Saki's Sushi Will Surprise You
By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, Feb. 2, 2007
Up until fairly recently, Adams Morgan -- despite its relatively young, hip and peripatetic clientele -- had only one good sushi restaurant, Perrys, but since that old favorite's recent (and admirable) upscaling, the need for a lighter-hearted and perhaps slightly less sophisticated sushi bar has grown more obvious. It's nice to say that Saki has stepped up to the fish plate.
Like many other neighborhood restaurants, Saki is half-restaurant, half-club (downstairs), and so the space seems a little less than promising: eight or so stools at the sushi bar and a dining strip that consists of a banquette (with too many overcompensating pillows) down the wall that faces a series of cubes serving as tables and benches. That's not so bad for the short run. But because diners can't get their knees under the solid cubes, they have to turn sideways and so on and toss their coats about. (And you might raise an eyebrow over the spelling of the restaurant's name, which is more literary than dipsological.)
But then you get a chance to sit at the bar, in the hydraulic-lift chairs (!), and hear all the special offers from the staff, and suddenly you're completely comfortable, even if it is crowded and buzzing and, well, lively. Everybody, from a bunch of cheerleaders to a family from India to a couple of severe Paris-ites, is hanging out drinking cosmos and dipping into wasabi. You gotta like this place. It's more entertaining than the DJ downstairs.
Happy hour is every weekday from 5 to 7:30, which means that not only are there a dozen types of nigiri for $1 apiece but 16 kinds of half-price rolls ($2.50 to $5). Even the salmon teriyaki and a handful of appetizers are half off as well (along with the $5 martinis, etc.). Miso soup is $2.
What's surprising about Saki's sushi -- surprising primarily because of its congenial pricing and undiminished portions -- is that both the rice and the fish are above average, as Garrison Keillor would say. (That means pretty good.) The mackerel (a.k.a. saba, your high omega-3 alternative to salmon), the hamachi (yellowtail) and the white tuna (usually escolar) have been particularly fresh. The fresh salmon, which makes a special guest appearance "torched" atop the crab-and-crunchies East Coast roll, is just oily enough -- and the torching careful enough -- to be a real indulgence, something like a deconstructed seafood sandwich.
As for the rice, although it is occasionally a little too starchy and porridgy, it is seasoned correctly, by which is meant well-seasoned, with rice vinegar and a smidge of sugar. This is one of the few non-Japanese restaurants where a bowl of sushi rice (called shari rather than gohan, which is straightforward unseasoned rice) is actually worth ordering as a side dish. In many places, the rice is bland to the point that it detracts from the topping. But rice is as essential to sushi as is the seafood; in fact, sushi evolved in the 7th century as a form of preserving fish and shellfish by salting and then packing it in rice until it fermented -- a kind of natural pickling. So all those self-styled sushi bars that pass out bland rice are cheating just as much as those American consumers who dunk the entire piece of sushi in soy and wipe out any distinguishing flavor. And therein ends today's sermon.
Back to Saki: It also has a number of small plates -- yakitori, the grilled skewered chicken; gyoza dumplings made with chicken rather than pork and the thinner-wrapped shrimp shumai, steamed or pan-fried; and skewered soy-glazed filet mignon and vegetable tempura -- many of which are mini-versions of the chicken or steak teriyaki and the shrimp and veggie tempura entrees.
The shumai are almost too delicately wrapped for the filling, but given the alternative, that's a small quibble, especially as they're on the half-price list. The filet is a poor choice for grilling; it's likely to be overdone and so becomes tough (and in at least one case, the "filet" tasted more like the strip). The chicken, however, is a nice serving, two skewers of four good bites each for $8 and still moist. (Here's a trick to de-skewering items with chopsticks: Hold the top of the wood skewer with one hand, grip the chicken or shrimp or whatever with the chopsticks and then spin the skewer to loosen the morsel. Then you can easily slide it off with the chopsticks and dip it.)
The sake list, which used to be somewhat longer, is now limited to a couple of house brands (hot and cold) and two premium brands, but there is a full bar, and those happy hour drinks are as large as the late-night versions. Service is cheery and brisk for the most part, although there are occasions when the sudden demand for large platters catches the staff a little off-guard. But the only time a dish was forgotten -- actually, it was only greatly delayed, since the server remembered before being reminded -- it was taken off the bill; you can't ask for more.
In the last two years, the two-story club near the intersection of 18th Street and Columbia Road has been known as Showboat, Moro Cafe and Whisper. In any incarnation, it was a dark, horrible, perpetually empty little den of -- well, nothing, really. Whenever I ventured in, I was never sure who was more bored: me, the bartenders or the few souls who sat around the edge of an empty dance floor.
Last month, it emerged from yet another makeover as Saki, a sushi bar and lounge. And the new owners have gotten it right -- multiple visits to Saki have found vibrant crowds packing the bars as well as the dance floor, with excellent DJs providing a reason to return.
The narrow street-level room is home to knife-wielding sushi chefs and a glass case containing delicious-looking fish. But let's cut to the chase: While the Hawaiian maki rolls and house sashimi are excellent, the small dining area has just six tables and a few stools, so on a busy Saturday night, you may have to wait for space to dine. And Saki really isn't a place to linger over sushi or even grab a late-night snack. You can drink and dance here until 3 a.m. -- but sushi service stops around 1 a.m.
So hurry downstairs. In the low-ceilinged basement lounge and dance area, the designers took a page out of Dragonfly's handbook: white walls, white ceiling, white tables, white floor (in the bar area). It's not as stark as it sounds, thanks to large rectangular panels on the walls and bar counter that shift color every few seconds, washing from fiery red to deep blue by way of bright orange and soft green. The overall effect can be discombobulating -- especially while drinking -- and slightly annoying, but it looks cool.
However, light shows don't matter as much when the music is good, and Saki has assembled an impressive lineup of DJs. Most weekends find a mix of electro, old-school and funky, groovy house music that keeps the hip, diverse crowd moving on the smooth hardwood dance floor.
Two bars are located downstairs, one adjacent to the dance floor and another in a smaller lounge area dotted with soft red chairs. Beers aren't cheap ($6 for a bottle of Heineken) and mixed drinks hover around $5. You may want to stick with the beers, though, as friends and I have come across a few light-handed and uncreative bartenders.
Saki stands out from other Adams Morgan dance clubs. It's not too dark or too sketchy. Cover charges and dress codes are nonexistent. The music can be enjoyed by dance fiends and loungers alike. And, if you're early, you can grab a bite to eat -- which is always a plus on the 18th Street strip.
-- Fritz Hahn (June 2003)