Discovering Moby Dick
By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Weekend Section
Friday, November 24, 2006
A neighborhood sushi joint is a rare fish in these parts. Most serious Japanese restaurants are reasonably (and understandably) large, and many of the more affordable sushi places are either mass-production buffets whose margins depend on quantity rather than quality or mom-and-pop places of varying amateurishness and uncertain ethnicity. (Remember, if the seafood is too good a bargain, it may not be too good.)
Wheaton's snug little Moby Dick doesn't fit into any of those categories exactly: It's small but serious, a Korean family operation with established credentials (chef-owner Chang Pyon has worked for several area restaurants, including Sapporo, the M Street sanctuary that was for years Georgetown's only Japanese option), and it's quiet and calming, an unusual virtue in itself. It's such a bargain (a couple of rolls for $6.50 at lunch or a bento box for $8.95) that it has been written up by the Montgomery Blair High School online student newspaper as a cheap-eats find.
The decor is traditional -- blond wood, block-print flags over the bar -- and so is the menu, with very few exceptions: sushi and sashimi assortments, tempura and a little teriyaki, hot noodle soups and bento box dinners. The only hints of Korean cuisine are the hwae dup bop; Korean-style chirashizushi with chili sauce for the sashimi instead of soy; and Bek Se Ju, a semi-dry white rice wine flavored with ginseng and herbs and tasting just slightly of anise (it's a little reminiscent of Galliano). Like the sake, it's served cool, and like nigori-zake, the cloudy, slightly sweet sake, it rounds out the flavor of the sushi in a different and interesting way.
The restaurant's name, incidentally, has nothing to do with either the great white one or the Washington area's popular kabob restaurants; it just came with the territory. When Chang bought the property about eight years ago, it was a fish market and shrimp shack, and it may be in honor of its predecessor that Moby Dick still offers steamed spiced or fried shrimp with cocktail sauce.
The tempura is good: delicate and not greasy, and the vegetables inside carefully cooked. Fried oysters are tempura style, not heavily battered, and you can also order clams or oysters on the half-shell, although like the shrimp, they are served with cocktail sauce unless you specify otherwise.
Chang is meticulous with the seafood (the difference between day-old and three-day-old uni is one reason so many people have bad memories of sea urchin). Unagi is the Japanese version of protein-loading: In July the Japanese celebrate doyo no ushinohi, a day in which great quantities of eel are eaten to increase stamina in the hot weather, and Chang's version is both moist and meaty. Clam is nearly sweet, and the mackerel pristine.
Like most sushi restaurants, Moby Dick is roll-heavy: traditional (tuna, eel, cucumber), semi-traditional (California roll, Philadelphia roll) and big five-flavor rolls such as the dynamite roll (tuna, flounder, salmon, yellowtail and flying fish roe) and the new signature Caterpillar Roll, which is similar but with segments of avocado draped on top and chili sauce drizzled about. It does look something like a caterpillar, but its brilliant colors and rather imposing size make it look more like one of those dragon-dance costumes.
The only slight slip one night was that the gyoza, pan-fried meat dumplings, were a little greasy and not seared enough for that crusty effect, but the flavor was pretty good.
Moby Dick is on a much more modest scale than Wheaton's other (part) Japanese restaurant, the Korean barbecue palace Woomi Garden, and it can't compare sake lists, but it's the sort of unpretentious and comfortable restaurant that such a rapidly upscaling neighborhood should cherish.