Hearty Helpings at Sushi Aoi
By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, Nov. 16, 2007
At first glance: Penn Quarter's Sushi Aoi has a mod Tokyo tech-pop sensibility, with clumps of faux bamboo, stainless steel grid ceilings and serpentine track lighting; walls painted in blocks of persimmon, apple green, purplish blue and creamy yellow; a corrugated red-lacquer wall sculpture put together like a mountain landscape puzzle; and pinkish lacquered tables painted with spare sprays of cherry blossoms paired with retro molded plywood chairs. The tables in front can be screened off into a private room.
At the table: The menu is only moderately long and on the traditional side except for a few chili-sauced spicy and place-name rolls. (Mexico roll is crunchy yellowtail; Washington roll has eel broiled to a caramelized tip with shiso, scallion and cucumber.) There are frequently three-rolls-for-$15.95 specials on the blackboard, which can save you a roll's worth.
Sushi Aoi doesn't stock fresh wasabi, but you wouldn't know it by the wasabi dumplings, which could have put snuff out of business during the sneeze craze. Among appetizers less frequently seen these days are oshitashi, chilled boiled spinach with miso dressing; takosu, sliced (cooked) octopus and cucumber in sweet-sour vinegar; and yamakake, the viscous grated mountain yam topped with chunks of tuna (the menu says "chunk," but there are several) and a raw quail egg. Splash it with a little soy sauce and wasabi if you like and beat the egg in.
The restaurant offers a couple of really filling full-meal deals. The nightly bento box special -- a whole California roll, three veggie dumplings, a small salad, miso soup, steamed broccoli and carrots, and a choice of the marinated pork, salmon or chicken -- is $14.95. At $16.95, "Sumiko's special tonjiru dinner," available during the colder months, is even heartier: It has just about everything on the bento list (grilled salmon is the specified protein) plus a mashed potato croquette and a large bowl of tonjiru, a pork and root vegetable soup, instead of the small miso. In fact, the tonjiru, thick with shiitakes, chunks of daikon, carrot and burdock, is very nearly a meal in itself.
If you prefer to mix and match, you can graze on appetizers that are mini-versions of entrees, such as yakitori (teriyaki chicken on a skewer) or vegetable or shrimp tempura. Tempura is generally good, the batter light and crisp.
Two home-style and healthful entrees are salmon shioyaki, salt-rubbed and broiled fish (here only lightly salted rather than crusted) and broiled ginger-flavored pork shogayaki in lieu of fried pork katsu.
At your service: The staff seems to be accustomed to fast eaters; they double- and sometimes triple-team the table to ask if you're ready to order and to inquire about the quality of your meal.
What to avoid: The fried dumplings have been a little greasy; ask for the steamed ones. The otherwise good nabeyaki, the large pot of fat noodle soup, was marred by the onion "fritter," which arrived in a still-almost-liquid blob of tempura batter. Definitely not blooming. Although most of the seafood is obviously fresh, the uni has been uneven.
Wet your whistle: Sushi Aoi offers a half-dozen sakes and shochus (served tavern-style mixed with water) and a similar number of beers.