There is certainly no shortage of places to find sushi in Washington. But some of the best places are downtown (Kaz Sushi Bistro and Sushi Taro), tiny (Makoto) or a little too precious and expensive.
Murasaki is a neighborhood place in Tenleytown that has both a dining room and patio seating in the midst of a Japanese-influenced space. There's usually on-street parking available nearby, and it's a short walk from the Tenleytown Metro station. And it makes regular deliveries to the nearby Japanese Embassy.
Those deliveries have been ongoing since the restaurant opened six years ago. Last year, Murasaki changed hands. It was bought by a Korean sushi chef who had previously worked at Bonsai in Shirlington. When it opened, Murasaki was owned by an Iranian who ran a limousine service that often did business with the embassy. He brought in chefs from the upscale Hisago, which burned brightly in the 1990s at Washington Harbour.
The original owner now owns a kebab place a few doors down. New owner Seo Seoung Huck has two Japanese sushi chefs at his side, Shimmoto Mitsutoshi and Tetsuya Nakata, who together have more than 45 years of experience. And the orders from the embassy keep rolling in.
The restaurant takes it name from the Japanese word for purple, and the decor reflects that, though not in a garish way. Purple is reflected in the carpeting, the upholstered chair seats, the chopstick wrapper and the carryout menus.
Pale-colored wood predominates: in the tables, the chairs, the sushi bar and the lattice screening that adorns glass windows overlooking the patio.
Regulars at Murasaki simply order the omakase, which means the chef prepares a selection of dishes of his choice using the freshest fish. Diners may choose from sushi omakase, sashimi omakase, or with a little planning, the Murasaki omakase, which rings up at $50 to $70 a person and may include baked dishes and other traditional treats not listed on the menu.
But you don't have to make such a commitment to enjoy the pleasures of Murasaki. Just glance at what's presented to the happy diners who fill the restaurant at lunch -- mostly workers from nearby office buildings -- or at dinner and you'll know that rolls are also a hallmark of Murasaki.
Specialty rolls -- known as maki sushi -- grace most tables, and part of the reason may be the innovative presentation of the restaurant's menu. These are no simple paper affairs but wood-covered notebooks filled with photographs of the dishes. So if you have ever had difficulty negotiating a Japanese menu, pull up a chair at Murasaki, peruse the bound book and ask one of the helpful servers if you need more explanation.
The base for sushi is the rice ("sushi" actually refers to the rice itself), and Murasaki's provides a grand foundation. The grains are separate but moldable into shapes, and the rice has a pleasant, ever-so-slightly sweet vinegary taste.The fish and seafood that top this exquisite rice are almost always perfectly fresh, not watery or dull tasting. The texture of each is different. The salmon is silken and buttery, the calamari tender, the salmon roe sparkling and popping with liquid and the octopus never rubbery. Shellfish sunomono displays these textures well: slivers of calamari, fresh crabmeat, slices of octopus and hakki clam. Only the cooked shrimp -- which is the downfall of many a sushi bar -- tastes somewhat limp and not too fresh.
A similar medley of tastes and textures comes in the dish known as chirashi, an assortment of fish with pickled radishes and mushrooms atop a bed of sushi rice sprinkled with bits of nori (seaweed).
Although bento boxes are a favorite at lunch -- there is a wide selection and most are less than $10 -- skip them in favor of a couple of the rolls. The green salad, cucumber and seaweed salad, and shumai (shrimp dumplings) in each box add little to the presentation. The shumai arrive cold, and the dressing for the green salad tastes as though it comes straight from a bottle.
But the rolls beckon, and diners heed their call; most tables are laden with giant white platters on which a variety of colorful rolls is arrayed. Eel and cucumber -- known here as catapila rolls -- slink across the plate, with fans of avocado adorning each piece. Vivid red tuna rolls snuggle close to multi-hued rainbow rolls (featuring tuna and salmon), tiny legs of soft-shell crabs peek out of spider rolls, and tuna and yellowtail combine in the Screaming Spicy Roll, the restaurant's most popular maki sushi.
For those who are squeamish about raw fish, Murasaki offers cooked dishes such as grilled salmon and grilled rib-eye, chicken teriyaki and tempura, with a light golden crust.
And though large desserts are not a Japanese tradition, regulars can't leave without a dish of the restaurant's signature black sesame seed ice cream.
--Nancy Lewis (June 28, 2007)