Revamped and Revelatory: Tom Sietsema Re-Reviews Sushi Taro
1503 17th St. NW
* * * (out of four stars)
Sound Check: 70 decibels (Conversation is easy)
A funny thing happened after Sushi Taro shrank in size, raised its prices and began offering a more extravagant way to eat raw fish this spring. Almost overnight, what for 23 years had been a popular neighborhood spot became one of the most fascinating restaurants in Washington.
Not everyone is happy with the changes, and I can understand the consternation. Top-quality sushi priced for worker bees isn't that common, critics argue, so why, especially in these grim economic times, should the haves among us have all the fun?
Nobu Yamazaki, who took over the Dupont Circle restaurant from his father six years ago, sees the evolution differently. The changes the chef made after he closed the business for three months just before Christmas are part of a grand design to elevate Japanese cuisine in the city.
"Chicken teriyaki and spicy tuna roll are not exactly authentic Japanese food," says Yamazaki, 39. He wants his revamped restaurant "to be a little different" from the competition.
In reality, the new Sushi Taro, which employs 10 cooks, has entered a league of its own.
Remember the lines that used to form on the stairway to the second-floor dining room and the hour-long waits for a table? Now that Sushi Taro accepts reservations, both are gone. So the reception you tend to get at the top of the carpeted climb is calm and cordial, and once you're seated, the table is yours for what feels like the night. I enjoyed the airy interior of the old place, which included a sushi bar that practically ran the width of the room. But the new design's honey-colored wood and booths dressed in orange fabric place you smack in Japan. The original restaurant could squeeze in 120 customers; the narrower reincarnation can host a mere 70. A new sense of serenity prevails.
There are several ways to experience the restaurant. Unfortunately, they're introduced to you via an unwieldy menu and a server who rushes through too many of the details. The options include dishes a la carte; a 10-course kaiseki dinner for a minimum of two diners ($75 each); a multi-course spread showcasing either sashimi or sushi ($65 and $75, respectively); and omakase, or "chef's choice," designed with your tastes and the chef's latest shopping trip in mind. That last strategy is the most exclusive, since it starts at $100 a person and takes place in the rear of the restaurant, at a counter with only six seats.
Omakase is also an extraordinary education.
From the second you sit down, you know this will be no ordinary meal. One signal is a big bowl of ice decorated with live scallops and scampi from New Zealand. Another clue is the sight of one of two chefs shaving a long piece of Japanese horseradish into a thimble-size pile of pale green wasabi. Plum wine -- clear, slightly thicker than water and subtly potent -- is poured into a small etched-crystal glass, a liquid amuse bouche that is the first of many pleasures.
What resembles panna cotta is set down before each lucky customer. The ivory custard, called sesame seed "tofu," is made fresh daily, Yamazaki says, from sesame seeds that are roasted, turned into a paste with the addition of water and starch from a mountain root vegetable, and allowed to congeal slightly. The result is smooth and faintly nutty, enriched with a dab of briny sea urchin roe on top and circled with a broth of kelp and bonito flakes.