Inspired sushi, and a lakeside view: Raw food reigns at Sushi Sono
**1/2 (out of four stars; Good/Excellent)
Sound check: 70 decibels/Conversation is easy.
The best seats at Sushi Sono are the best seats at every sushi restaurant: those at the counter. That's where you get to inspect the fish and seafood before they're transformed into lunch or dinner, and that's where you get to ask the chefs what they think is special on any given day. At a minimum, sitting mere feet from the people who are responsible for feeding you encourages a dialogue with them. In the best situations, a communion of sorts takes place between talent and audience.
Sushi Sono's counter has only 11 seats. That's the bad news. The good news is you can make a reservation for those prime spots, which is what I did on my maiden visit earlier this year. Columbia might not be the first (or even the 13th) place to pop into your mind when the subject of sushi in the Washington area comes up, but trust me: The quality of the raw ingredients and the devotion of the chef and owner, King Lin, are indisputable.
Toro, or fatty tuna, tastes like a marriage of butter and ocean. Uni, or sea urchin, has the fluffy texture of custard but glides along the tongue like a sea breeze. There might also be delicately sweet live scallops, presented in their beautiful shells. For $2, you can get grated wasabi instead of the typical paste added to your selection; it's a small price to pay to experience the quiet fire of the condiment. Sushi Sono receives fresh fish five of the six days of the week it's open, and even though the restaurant turned 12 last month, Lin, 55, who has been there since Day One, continues to work as he always has, doing lunch and dinner shifts.
Count on the list of daily specials to deliver on the promise. Young snapper from Japan, one night's draw, was staged like a Broadway production. One part of the raw fish was sliced into rectangles, each dotted with fresh ginger, minced scallion and a drop of ponzu sauce; the flesh from the other half was carved into bites and dabbed with wasabi and soy sauce. When we finished the dish, the bones were whisked away and used to make Act III, a steaming clear soup. On a second visit, one of the daily specials was horse mackerel, treated to much the same preparation, except that its delicate bones were deep-fried and returned to my companions and me as crunchy snacks. "Eat them like potato chips," a server instructed. We did. And smiled.
Lin and his crew behind the bar make some creative rolls. One of the most intriguing, yasai-maki, celebrates vegetables (sono means "garden" in Japanese): creamy avocado, bright orange squash, nutty shiitakes and more, bound in a pink wrap of tinted soy paper and sliced to reveal an edible mosaic. It's the savory equivalent of a child's birthday cake. Another light pleasure is the crunchy jellyfish salad, see-through ribbons slick with sesame oil and teasing with hot red pepper.
There are advantages to sitting at spots other than the counter. Most of the tables in the tidy dining room take in a view of the lake (Kittamaqundi) that serves as a backdrop to a meal here, and the female servers, clad in traditional Japanese clothing, are able guides to the menu. Some are also entertaining. "Don't discuss business here," one of them playfully chides two men who are doing just that over some of the best sushi they've had in months. Another dining option is one of two tatami rooms, each of which can seat as many as 10 people and require spending a minimum of $200. On a busy weekend night (and they always are at Sushi Sono), these semi-private retreats are what I like to book. The chefs are visible, but the hum of the crowd is muted. Just remember to wear clean socks, since you leave your shoes outside the screen door.
Chicken teriyaki? Don't bother with the boring, too-sweet entree. The tempura is nothing special, either. When I venture into the territory of cooked rather than raw dishes, I usually find myself wishing I hadn't. There are delicious exceptions, however. They include the crisp beef-filled dumplings called gyoza and the shabu-shabu, the Japanese hot pot consisting of thinly shaved beef, cabbage, tofu and glassy noodles. The longer the ingredients simmer together, the richer this soup gets.
Having seen the stream of people who show up to get carryout and the knots of would-be diners in the foyer ("This is like a Japanese 'Cheers,'" a dining companion observes one night), I never just drop by Sushi Sono without a reservation. But wherever I find myself seated, I know what to expect: a fresh surprise or two and a side of pampering.
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Bio in brief: Chef-owner King lin was born and trained in Taiwan and immigrated to the United States in 1984. In 1990, he opened his first restaurant, Sushi King, which still operates in Columbia at 6490 Dobbin Rd.
Open: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday; dinner 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday. All major credit cards. Free parking.
Prices: Sushi (two pieces) $3.50 to $8.50, appetizers $3.50 to $13.95, entrees $12.95 to $35.95.