Best of two worlds at Kushi: Gastropub offers sushi, skewers

(Scott Suchman)
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, June 20, 2010

Kushi Izakaya & Sushi

Darren Lee Norris was so unsure how Washington diners would accept an izakaya, or Japanese gastropub, that he tacked raw fish and vinegared rice onto his idea for a new restaurant. Sushi, the former Ridgewells caterer reasoned, would lure customers to Kushi Izakaya & Sushi. If they liked what they saw, maybe they'd come back for kushiyaki, skewered food cooked over a charcoal grill, which he had become smitten with during visits to Tokyo, where his wife, Ari Kushimoto Norris, was raised.

Darren Norris needn't have worried. It turns out there's a large audience for everything he's serving. Some of the Japanese terms might be unfamiliar, but seafood, meat and vegetables transformed by fire, and small plates prepared with prime ingredients, share universal appeal, especially when they're presented on a popular block in a hot neighborhood. When it opened in the CityVista building this spring, Kushi joined branches of Busboys & Poets and Taylor Gourmet and a sprawling new Safeway in Mount Vernon Square.

Minimally accessorized with outsize paper lanterns and sake barrels, Kushi nonetheless oozes style. Arrivals pass through long linen noren to find a loftlike, putty-colored room dominated by a robata grill on one side and a sushi counter on the other. The space between is filled with tables made from reclaimed barn wood and a glass-wrapped work space for oyster shuckers. Kushi's entire repertoire is available throughout the 18-foot-high dining room, which Norris likens to "an amusement park" for customers, although the bars offer diners the bonus of watching their meals made before their eyes. I love the deft knife skills and the ballet of the sushi chefs, identified by their white caps. But I also appreciate the black-hatted tenders of the robata, who are just as nimble around the skewers and the grill stoked with slender batons of Japanese charcoal.

Even more, I applaud what lands on my plate. The sea urchin sushi is a gift from Poseidon, a cross between mousse and the subtle salinity only the ocean can deliver. Extra-fatty tuna is explosively rich, and it rests on a pad of barely warm and comfortably loose rice. All of the usual fish for sushi and sashimi are available, but the changing specials should determine your choices. It's not every day that you find geoduck, live scallops, fluke fin and baby conch on the same Washington menu. The last item was among my favorites at Kushi. The conch was served in its tiny shell, its meat soft, pure and rich with shiso butter; the treasure was retrieved using a small bamboo fork.

But first, brace yourself for lots of choices to wade through. You'll be handed four menus: One is a big sheet listing raw and grilled fish and meat, plus small plates. A second slip, a standing menu, lets you jot down requests for sushi and other dishes. A third menu highlights the daily specials. The last describes cocktails, and you might want some amid the flurry of papers you've been handed, which suggest an office meeting more than a social occasion.

Allow me to cut to the chase and share highlights of my meals, which I've enjoyed as much as a soloist at the counter as I have as part of a gang at a raised communal table.

I've never met a piece of sushi here I haven't liked. A vegetarian accomplice gave the kitchen a thumbs up for sesame-dressed green beans, Japanese pickles, garlicky kimchi and grilled baby beets he and I both enjoyed. If I had my druthers, however, I'd focus most on the daily specials. That's where some of the more intriguing cooked dishes beckon. Don't miss the daily dashi custard, which might fit shrimp, shiitakes, favas and lightly crunchy scallop lip in a swirl of silken pleasure. Or the bowl of steamed clams, a still life of briny seafood scattered with leeks and swimming in a broth made with sake.

Strong performances are almost always team efforts; Kushi enjoys the support of a large and talented cast. Heading the sushi brigade are Yoshihisa Ota, recruited from the acclaimed Ginza Gakyu in Tokyo, and Munehiro Yonemoto, the former executive chef at the very good Raku in Bethesda. A veteran of Georgetown's late Hisago and Japan Inn, Hironobu Higashijima, is among those behind the spark-throwing fire of the robata grill. Darren Norris sees himself as sort of a bridge, introducing the veteran chefs to such modern notions as sous vide and procuring for them pedigreed American staples. Kushi's pork is Berkshire, its beef Wagyu, its chicken heritage breed. The designer labels don't always translate to bliss, but they establish the tone. Grilled pork belly tastes deeply of the beast and melts on the tongue. Duck thigh reveals succulent flesh beneath crackling skin. Grilled chicken skin, or kawa, is flabby and flat.

Other nits? Lamb loin leaves the grill juicy and pink but also overwhelmed with cracked pepper: a $20 disappointment. A server's lukewarm response to my request for a salmon-filled rice ball should have been my cue to skip the snack, an underperformer with just a suggestion of fish inside. Kushi would be a better place to dine if its beverage list included more background on the many sakes and suds it offers. Wine is an expensive afterthought here; of the beers, I'm partial to the red brew made from sweet potatoes, Coedo Beniaka. Servers are for the most part attentive, but I wish they'd remember to clear the used towels and plates that clutter the tables, and to bring everything I've requested. (Chicken meatballs will have to wait for another visit.)

It's telling, however, to glance away from your meal and see so many Japanese diners in the crowd. Executives from Toshiba and Mitsubishi have already made their way to this hipster haunt.

Norris and crew aren't resting on their early success. Shortly after launch, they introduced a seasonally driven omakase (chef's choice) menu Wednesday through Saturday nights. The word from Tokyo is that maki (rolls) featuring grilled meat are hot, says Norris, who recently introduced the toasted seaweed-bound treats to the menu.

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