Double the Pleasure
A new branch of Sushi-Ko enlivens Chevy Chase
By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, Aug. 10, 2008
Sound Check: 69 decibels (Conversation is easy)
Perched in a neat row on a white plate, eight tiny totems await my chopsticks at Sushi-Ko Chevy Chase. The vivid bites bring together sushi rice, lacquered eel, creamy avocado, spicy tuna, pickled ginger, a splash of sweet soy sauce and a tiny cap of jalapeno pepper; the menu bills the party of flavors as "Chef Piter's Sweet and Spicy Roll." Sure enough, when I pop a morsel into my mouth, ripples of heat and sweet -- pleasure! -- sweep over my tongue.
At another meal here, I order crab cakes. They are not the usual rounds you find in many fish joints, but rather ovals of lightly crumbed and gently fried seafood. And they come not with tartar sauce but with cool pink yuzu remoulade and ground green tea spiked with sea salt, for dipping. The Eastern Shore meets the Far East.
The names Jupiter "Piter" Tjan and Edwin Navarro might be new to you. But if you appreciate Japanese cooking, don't pass on an opportunity to meet these two chefs or at least become acquainted with their handiwork at the Maryland offshoot of Washington's oldest sushi bar, Sushi-Ko in Glover Park.
Tjan, who once worked at the pleasing Raku in Bethesda, oversees the raw aspects of the menu at Sushi-Ko Chevy Chase. Navarro, who put in more than a decade at the original Sushi-Ko, focuses on cooked dishes here. As a team, they make a convincing case for expansion; if a restaurant hopes to evolve, it helps to have the space to feed a fresh audience and retain its talent.
With the exception of some daily specials, the menus of the two restaurants are almost identical. Both offer a few pages of small plates, myriad rolls and tasting menus. Several visits to the larger Sushi-Ko Chevy Chase reveal food that can come close to, and sometimes match, the experience at the older restaurant, headed by the esteemed chef Koji Terano. But some dishes at the new branch can disappoint a fan who has come to expect top work, every course, from the brand.
Tucked away from view in a mix of shops off Wisconsin Avenue, Sushi-Ko Chevy Chase features an airy bar that flows into a windowless dining room. The eating area gets a style boost from a wall of river stones arranged to suggest Mount Fuji, outsize drip-paint canvases and a slightly curved sushi bar with enough leather-backed stools for 14 voyeurs. The counter is the heart of the operation and the best place to see why your food is so appealing. A place at the bar might even net you a treat from the chef, who proffers tastes of works in progress to patrons sitting within arm's reach for instant feedback.
Tjan takes his time. He's quick with a knife but careful with his food, be it cucumber sliced into a tiny, see-through fan for a garnish or whatever fish he's focused on placing atop a pillow of vinegared rice. I appreciate the way he and his underlings cut the fish and mold the rice so that each piece is easy to pick up and fits neatly in the mouth.
Sushi-Ko receives fish deliveries six days a week, and it shows. The restaurant stocks all the usual fish -- salmon, tuna, yellowtail -- but it's the more uncommon varieties I tend to seek out. One day it's cobia from Japan, pleasantly crunchy and similar in taste to yellowtail. Another meal it's flounder fin: Rounded and ridged, it looks like a bleached caterpillar. It arrives perched on a pad of rice with a dab of minty shiso that lasts but a moment before evaporating on the tongue.
The menu here is long. One way to cut to the chase is to order any dish that's flagged as a chef's choice, such as jo chirashi. If you're lucky, it might come out as mine did, a generous bowl of rice supporting neat folds of supple salmon, mackerel, flounder, tuna: 15 or so strips of raw fish. With its tiny beads of flying fish roe and larger pearls of salmon roe sprinkled over the rice and fish, the collection looked like a box of edible gems; the addition of chopped marinated squash and mushrooms gave the jo chirashi depth and meatiness.
For $4 extra, a diner can get fresh wasabi. That might sound like a lot for a condiment. Yet whenever I've splurged on the finely grated Japanese horseradish for someone who's never tried it, they're invariably struck by its herbal fragrance and piercing fire. One taste of the real deal and it's hard to go back to the one-note green putty most Japanese restaurants put out (including this one).
As does Sushi-Ko in Washington, this place understands frying. One of the best examples of the technique is found in the seafood tempura, which rounds out its steamy fingers of white fish and piping-hot shrimp with a wispy tepee of green beans, eggplant, sweet potato and mushrooms: a garden of delights. A dip of soy sauce, mirin and sake, to which minced ginger and radish can be added at the table, makes a perfect dunk. Eel enthusiasts will appreciate the sheer potato starch crust around that rich flesh, which sits in perfect bars atop sunomono (vinegared cucumber). Actually, even if you think you don't like eel, this dish, splashed with balsamic vinegar to cut the sweetness of the fish, might convince you of its allure.
In contrast, a boring skewer of grilled chicken and scallions makes you wish you'd ordered something else, and a $19 special of muted grilled salmon, described as Columbia River king salmon, bears faint resemblance to that pedigreed creature. Indeed, the highlight of the dish is its broth of chopped morel mushrooms.
But more often, the sheet of daily specials is where I like to focus. Broiled halibut, sporting a soft coat of Japanese bread crumbs mixed with sea urchin and anointed with sea urchin butter, is a pleasing reward, as is anything featuring soft-shell crabs this season.
The Washington restaurant is known for its admirable list of French wines, mostly burgundies, a reflection of the liquid passions of co-owner Daisuke Utagawa. The arcane rules of Montgomery County inhibit such pleasures at the Chevy Chase branch. But its list of chilled sakes makes up for that disappointment, and it pays to probe the staff for highlights. One draw among the lot is the gently sparkling Japon. At $22 per slender flask, it's a luxury, but also an education. Like all of Sushi-Ko's sakes, this one is poured into delicate goblets that enhance the drinking, a little reminder that it's the little things that count.