Wait For It…

Yuzu's a great addition to the sushi scene; it just needs work on handling a crowd

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On a Saturday night at Yuzu, we waited so long for a second round of sushi to arrive that we just paid the bill and left before it came. That’s never happened to me at a restaurant.

This lapse in service is both good and bad news for Yuzu, the Japanese restaurant that’s named after the Asian citrus fruit and opened in the former Divino Lounge space in Bethesda in April.

Good news, because it meant the restaurant was busy; bad news, because it apparently can’t handle a crowd. Our server did try to compensate us during the interminable wait with a free dish of grilled beef, but it was a disappointing substitute.

On a Thursday evening a few weeks later, however, it was a completely different story. We were the only ones in the restaurant for happy hour, and as a result, the service was noticeably attentive.

And so it goes. Yuzu has had its ups and downs since it opened, but offers enough interesting, well-executed dishes to make the restaurant a worthwhile addition to Bethesda’s Japanese eateries.

The sushi master is Yoshihisa Ota, 46, who was most recently a partner and chef at Kushi Izakaya in Washington, D.C. His résumé includes a stint as head sushi chef and sake sommelier at Sushiko in Chevy Chase, and he owned his own restaurant in Japan before moving to the United States in 2010.

Given Ota’s background, it’s not surprising that he knows raw fish, and he’s compiled a traditional and authentic roster of sushi and sashimi. Whether it’s the salmon sashimi, a selection of nigiri or maki rolls, the blowtorched aburi choices, delicate scallop carpaccio thinly sliced and drizzled with yuzu dressing, or the nightly specials delivered from Japan, such as houbou (blue fin robin), isaki (grunt), or aji (horse mackerel), all are silken, fresh and nicely presented. I’d rank the quality of the fish in the upper tier of local sushi eateries.  

As for cooked items, the kitchen does an A-plus job with deep-frying. Don’t miss the corn tempura, a house specialty that is truly special. The tennis ball-sized orb looks like a popcorn snack from an amusement park, and though it’s stuck together with tempura batter instead of caramel, pulling off the crackly, full-of-flavor kernels is equally fun.

Satoimo—fried soft potatoes that resemble Tater Tots—come in a flavorful dashi broth swimming with onions and herbs. Fried chicken nuggets (called kaarage on the happy hour menu, tatsuta age on the regular menu) are much better than the American original. The dark meat stays moist on the inside, the exterior is super crisp, and the accompanying lime wedges and mound of salt flecked with chili pepper dress it all up. The salty-crunchy combination also goes great with Umeshu, a refreshing plum wine cocktail that I’d recommend be ordered mixed with green tea.

Age nasu dengaku is labeled a “staff favorite” on the menu and it’s easy to see why. The deep-fried eggplant half, stuffed with ground chicken flavored with miso sauce, is nothing to look at, but the mixture of fleshy, earthy vegetable and soft, slightly sweet filling makes for a comforting combo.    

Miso also is used to marinate the black cod, but the sauce lacks restraint, turning the flesh almost too sweet and syrupy. Instead, opt for the grilled yellowtail cheek—big chunks of cheek meat with a terrific grilled flavor.  

Since Yuzu opened, the beige walls have been spruced up with framed tenugui cloth from Japan, but it is still spare and plain, like most Japanese restaurants. A little roof over the sushi bar provides some distraction; the bar is where Ota prepares his reservations-only customized menus known as omakase.

Another thing that’s a bit spare is the portions. In fact, you may need to order another round of food to fill up. Just don’t come too hungry on a Saturday night.

Yuzu

7345 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda, 301-656-5234, yuzubethesda.com

HOURS
Open for lunch, noon to 2:30 p.m. daily; for dinner, 5 to 10 p.m. daily. Happy hour, 5 to 6:30 p.m. daily.

BEVERAGES
Small beer and wine selection, plus intriguing specialty cocktails, such as a sake martini. Gourmet hot teas include organic Japanese green tea with yuzu peel.

RESERVATIONS
Strongly recommended on weekends, available on OpenTable. Reservations required for the Chef’s Table, available Thursday through Saturday evenings. The chef will prepare a customized meal for $80, $100 or $120 per person.

PRICES
Sushi sets range from $18 to $35; maki rolls, $4 to $10 (for six pieces); nigiri, $4 to $14 (for two pieces); sashimi, $8 to $15; cooked items, $4 to $15.

FAVORITE DISHES
Aburi 5 (5 nigiri served aburi-style), natto sashimi (salmon), scallop carpaccio, age nasu dengaku, corn tempura, satoimo, kaarage (or tatsuta age) fried chicken nuggets, grilled yellowtail cheek

GOOD PLACE TO GO FOR
Traditional and better-than-average sushi

PARKING
Street parking and public lots

Carole Sugarman is the magazine’s food editor.

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