs, 24 cities, 24 memorable meals. Someone across the country probably hosted an Italian dinner party, and I was off to Kushi. The goal: wrap my head around sake, and see what all the fuss is about. Also: eat some really good fish.
Saturday night is certainly not the ideal time to eat sushi, since fish deliveries happen Tuesday through Thursday. The freshness of the fish at Kushi would have you fooled, though. Yellowtail tasted like the ocean while retaining its distinctive tang, and a nigiri of saba, or mackerel, was slick and sweet but not the least bit oily, one of the best bites of fish I've ever had.
But let's back up. Before a piece of fish even passed our lips, we encountered the only gimmick of the evening: a server came by with a tray full of different sake cups, and let us each pick one. Shortly thereafter, we were sipping (actually, some of us were gulping) cups of cold, semi-sweet sake. Over the course of the evening, we worked our way from sweet sakes to drier ones, which, if you're used to drinking wine, seems counterintuitive. But sweet sake isn't actually all that sweet -- it's just lighter, less intense, more refreshing. The drier varieties stood up to the fish better than those early cups.
Here's another counterintuitive thing about sake: some of the nice stuff actually comes in a can. When our server set our last order of sake down on the table, we all watched in mild disbelief as she lifted the tab, spritzed it open, peeled back the metal cover more familiar on canned fruit cocktail, and replaced it with a plastic cap. When she saw our faces, she laughed; she probably gets that response often. The cans are underrated here in the States, she said -- she walks down the street in New York drinking one, and people assume it's soda. Good to know.
Whoever first thought to pair sushi and sake is a genius. The fish, slick and fatty, contrasts with the sweet tanginess of the rice, and the fermented, slightly bitter but very refreshing notes of the sake help wash it all down. Sake operates like pickled ginger, the pregnant pause between bites and a palate cleanser of sorts.
When you're alternating between smooth slices of salmon atop perfect logs of rice, humble "onigiri" rice balls with cooked fish tucked in the center, skewers of robata (charcoal-grilled protein and vegetables), braised daikon with three kinds of miso, crispy soy-glazed fried chicken, and more, those palate cleansers are key. They give the meal some flow, separating slurps of soup from bites of crispy, luscious duck leg. And I slipped "braised daikon" in there with nary an explanation -- an unjust treatment of one of my favorite dishes of the evening. The japanese white radish had been braised in dashi (fish and seaweed stock) until fall-apart tender, the small chunks of vegetable then cloaked in three types of sweet, mellow miso, all utterly addictive.
Dishes as complex as these deserve competent and unobtrusive service, and Kushi has that in spades. Our server was gracious and diligent, but casual and unpretentious. She chatted just enough to make us feel at home, but avoided the in-your-face "are you ready to experience genius at work?" shtick present at some other new restaurants in the area. This is straightforward good food. Actually, really good food. But feel free to show up in (nice) jeans. Nothing about Kushi is stuffy.
Filled to the brim with fish and sake galore, we ended our meal the way all meals should end: with ice cream. I think most of Kushi's selections come from Dolcezza, an excellent gelateria here in DC -- but at least one, the pineapple pepper sorbet, is made in-house. We had that, along with the meyer lemon-sochu, the ginger, and everyone's favorite -- sea salt. Yes, sea salt ice cream. A simple base of eggless vanilla is tempered with just enough sea salt that the ice cream is curiously, wonderfully savory, not too sweet, and not downright salty, as we'd worried it would be. I'll be trying this at home soon.
It probably goes without saying that our meal at Kushi was memorable. If you're ever in the area, don't be lazy...go to 5th and K and give it a try. Both the sushi and the sake won't disappoint.
Kushi Izakaya 465 K St, Washington (202) 682-3123