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A Word for the Wise

Insiders know to ask the sushi chef for 'omakase'

By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page W47

*** Sushi-Ko
2309 Wisconsin Ave. NW (near Calvert Street).
202-333-4187. www.sushiko.us
Open: for lunch Tuesday through Friday noon to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 6 to 10:30 p.m., Friday 6 to 11 p.m., Saturday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Sunday 5:30 to 10 p.m. AE, MC, V. No smoking. Limited wheelchair access. Valet parking at dinner. Six-course omakase dinner $50 and up per person, depending on the fish; with sake, tax and tip about $75 per person.

*** Kaz Sushi Bistro
1915 I St. NW (near 20th Street)
202-530-5500. www.kazsushi.com
Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Saturday 6 to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday. All major credit cards. No smoking. Not wheelchair accessible. Metro: Farragut West. Eight-course omakase dinner $60 to $75 per person, depending on the fish; with sake, tax and tip about $90 per person.

_____Tom Sietsema_____
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*** Makoto
4822 MacArthur Blvd. NW (near U Street).

Open: for lunch Tuesday through Saturday noon to 2 p.m.; for dinner Tuesday through Sunday 6 to 10 p.m. Closed Monday. MC, V. Reservations recommended. No smoking. Not wheelchair accessible. Ten-course omakase dinner $49 and up per person, depending on the fish; with sake, tax and tip about $100 per person.

AS THE CALENDAR flipped from February to March and winter gave way to spring, I found my appetite changing, too. Much as I enjoyed the past season's haunches of roast meat and braised root vegetables, I eagerly embraced the new season's first shad and white asparagus. I found myself trading in big portions of robust flavors for food that was lighter and more delicate. And so I decided to revisit Washington's top Japanese restaurants: Kaz Sushi Bistro downtown, Makoto on MacArthur Boulevard and Sushi-Ko in Glover Park. All three serve sushi of distinction: raw fish that smells like a fresh sea breeze and pillows of rice that are loose and neither warm nor cool.

This time, however, I decided to plumb the depths of each kitchen. After settling in at the sushi bar, I nodded to the chef in front of me and simply said, "Omakase." The word, which translates into "chef's choice" in Japanese, is a request to the cook to prepare what he thinks is best (sushi chefs in Washington are almost all men). They tend to focus on dishes that are unique to the restaurant, or ingredients that are seasonal or somehow special. The only thing a diner has to do is give the staff some guidelines, such as a price range, the number of courses desired and any distinct likes or dislikes.

The best way to experience omakase is at the sushi bar, where you can watch the people making your food -- and they can check you out. The cooks have an opportunity to see how daring your taste is, or isn't. And if you are a woman or a senior citizen, a chef might even prepare slightly smaller sushi, the better to fit your mouth in a single bite, or so the thinking goes.

Asking for omakase in a Japanese setting is like ordering a tasting menu (typically a parade of small dishes offered at a set price) in a French or American restaurant. It's also an enchanting way to spend a few hours.

NO SOONER have I refreshed myself with the traditional moist cloth at Sushi-Ko than my first course, a bite of crisped eel on slices of sheer cucumber, is set before me. A server coaches me and a friend to "take a bite of eel, dip it in the sauce" -- a balsamic vinegar reduction -- and follow it with cucumber. The warm eel melts on my tongue, and the cool cucumber, tossed in rice wine vinegar, provides a tingling chaser.

Koji Terano, the young talent behind our dinner, delivers the next course: slices of white tuna, smoky from a quick searing, presented with avocado, Japanese mountain potato and garlic chips. The mingling of flavors and textures is very appealing, and it is followed by a mellow bowl of clear broth containing just a few asparagus spears, enoki mushrooms and choice bites of Maine lobster. "Do you like clam?" Terano asks as we finish our soup. We nod. He is a few steps ahead of the menu, selecting which seafood will grace our sushi platter.

