The best sushi chefs work with a methodical efficiency that is beautiful to behold. Sushi can be relatively quick to make, but it's certainly more involved than throwing together a sandwich or pulling a pizza slice out of the oven. And if it's good, the orders can stack up quickly. That must be why so many takeout sushi operations deal in the pre-made kind, which after a few hours in a refrigerated case becomes the stale kind.
At this little market in Bethesda's Woodmont Triangle, the only sushi that's made in advance is for display. It shows customers what constitutes Today's Special, a 15-piece array for $8. And that's the easiest way to sample the delightfully fresh but affordable fish and vegetarian rolls made by Waka Sakita, 49, who opened the store about 10 years ago, and company.
Sakita learned the art of sashimi, nigiri and maki when he worked at a fish store and sushi bar at Tokyo's famed Tsukiji market, and he brings that experience to bear when he cuts, rolls, squeezes and arranges the offerings here. The special on the day we visited consisted of one piece each of tuna, salmon and rockfish, sparkling and tender; plus two six-piece vegetarian rolls: one cucumber and one lettuce. With a little crunch and a little fattiness from a squirt of mayo, the latter reminded us of a well-made sandwich in sushi form.
The sushi is made at the back of a retail operation that carries the sauces, candies, dried fish and Pocari Sweat energy drinks that Japanese transplants and fans of the cuisine would expect. Behind a little four-seat counter, Sakita and a colleague fill orders while a small television in one corner competes with the calm sound of classical music on the radio.
In addition to the daily special, Hinata sells more than two dozen rolls ($3.50 to $5 for six pieces), including a half-dozen interpretations of the California roll. One bite of the version with real crab meat will remind you why this style of sushi gained ubiquity; it's a nearly perfect combination.
As it turns out, that section of the menu has grown based on customer request. "My menu is pretty much basic, like a traditional Japanese style. But some rolls I learn here, like the California roll," Sakita says. "Many people are asking me, 'Can you make California roll with tuna? With salmon?' Sometimes they even say, 'With eel?' I say, 'Sure, I can make it.' "
There are also 22 nigiri (raw fish atop formed rice; $2 to $3 each), of which we tried the saba mackerel, marinated in vinegar to balance the oily fish; and the o-toro, fatty tuna that was buttery and soft. Hinata sells 14 five-piece sashimi appetizers (raw fish served without rice; $7 to $10) and another two dozen assortment platters ($7.50 to $16.50). Every collection comes with high-quality pickled ginger, wasabi and a deeper-than-usual soy sauce.
You do have to wait a little bit: about 10 to 15 minutes for a four-person order with no other customers in the place. But for such fresh fish, carefully prepared, and for so little cash, it's a small inconvenience.
Even so, Sakita does offer a suggestion for those in a particular hurry, a time-honored strategy used by smart takeout diners everywhere: Call ahead.
-- Joe Yonan (Good to Go, July 2, 2008)