Where to Get Your Sushi Fix
Our dining critic visits three restaurants with raw talent.
Guess what? Although many people think that “sushi” is raw fish, that word, meaning “it’s sour,” actually pertains to the rice part of the equation—specifically the vinegar-enhanced rice that gets combined with fish or other ingredients to make sushi. Whatever the correct terminology, we love the stuff, whether it’s in the form of nigiri, maki, chirashi or some sort of hybrid that presents traditional Japanese ingredients in a playful new way.
The good news for fans: There are many fine sushi establishments in our area. I hit up three favorites—Sushi-Zen, Miyagi and Takumi—to sample offerings ranging from traditional to what some might call fusion.
You’ll feel a sense of calm the moment you walk into Takumi in Falls Church and see chef/owner Jay Yu behind the sushi counter—where you should have a seat and put yourself into his capable hands for an omakase (literal translation: “I leave it up to you!”). During the course of this culinary journey, you’ll come to understand why Yu chose to name his restaurant Takumi, which means “artisan” in Japanese.
Yu, who is Chinese, started making sushi in his 20s at a Washington, D.C.-area Safeway. He then moved on to Raku in Bethesda, where he met a Japanese chef, Toyoshima-san, who mentored him in making nigiri and rolls. From there he went to Café Asia in the District, then embarked on a 13-year stint with chef Kaz Okochi at Kaz Sushi Bistro on I Street downtown.
“Kaz was really great to me,” Yu says. “He sent me to Osaka to study with a sushi chef who was a friend of his and learn the Japanese methods firsthand. He taught me that the raw ingredients have to be good. Every chef uses quality fish, but the other ingredients have to be the best quality, too. The vinegar, the rice, the soy sauce. How you make the rice. This is what sets you apart.”
Yu opened Takumi, which seats 26, plus six at the counter, in December 2015. The menu reflects his penchant for tradition, but with a nod to modern-day refinements and tastes. You won’t find wacky rolls spritzed with sauces like a Jackson Pollock painting here. This is where you go for beautifully composed nigiri, accented with Yu’s distinct flavor touches.
That’s precisely what I did on a recent afternoon, where an omakase meal began with miso soup with kombu (seaweed) and green tea.
Next came three cunning appetizers: sea scallop ceviche with pickled asparagus tips, seaweed, sliced cucumber and shiso leaf; a duo of house-smoked mackerel and salmon-belly carpaccio topped with cherry tomato, avocado and basil; and yellowtail tartare with spicy tobiko (fish roe).
Moving on to the first nigiri course, I was treated to six delectable bites: bronzini with lime zest; madai (snapper); arctic char with yuzu (an Asian citrus fruit); striped jack with lime zest; yellowtail with uni (sea urchin); and butterfish with wasabi pickle.
Then came a second stunning array of nigiri—sea scallop, squid with lemon, Japanese horse mackerel, otoro (tuna belly) and salmon belly with sweet soy—each artfully scored in various designs and seared with a blowtorch.
I finished with yuzu sorbet, paid the bill ($90, well worth it) and faced the rest of the day with a smile.
310-B S. Washington St., Falls Church, 703-241-1128
If you’re in the mood for something over-the-top in an intimate setting, head to Miyagi in McLean, which has been owned and operated by the same family for 30 years. Co-owners Roger and Myong Dawson bought it from Myong’s aunt in 2003. Their daughter Mary is now the general manager.
Miyagi is known for its specialty rolls, created by former chef Joong Duk Moon in 2006 and now carried forth by the current chef, Sang Yim. It’s a cozy place, with 37 seats, plus six at the sushi counter.
A meal on a brisk day in March begins with a complementary bowl of tofu dressed with a zesty sesame-soy sauce. I follow that up with tuna naruto, an appetizer that finds ruby-red slices of tuna wrapped around chopped sea scallops and crab in a rich, mayonnaise-y sauce, then topped with eel sauce and avocado.
Next I hit the rolls, starting with the Red Devil, a decadent combination of crab, avocado and nori draped with salmon, then topped with little dollops of a secret-recipe red-chili paste and baked until puffy and golden brown. It’s served with drizzles of mayo sauce and eel sauce.
One particular special that catches my eye is the Avocado Bomb, which turns out to be an orange-size ball of spicy tuna and crab wrapped in avocado, topped with spicy mayo, sriracha, eel sauce and wasabi dressing, then sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds and served with fried dumpling wrappers for scooping. It is the bomb!
