Classic and Modern Meet at Sushi Damo
By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, Aug. 31, 2007
Sushi Damo is arguably the best-looking Japanese restaurant in Washington. And although the Rockville Town Square newcomer might not yet outshine its popular Manhattan parent, or knock the top area sushi chefs off their pedestals, it is staking out a potentially impressive niche: trendy but grounded in tradition, detail savvy but not condescending, wide ranging but not all over the map. The menu assumes some experience but has many entry-level offerings; the smaller-plate options are so plentiful it argues for grazing. And if you want to leave everything to the chef, you can indulge in omakase -- chef's choice -- for $59 or $89, depending on the number of courses.
The build-out takes a similar line as the food, with traditional elements but very modern attitude. (One staffer volunteered that the owner is an architect, but he could make a fine living as an interior designer.) The entire restaurant suggests a Japanese forest in winter, with elements as potentially jangly but thematically devout as white birch logs and icicle-like metal-bead curtains; wooden floors and wallpaper "scratched" to suggest rice paper; semi-traditional parasol- or lantern-shaped light fixtures and a chandelier that looks like an eight-pack of old milk bottles (and another that resembles an egg carton); and mahogany-brown leather chairs and glittering frosted tiles. Customers enter over a "rock river" under a glass bridge; columnar shelves showcase celadon vessels; and a Japanese "rising sun" red disk glows behind a birch screen on the rear wall.
The tables and banquettes are to the left; to the right are a number of oversize armchairs and tables for lounging or dining, and the smallish sushi and drink bars. Although it's not exactly quiet, it's so much less gratingly loud than most places that it feels like a sanctuary. And that's before the boutique sake list.
Although the menu is not quite as lengthy or eclectic as the restaurant's New York parent, it features several modern takes on traditional dishes. Ankimo (monkfish liver mousse) is traditionally steamed and served chilled. However, it's often called "foie gras of the sea." So here it's seared and lightly pan-crusted. "Tuna salsa" is presented as a Minibar-style hybrid of crudo and caprese, the tuna topped not only with chopped tomatoes but with a curl of mozzarella foam. Though lamb has rarely crossed a Japanese threshold, it's on the appetizer menu; but what's listed as "braised" is actually a pair of chops, quite nice but somewhat substantial and a touch gamy if your meal was headed toward sushi thereafter. The beef tataki appetizer is a lighter choice, thin slices of seared, rare beef in ponzu sauce. There's also a surprisingly light take on shabu-shabu: paper-thin beef blanched in broth, chilled and dressed in a sesame mayo. Although the crab shortage, and resulting price increases, have forced many restaurants to resort to good-quality frozen crabs, Sushi Damo's are fresh and sweet, and the batter is a clever change-up, a crust of crushed Japanese rice crackers dusted with green tea powder and salt.
There is a fair range of familiar kitchen dishes -- pork or chicken katsu (cutlet), teriyaki dishes, nabeyaki udon (with a first-rate broth) -- and some traditional favorites not so often offered here: mackerel grilled over coarse salt; miso-marinated Chilean sea bass; and soy-sake marinated orange roughy.
In addition to the classic sushi choices, there are the now-predictable list of "special" sushi rolls. (Such rolls are the shooters of the '00-decade 20-somethings -- an assortment of multiple ingredients that occasionally complement, sometimes clash with and generally make redundant the others. And, like the shooters of the '80s, the names are entirely arbitrary: Just as four bartenders, asked to make Sex on the Beach, will turn out four different concoctions, so a Maryland roll in four sushi bars will probably bear little resemblance.)
Chef Takashi Okamura is a 10-year veteran of the popular Palisades restaurant Makoto, and his technique has always been so fine that little flaws here seem greater. The sushi rice has great texture but is too light on vinegar; the tempura batter is admirably light and greaseless but similarly a bit on the bland side. A dish of steamed lobster tail (described by the waitress as Maine lobster but almost certainly the less tender rock lobsters from the spotted shells and with a texture that suggested the freezer) would be much nicer if the lobster meat were less done.
An order of uni nigiri, which is usually presented with the sea urchin in a sort of collar of nori with rice beneath, was the usual cylinder of rice smeared with (slightly brazen) uni. And the scallions inside the rolled-beef negimaki could have been blanched just a little longer.
Although all the servers are nice, some are much better informed, so you may or may not be asked whether your prefer light or regular soy sauce or if you would like fresh wasabi ($4 a pinch). Some are quite specific about the kind of tuna being served that day (bluefin, ahi, etc.) and whether the sashimi is true toro or only chu-toro, the half-fatty in-between variety; others volunteer almost nothing. Descriptions of sauces or even preparations not only vary, they frequently clash with the menu. (And considering the natural decor aesthetic, it's a bit surprising that Sushi Damo has not taken to using something other than run-of-the-mill chopsticks; but that's a quibble.)
Prices seem a little curious: The appetizer portion of tempura, with two shrimp in addition to the vegetables, is a pretty filling "small plate" for $7, but the "savory six," a half-dozen slices of fish each with a different sauce seems a little short for $27. (Again, the menu said "seared," but the server said "raw, like a sashimi platter but with sauce.")
On the other hand, happy-hour specials change daily; it can be a sake bonanza -- all bottles half-price -- or a "sake bomb" -- a boilermaker of beer and a shot. (Of course, your idea of a bonanza and mine might differ.) And if you make it to dessert, you'll find, beyond the usual green tea or red bean ice cream and mochi, some very modern temptations, green tea tiramisu being about the plainest.