Raising Sushi To the Power of EN
By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, Sept. 28, 2007
The Chinese character "en" combines two universal concepts, karma and communion, and at EN Asian Bistro & Sushi Bar in Germantown, both elements are on the table.
"En" has to do with the coming together of people, apparently by chance but actually by destiny, and, by inference, with the meeting place. (The visual character resembles two stick figures about to shake hands.) "En" is also the Japanese word for "round thing," meaning coin (transliterated into "yen"), so it suggests good fortune as well.
EN Asian Bistro's owner and executive chef, Billy Ye, is so convinced of the power of en that he traveled repeatedly to China and Japan to obtain the calming earth-tone fabrics, comfortable chairs and the reusable (and elegantly sheathed) chopsticks to enhance his restaurant's balance.
In a corner site with two walls of glass, the restaurant propitiously faces northeast and northwest across an open green space toward the BlackRock Center for the Arts and the Germantown public library. And its unusually strong cook line -- including Ye, who is ethnic Chinese but whose primary culinary experience is in high-end Japanese restaurants; sushi chef Haiping Liu, who worked for Ye at his previous restaurant, Rockville's Momo Taro; and longtime Vegetable Garden chef Li Kan Ru, who turns out fine vegetarian and vegan dishes -- suggests that EN is likely to reach a much more sophisticated audience than the usual pan-Asian kitchen.
Liu presides over the smallish but comfortable sushi bar, which is set back between two wings of dining tables. In addition to a long list of a la carte sushi and sashimi and rolls (and boutique sakes), the sushi bar often has market-inspired specials. Particularly fine Spanish mackerel was presented in a lemony vinaigrette, almost more like crudo than sashimi, and one night's toro was so fatty -- it was almost like fish-scented butter -- that it would have made a Kobe bull blush. (The quality of Ye's seafood is one of his best references; he has a successful catering service that provides sushi to hotels, convention centers and country clubs across the region.)
Among Li's best dishes are a mushroom addict's rush of fresh shiitakes, oyster mushrooms, portobellos, criminis, enoki and white button mushrooms in a stir-fry; asparagus and mock shrimp in a light white sauce in a large won ton bowl; whole shiitake caps with thin white slivers carved out and stir-fried with asparagus and fresh basil; a "gourmet" blend of asparagus, firm tofu, lily bulbs, snap peas and oyster mushrooms; braised baby eggplant in plum sauce; and a coconut curry of braised tofu and mixed vegetables.
In addition to the vegetarian menu, the restaurant has such classic Chinese dishes as General Tao's chicken, Mandarin orange beef or Szechwan beef, and shrimp with lobster sauce or walnuts. Chef's specials include red snapper or mixed seafood in a Thai-style lemongrass-coconut curry, lobster in ginger or black bean sauce, and a choice of meats with Thai chili and basil.
Many dishes are more substantial than the prices might suggest: At $8.95, the peanut-crusted seared tuna -- one of Ye's favorites and a carry-over from Momo Taro -- is a more than ample appetizer, as is the broiled Chilean sea bass in mustard-miso dressing for the same price. You can also upgrade the standard $2.50 miso soup to salmon miso for $1 more or to lobster miso for $2 more. Similarly, the good tom ka or tom yum soups ($4.50) can be garnished with chicken, veggies or shrimp for a buck each.
Ye pays close attention to looks and trends, and a few dishes might raise traditional eyebrows, such as the spicy tuna "tacos" fried in won ton skins and served over guacamole; yellowfin tuna nachos with jalape¿o tartar sauce; and ankimo, the monkfish liver often called "foie gras of the sea," which emerges in a martini glass with chili sauce. But the mix of customers who order the tacos is pretty impressive.
EN Asian Bistro could also prove a magnet for those with special dietary needs, not only vegetarians or vegans but those with allergies. The mock meat ingredients are clearly marked -- the chicken is soy protein, the beef is gluten and the shrimp, surprisingly, are made of white yam -- and the dishes and utensils used in the preparation of the vegan dishes are kept separate, kosher style, from the meat or seafood vessels. All of the dishes use vegetable oils, and there is no MSG.