Finally, I indulge in Miyagi’s best-seller: the Volcano Roll, which I’m told is a kid favorite, and it’s easy to understand why. Picture a shrimp-tempura-and-avocado roll, cut into eight pieces and vertically stacked on a plate. This little tower is then topped with shredded crab stick tossed in sriracha (to resemble molten lava), spicy orange mayo (lava starting to cool) and eel sauce (lava rock). The whole of it is surrounded with a framework of volcanic “walls” made from deep-fried tempura soba (buckwheat) noodles. It’s a bit of a mess but loads of tasty fun.
6719 Curran St., McLean, 703-893-0116
Judging from the ebullient welcome customers receive upon arrival, you might call Sushi-Zen the Cheers of Arlington’s sushi scene. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the restaurant that co-owners Shoji Mochizuki and his wife, Rosie Gordon Mochizuki, opened in 1998 in a former McDonald’s in the Lee-Harrison shopping center.
“My husband’s a first-generation immigrant and I’m third-generation,” Rosie says. “He knew sushi [he had trained in area restaurants] and I had marketing experience in corporate America, so we opened a restaurant.”
The couple settled on the name Sushi-Zen because the Japanese characters for “zen” also mean “dining table.” In Japan, it’s a tradition for family and friends to gather at the table, and they wanted to create a neighborhood gathering place. “I think we succeeded,” Rosie says. “We have given jobs to many people over the years. We have a diverse staff from many countries, so we’ve fulfilled my husband’s dream of giving back and serving America.”
Sushi-Zen seats 56, plus 10 at the counter, and remains a family affair. The couple’s daughter, Malinda, lives in Colorado, but helps out with strategic planning and marketing. Their son, Brian, who started making California rolls at age 14, now serves as general manager, keeping up with trends and expanding on his father’s menu with an eye toward modern tastes and dietary preferences. He has instituted gluten-free options and added organic brown rice, organic tofu and non-GMO miso soup to the offerings—plus a few dishes that are decidedly next-generation.
Brian is the mastermind behind specialty rolls like the Cherry Blossom (avocado and salmon topped with tuna, tobiko and spicy barbecue sauce); the Hamachi Pearl roll (avocado, yellowtail, fried pearl onions and jalapeño-soy-sake sauce); the Guacamole roll (crab stick and cucumber topped with jalapeño-spiked guacamole and tiny strips of fried spring roll wrappers); and the Tarutaru roll (flounder, red onions, fried potatoes and wasabi-tartar sauce).
To say this restaurant is on a roll would be an understatement, given its longevity. Here’s to 20 more years, Sushi-Zen!
Follow the Rainbow
The current showstopper at Sushi-Zen is the Rainbow Donut. It’s based on a 2017 craze that started on the West Coast, taking Instagram by storm. “We were the first in D.C. to do it,” says general manager Brian Mochizuki. Picture a ring of sushi rice the width of a bagel, with unagi (eel) sandwiched inside. The whole assemblage is then wrapped, rainbow-roll-style, with overlapping slices of tuna, salmon, yellowtail and avocado, and topped with golden fish roe, black sesame seeds, crunchy red tempura flakes, mini rice balls and spicy barbecue sauce. If it sounds daunting and amazing, it is. “You pick it up and eat it like a sandwich,” Mochizuki says. Easier said than done. Trust me—just this once, in a Japanese restaurant, ask for a fork and knife.
2457 N. Harrison St., Arlington, 703-534-6000
Food journalists love to write pieces scolding people—particularly Americans—for making fools out of themselves with their bad sushi etiquette. We asked chef Kaz Okochi, owner of Kaz Sushi Bistro in Washington, D.C., for his take on a few often-cited offenses.
Rubbing wooden chopsticks together.
The issue: Presumably, this is to get rid of possible splinters, but you’re insulting the establishment by signaling that you think they use inferior products.
Okochi: “I have never done this and I do think it’s bad manners.”
Drenching sushi in soy sauce.
The issue: For nigiri, at least, the recommended practice is to turn the sushi on its side, then dip just the very end of the fish in the soy sauce (not the rice). Why? Because the rice will soak up too much sauce and overpower the taste of the fresh fish.