Paced so as never to make us feel rushed, the elegant feast continues with rectangles of duck, edged in a golden band of fat and drizzled with a mustard-miso sauce, and lobster presented in its shell and gilded with a foamy ponzu sauce.

Japanese restaurants are not known for their desserts, but Sushi-Ko is not your typical Japanese restaurant. To end our tasting, a big plate divided into four sections appears. One quarter holds green tea ice cream; another contains tiny circles of chocolate cake. But the plate's two sorbets call to me most. One is infused with chardonnay, the other with pinot noir. Both taste as if they were made from fresh snow, and both are utterly refreshing.

TO EAT OMAKASE at Kaz Sushi Bistro is to watch a little magic show -- and to stretch your idea of Japanese cuisine.

In one small bowl, bites of salmon might be tossed with tabbouleh and crowned with what looks like fish roe but turns out to be tapioca beads stained with grape juice. In another course, smoked monkfish liver, rich and soft, is bound in sheer folds of daikon radish, cool and crisp. Uncooked tuna, red as raw beef, is splashed with soy sauce punched up with rosemary, a forceful herb rarely used in Japanese cooking.

Braised short ribs are a quiet comfort, but I prefer what follows: silken sable fish garnished with what your eyes tell you are peeled grapes but your taste buds might identify as gingko nuts. By the time the sushi course arrives, you shouldn't be surprised that the toro (prized fatty tuna) carries shavings of earthy black truffle and that the selection of mostly raw fish includes a bite of foie gras with clear wine jelly atop a tiny pad of rice. Dessert is a small scoop of bourbon ice cream surrounded by coffee-flavored tapioca in a martini glass. Fun!

Kazuhiro "Kaz" Okochi is a comfortable host behind the counter, fielding questions from the admirers seated in front of him -- and showing no visible signs of displeasure when members of his audience commit a faux pas, such as rubbing their chopsticks together (which is considered rude) or drenching their sushi in soy sauce (which overwhelms the taste of the fish). Though I wish this restaurant passed out higher-quality towels at the beginning of the meal -- these are paper and tend to rip as you use them -- I'm pleased to see its pickled ginger is natural beige rather than dyed pink. Like a sorbet between savory courses, the ginger serves as a palate freshener between bites of different fish.

WHILE KAZ Sushi Bistro and Sushi-Ko emphasize innovation in their omakase, Makoto revels in tradition, starting in the tiny stone-paved foyer, where shoes are exchanged for slippers, and continuing in the plain and narrow dining room, carefully monitored by women in traditional Japanese dress. When I request a six-course "chef's choice," one of the waitresses tells me to splurge on 10 courses, since it's the same price.

I'm glad I didn't argue. Each small course has its own charm, be it an opener of smoky tea leaves and pickled vegetables; a single seared scallop served in a giant shell with slivered leeks and a light sauce of tomatoes, pineapple and more; shrimp in a crunchy coat of rice, prettily arranged with a few perfect pea pods and a single lotus root chip; or divine sushi, including soft, sweet shrimp and rich, cream-colored yellowtail. Chef-owner Yoshiaki Itoh makes his own soy sauce and serves only fresh wasabi, details that further elevate his omakase.

The service at Makoto is flawless, if a bit serious. Even before I know I want more sake, my cup is refilled. Plates arrive and leave with quiet precision. The wooden box that serves as a chair might not encourage lingering, yet for a few hushed hours, I feel far, far removed from the bustle of the city.


No sooner had I ended my omakase odyssey than this question arrived: "When I eat at the sushi bar, generally the only service I get, besides the sushi chef, is water refills. I feel like this reduced service also calls for a reduced tip," writes Michael Zuckman of Rockville, who says in his e-mail that he tips 15 percent or more when he's seated at a table. "What do you do?" If my food and drinks arrive promptly and my meal is well-paced, I tip accordingly (15 to 20 percent), no matter where I happen to be sitting. Servers at all three restaurants in this review turn over a share of their tips -- as much as half -- to the kitchen staff.

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