Twenty-two years ago, when Peter Huang opened his first sushi restaurant in Columbia, Md., people thought he was a fool to serve raw fish to Americans.
Bethesda-area residents are crazy for sushi, and the sushi options keep growing. Sushi-Ko, long a favorite of sushi lovers in Washington, D.C., now has a location in Friendship Heights. Doraku Sushi opened on Norfolk Avenue in Bethesda in April. There’s even a sushi bar, Umi Sushi, in the Doubletree Bethesda Hotel. But not all sushi is created equal. Some sushi restaurants outpace others when it comes to freshness, creativity and presentation. Here are a few of our favorites.
Although brand new, Sushi Oishii carries with it 24 years of sushi restaurant experience. Owner Peter Huang, who trained for two years in his native Taiwan before coming here in 1984, has two restaurants in Columbia and two in Baltimore. He trains his own chefs in the intricacies of making sushi—press it gently, for example, or you’ll break the bead of the rice and alter the taste. Huang also has a very enthusiastic daughter, Susan Huang, at the front of the house. Susan makes it her business to get to know the customers—many of whom already are regulars.
Sushi Oishii’s décor is comfortable, but not dazzling, and enough families with children dine here to keep it just this side of chic. There was a wait the night we visited, but the delay was worth it—I found a version of my favorite sushi roll here: the “bridal veil” roll (as shown on our front cover) with translucent rice paper barely muting the pink of the tuna laid on top of a roll that included a spicy lobster mix. Despite the roll’s distinctive lobster flavor, it never overwhelmed the purity of the raw tuna on top.
Other rolls at Sushi Oishii go beyond the usual volcanoes and dynamites with offbeat ingredients such as seaweed salad, mango and jumbo lump crabmeat. To honor tradition, the chefs revere presentation. Sushi, Susan says, “is considered a piece of art.” Different plates in different shapes and colors, along with traditional garnishes, transport customers into an Asian experience.
On many days, Peter Huang visits the seafood market in Jessup, Md., at 4:30 a.m. to purchase tuna. Other sources of fish include Japanese vendors he has bought from for years for his other restaurants.
9706 Traville Gateway Drive, Rockville
At Tako Grill, the wait staff looks hip in black T-shirts emblazoned with a fanciful red octopus logo (“tako” is Japanese for octopus).
I feel like I’ve been swept into an urban-cool restaurant complete with low lighting and a fountain in the bar. That feeling extends to the menu, which offers the crisp, clean authenticity of Japanese food garnished with ponzu and nuta sauce, wakame and shiso.
The sushi is fresh and beautifully presented. “First people see, then they taste,” chef Masa Kudo says. “It has to be beautiful.”
This sushi also stays true to its roots. Though there are plenty of concessions to wannabe sushi lovers who favor the California roll—a combination roll of avocado, cucumber and cooked crab—there is also a fine selection of sashimi (that’s the fish without the sushi rice) and a long list of hard-tofind à la carte sushi. Chirashi, pieces of fish “scattered” on a bed of sushi rice, is also on the menu. There are nine different kinds of fish in the dish, the traditional number in Japan. The maki (sushi rolls) menu keeps up with other trendy sushi restaurants, with predictable combinations such as dragon roll (eel, cucumber and avocado) and volcano roll (eel, avocado, cucumber and tempura bits with salmon and sesame on the outside). Those rolls please the American clientele, says owner Terry Segawa. “Japanese people eat nigiri,” he says, referring to fish laid on top of sushi rice, rather than rolled in it. “Japanese customers ask only what’s fresh today. American customers ask what’s new.”
Tako Grill gets crowded on weekends. Tables are relatively close together, so there’s not much privacy, and the efficiency of the wait staff—there are a lot of them—makes for a lot of bustling. It’s not a quiet spot. But it’s among the best.
7756 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda
The rotary sushi bar at Matuba is a big attraction—and also a bit of a gimmick. The conveyor belt parades little plates of hand rolls (cone-shaped nori with sushi rice and fish or vegetables), nigiri, maki, teriyaki, edamame, tempura and more before customers who are sitting at the sushi bar in the back dining room (all-you-can-eat lunch, $13). But just because it’s a gimmick doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to sit there and pluck the more tempting dishes from the belt.
If you want food plated to order, have a seat at the more conventional tables and chairs or at the sushi bar in front. Matuba caters to Americans, so many of the rolls include cooked or mixed ingredients such as smoked salmon and spicy tuna or yellow tail. Matuba gets points for creativity. Though I personally don’t care to fold what seem like the elements of more conventional, finished dishes into a sushi roll, others apparently like this combination. You’ll find a tuna tataki roll of seared tuna with red wine sauce and chive oil, and a crab tower, with fried soft shell and vegetables with yuzu sauce.
Despite its creative reach, Matuba grew from a solid traditional base. Owner Kunio Yasutake began his career with a sushi restaurant in Japan, and his menu urges customers to “enjoy these specials without using soy sauce.” Dousing everything in soy is an American habit; for those die-hard soy dippers, Yasutake advises touching just a small piece of the fish to the sauce—not the rice, which tends to fall apart.
Yasutake brings authenticity to the table. He is a member of the National Sushi Society, teaches sushi making and sake tasting through National Geographic and other venues and works the National Cherry Blossom Festival each year as a vendor. Though he’s not always behind the sushi bar at Matuba, he does like to share his art whenever he can. “I like to serve something you’ve never tried,” he says. “It’s more fun to exchange culture.”
Matuba Japanese Restaurant
4918 Cordell Avenue, Bethesda
“The customers make the restaurant,” says Hyun Kwon, who runs Hinode Japanese Restaurant in Bethesda and owns two others in Rockville and Frederick. The best thing about Hinode is the warm welcome it gives to regulars, many of whom dined there as children and return during visits from college.
One attraction for repeat customers is the sushi buffet at lunch. The all-you-can- eat spread ($10.95) is particularly popular among young diners, allowing them to try different sushi without committing to something unfamiliar. The selection of more than 20 different items is heavy on cooked sushi. Labels indicate what’s cooked and what’s raw—perfect for a first-time sushi adventure. There are even rolls that are tempura-fried. The buffet also includes traditional tempura, dumplings, two kinds of meat and several salads (the cucumber and carrot combination is especially good).
But the attraction of Hinode also is its downfall. Sushi that sits out on a buffet counter gets tired. Rice dries; fish gets rubbery. Also, the fish is sliced so thin that each nigiri or maki is mostly rice, and if you peel the fish off one nigiri and add a double layer to another (as some customers must have done in the past) you’ll be charged $1 extra for every ball of fish-less rice you leave on your plate.