Sushi Taro, Washington DC

25May09

Last month, Nobu Yamakazi, the owner of Sushi Taro in Dupont Circle, reopened his revamped restaurant, which closed in December for an $800,000 makeover. Every sushi lover in D.C., myself included, agrees that the old Sushi Taro was one of, if not the, best Japanese restaurants in the city, so my friends and I were anxious to see what the new Taro vision was all about.

We convened at the corner of 17th and P Street at 8pm on Saturday night and made our way up through the narrow stairway, directly adjacent to the corner CVS, that leads to Sushi Taro. At the top of the stairs sat a pot of beautiful orchids. Unlike the old Sushi Taro, the new Taro was free from the lines of customers waiting hours on end in the stairway to secure any seat they could get. When we turned the corner at the top, I was surprised to see a spacious reception area, again free from pushy waiting customers, and a beautifully designed bar immediately to the right (apparently, the minimum order if you’d like to sit at the bar is $100 per person). We were eventually led down another hallway and shown to our table.

We were seated with a drink menu, a small dish menu, and three three tasting menus: a $75 kaiseki menu (minimum of 2 per table), a $75 sushi tasting, and a $65 sashimi tasting. The small dish menu features a limited selection of Japanese dishes from the old menu, daily specials (fish flown in from Japan the same day), and a la cart sushi.

Between the four of us, two of us opted for the sushi tasting and two for the traditional kaiseki menu. I had the sushi tasting menu.

The first course arrived within just a few minutes of receiving our drinks. Homemade sesame seed tofu served in a warm fish broth with Uni and Natto (fermented japanese soybeans). The tofu was slightly lacking in flavor, but luckily the Natto added a little saltiness. This was my second attempt at eating Uni- the first was at Providence in Los Angeles. I had not warmed to Uni the first time around, so naturally I was hesitant when it arrived on my plate. But I was surprised at not being offended by it. It was briny, yes, and still had that inky ocean flavor. But somehow it worked with the silky tofu and soybeans. I was pleasantly surprised by the combination of unique textures and flavors in this first course.

Second course was another soybean one- an oshi tashi-like dish with greens in dashi broth topped with soybeans. This course didn’t do much for me. I thought it was a little bland and didn’t do anything to either stand out alone or act as a segway between the first and third courses. It was entirely forgettable.

Third course was a salad of pickled bamboo shoots and mixed sprouts with a silken tofu dressing. I loved the crunchyness of the stalks with the creamy sauce, and thought it made it a very refreshing and well-placed third course.  It showcased exactly what the Japanese are all about… simplicity and perfection.

The fourth course came served in an elegant dish over a hot charcoal stove- Shabu shabu (a hot-pot concoction named for the swishing sound the fish is supposed to make in the soup) with a single piece of snapper, a shrimp ball and fish cake in a warm fish broth. The broth had a delicate flavor that worked well to further highlight the other ingredients, particularly the fish cake. I also loved that the charcoals kept it hot so that we were able take our time savoring and enjoying it.  We all agreed that this was a fantastic dish.

Starting with the fifth course, we began the sushi tastings: The sushi was presented with simplicity with the focus where it should be- on the fish: four courses of three nigiri at a time served only with a dish of high quality soy sauce and brush to paint it on with. Our first plate consisted of yellowtail, tuna, and salmon. All very safe, but all very high quality. When it comes to nigiri, there is really nothing to look for other than the freshest and healthiest ingredients. One thing is for sure, Sushi Taro nails it. The second plate was slightly more adventurous: snapper, sweet shrimp, and octopus. This was also my first time eating an entire (huge) piece of raw octopus, and I hated it. I sat chewing for over a minute before I finally forced the entire piece, in tact, down my throat in a big gulp. I quickly washed it down with a sip of Kirin. I’m not entirely sure what people love about octopus so it’s hard for me to say whether the quality of that piece was good or not. But I was glad I tried it and got it out of the way. The third plate consisted of an Eel hand roll, a Masago (salmon roe) roll, and an Uni roll. I have to admit I didn’t eat my Uni roll… partly because I’m a wimp, partly because I wanted to save room for the endless courses remaining ahead. The Eel roll was fantastic. I thought it achieved the perfect harmony a hand-roll should, with the right amount of sweetness and freshness and a delicate texture and flavor. I could have ordered 5 more, easily. The final sushi course was three pieces of nigiri of my choosing from the a la carte menu – I chose two pieces of toro and one piece of white salmon. The white salmon was amazing. It tends to be sweeter and more moist than king salmon and in my opinion has a flavor that is altogether more nuanced (explains why 1 piece of white salmon nigiri is $14). It was served here with a dollop of horseradish and grated lemon zest. The bitterness of the zest with the natural sweetness of the fish made this nigiri heaven on a plate. The toro (which was topped with gold flakes) was also by far the best toro I have ever had. Just looking at it I could tell it was going to be great- the colors were bold and the flesh was perfectly marbled.

I also tried a fresh sea snail, served in its shell, skewered with a small green Japanese fruit with the likeness of a berry. The snail was slimy and chewy, as expected, but not altogether bad. I found the pairing with the fruit made it an interesting dish, and I actually quite liked it.

We had two dessert courses: the first was an array of macha (green tea powder) ice cream, rice cake, azuki beans, caramel, and jelly squares. The ice cream was decent but I thought it was a little grainy, perhaps from the macha powder. The jelly squares were flavorless and I thought a bad texture combination with the ice cream. The second dessert was a skewered pineapple and strawberry jello cube. It was quite good, but again I think they went a bit overboard in the dishes with gelatin.

All in all, I thought the quality of the sushi itself at the new Taro was fantastic. And while this kind of excellence in food is what I most appreciate in a dining experience, I think Sushi Taro has turned itself into the type of establishment that people will go to once, love, and never return.

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