Okochi: “Personally, I prefer not to use soy sauce on nigiri. But if people want to dip, that’s their choice. The point is to use just a little. I have a theory that this [habit] came from eating dumplings, where you need a lot of dunking because the wrapper doesn’t absorb the sauce. People treat sushi a similar way, I think.”
Mixing wasabi paste and soy sauce.
The issue: Lots of people do it—some to the point of creating what amounts to a blond sludge that masks the flavor of premium-grade fish.
Okochi: “I’m mixed on this. If you use fresh wasabi and put it in soy sauce, you lose the body of the wasabi. It gets hidden. But if the wasabi is made with mustard and horseradish powder, I don’t think it’s so bad to mix it with the soy sauce. In December, a 70-year-old woman who is a master of the tea ceremony came into my restaurant. I asked her, “If an American is invited to a tea ceremony in Japan, what should they know? What are the manners?” She said, “The most important thing is to just enjoy it and not be bogged down in the ceremony of it.” I apply that to eating sushi. Some chefs are very strict and old-fashioned and push too hard with their rules. The most important thing is for guests to enjoy themselves.”
Eating with your fingers.
The issue: Nigiri and maki, yes. Sashimi (which is slippery), no.
Okochi: “Chopsticks only for sashimi, but otherwise there is no need to be embarrassed about using your fingers to eat sushi. It is quite okay and even better if you are not good with chopsticks. It looks cool—it makes you look like a sushi expert.”
Eating things out of order.
The issue: The idea is that fish should be eaten in a particular order based on flavor profile, from lightest to heaviest or richest—in the same way that a Western meal might put a course of fish and white wine before beef and red wine.
Okochi: “This is basically true. As a chef, I think about the order of things. I wouldn’t eat clam or eel or otoro before madai or yellowtail. A chef doesn’t plate a nigiri assortment randomly; they’re meant to be eaten in a certain order. But eat them as you like. You’re the guest.”
The Sustainability Question
Folks who love sushi but also love the planet are aware that their habit has environmental implications. We asked Barton Seaver, noted chef, author and director of the Sustainable Seafood and Health Initiative at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, to weigh in on the issue. Bottom line: It’s complicated.
How bad is sushi for the environment?
Seafood in general is becoming more sustainable, but there are issues to work through on a species-by-species basis. The farmed salmon industry, for example, has made significant advances, and some farms are now listed as “green” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program [seafoodwatch.org]. The same is true of other species, such as tilapia, which ends up in a lot of sushi as “snapper,” and kingfish (hiramasa), which has many green-rated producers, but some deep red ones, too. So pay attention to the source.
Is there no reconciling our sushi addiction with our desire to eat local?
Sushi is the last holdout on the concept of local-sea-to-table. Sushi preparation identifies with tradition—including the provenance of ingredients—so there is a certain rigidity that has stood in the way. But there are visionaries resetting the bar, such as Bamboo Sushi in Portland, Oregon, and Miya’s in New Haven, Connecticut.
Is tuna a complete no-no?
Tuna is an ever-present issue. The global gold rush for it created an irrational economy, putting tuna highly at risk for exploitation. It is an especially hard species [to protect] because it doesn’t confine itself to one nation’s waters. Bluefin will go from the Mediterranean to the Gulf of Mexico and back in a year. That said, the U.S has exemplary fisheries management and we should support the products of that system. There are commendable sources of tuna, even if I couldn’t, in good faith, call them sustainable.
How does one balance tradition with protection?
Tsukiji [Tokyo’s famed fish market] is about the quality—how it’s killed on the boat, bled, etc.—and that quality is largely unmatched, so when people are importing fish from Tsukiji, sustainability is not necessarily in their decision-making process. We need to be mindful of that tradition and reverent about it before we point fingers. Sustainability is so much more than just green or red. You can’t discuss people’s decisions without taking into account their cultures.
How can sushi-lovers get their fix while helping to move fishing practices in a positive direction?
My recommendation: Tell the proprietors of your favorite sushi restaurant that sustainability matters to you and ask what it means to them. On the hopeful side, a lot of seafood purveyors—True World Foods, Samuels & Son Seafood, Congressional, ProFish, J.J. McDonnell—they are doing a really good job with sustainability programs. They are lifting all boats in this conversation.
David Hagedorn is Arlington Magazine’s dining critic. Now that this story is finished, he is laying off sushi for at least a month.