Friday, August 7, 2009

Sushi Taro in Washington DC (food)

I wasn't originally planning on having a big meal when I was in DC, but with no dinner plans one night and needing something to take my mind off the bad day of bridge I had, I decided to look for a place on chowhound. I found Sushi Taro, which actually had very differing views on chowhound, but seemed to suit my purpose and was within walking distance from the hotel.

I arrived and asked to look at the menu first. Most of it centered around different kaiseki menus, with prices ranging from 70-110. There was also an a la carte menu, which kind of put me off at first because the prices looked very much like NYC prices. I decided to sit down anyway, even though the only seat available was at the bar (the alcohol bar, not the sushi bar). I wanted to have a piece of chutoro sushi and a piece of tamago (egg) sushi to see the level of their sushi chef, but they served everything in orders of two pieces. So I ended up getting an order of the tamago sushi.

It is often said that the best evaluator of a sushi chef is through his tamago. It's like judging a chef based on his omelette. The ability to cook eggs perfectly is something every top chef should hold dear. More importantly for a sushi chef, the tamago is essentially the only thing that he actually cooks. You get to have a good sense of the chef's skill (fluffiness and layering of the egg), his palate (tamago can often be too sweet), and his devotion to his craft (that he spends time on handmaking it). In the end, tamago never really wows me, but it's a good way for me to estimate the skill of the sushi chef. In this case, the taste was good, the egg had it's own branding (some japanese writing torched on like how you brand a cow), and the sushi rice was good, though not great.

From these two pieces, I decided that I wanted stuff from the sushi bar, but I wasn't thrilled by the rice so I opted for the sashimi kaiseki. The sashimi kaiseki was listed at $70, but I wanted the good stuff, so I asked if I could have it upgraded to $90 worth of food. My feeling is that if I'm already paying $70, what's another $20? But doing this allows the restaurant to know that they're dealing with someone who really likes good food and is willing to pay for it, not just order whatever set meal they offer. Luckily for me, the bartender was not only a bartender, but also a manager of the restaurant, and he could tell that I knew good food. After some discussion, we decided that I would not get the kaiseki, which is more about small plates with both hot and cold food, but get a $90 sashimi omakase instead.

They prepared everything on one huge platter, so I was given one of the kaiseki starting dishes while I was waiting. It was pieces of vegetables suspended in a gelatin, which they told me was made completely from seaweed. It was surrounded by a corn puree, which I found needed to have a stronger corn flavor. It was a pleasant starting dish. While I was waiting, the bartender/manager as well as the hostess would walk by and tell me how envious they were of what I ordered and what will be on the platter that's going to come out. Hearing that obviously made me feel better about my choice, but it also surprised me in that it sounded like their customers usually don't order like this. Endless omakase is pretty common in many of the nicer NYC sushi places, although I guess it's more common for sushi than sashimi.

The platter came and there was indeed lots on it. I'll list the basic stuff first. The number represents how many pieces.

2 wild japanese snapper
2 dry mullet roe
3 katsuo (bonito)
1 uni (sea urchin)
3 ika (squid)
2 tako (octopus)
2 toro

Those are the more common things and they were all very fresh. The following is the stuff that was so truly Japanese that I've never had before or the stuff that really wowed me.

White salmon, which I've had before at Sushi Yasuda, is not common at all. While the natural color of farmed salmon is white (they add colorants to the feed to get that orange/red color), wild salmon that is white comprises only 1% or so of that general population. Its flesh has a higher fat content and is more buttery in texture than regular salmon.

Kochi, known as bartail flat head, was something that I've never had before. I'm not big on the texture of raw flat fish, but at least this was new.

Bakurai, which came in a little shot glass, is a mixture of sea pineapple, uni, and the preserved offal from the sea cucumber. It's definitely very Japanese, something that I've never had before, and certainly I think something that they would serve to only a select number of their clientele. It's best with sake, so the manager was kind enough to pour me a small cup of sake to go with it.

Hamo Junsai consisted of hamo, which is grilled pike conger eel, suspended in a jelly filled with junsai. Junsai, known as water-shield, is a fresh-water lily prized by the Japanese as a summer-time delicacy due to its slippery texture. This was quite good, and very much a situation where you get a bit of the culture with the food.

Ayu meat covered with bits of its liver. Ayu, known as sweetfish, is a small fish known for its sweet flesh. But the thing that truly made this one special was the liver. It had a very interesting taste that I couldn't give a description to at the time. The manager told me it was his favorite fish liver, liking it even more than ankimo (monkfish liver) which I love. The liver was also something that he said they didn't put into the dish for everyone.

Last but not least on the platter was live lobster. I was impressed by this one in the way that the chef had cut it. There were good chunks, not just slivers, and when I bit into those pieces, the texture was crisp but also had enough bite that it reminded me of eating cooked lobster.

One of the other good things was that when I asked for hot rice to accompany the seafood, they actually brought me really hot rice, that was still steaming out of the bowl. As I talked more with the manager while he and the other servers continued to look at my platter in amazement, he told me that the place had originally been an izakaya type of place, but that they renovated it to focus on kaiseki and fresh fish flown from Japan because it was unique in DC. Much of the negative comments on the boards were from people who preferred the old casual izayaka style instead of the more expensive kaiseki style. He also pointed out that Komi, the restaurant next door, was the best restaurant in DC. I couldn't snag a reservation on such short notice, so perhaps I'll try it next time. Overall this was quite a meal. It's really nice for me to have something that I've never had before, and I felt that the price was very good.

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