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Still A Thrill

By Phyllis C. Richman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 11, 1998

  Richman Review

Turning Tables
Sweet News: Although Dieter Schorner had been looking to sell his Patisserie-Cafe Didier in Georgetown for two years, he had turned down all offers because he would hand it over only to a pastry chef. Washington is lucky he waited, since the one he found was Bruno Feldeisen, who was looking for a new professional challenge after four years at New York's Four Seasons Hotel. Feldeisen brings stellar credentials: He has worked at the legendary Maison du Chocolat in Paris, as chocolatier for famed chef Alain Ducasse in Monte Carlo and as pastry chef at the Highlands Inn and Patina, both in California. And he's twice been nominated for the James Beard Award for outstanding pastry chef. Feldeisen will spend a few days a month in Toronto, where he is a partner in a pastry shop. He is considering changing the name of the Washington shop, and plans to expand the hours, now 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.

Gerard's Other Place: Who's that in the kitchen of Vintage? It's Gerard Pangaud, who has decided to try to improve his Georgetown bistro's lackluster performance by running the kitchen in person. Every evening, he says. He'll still spend lunchtimes at his flagship Gerard's Place, he says, but dinner there will be under the supervision of the recently hired Charles Solomon.

We are the sushi generation. Our forebears would have considered unadorned fish on rice a meal for lean times rather than luxury fare. And raw? Well, maybe salmon if it were smoked, herring if it were pickled, oysters and clams if they were heavily masked with ketchup and horseradish. But nobody would have predicted that squeamish Americans would consider sushi anything more than ingredients for a cooked meal to come.

Now, however, we are so addicted to raw fish on rice that we throng sushi bars, shop for it in supermarkets and take classes in rolling our own. Such aficionados Americans have become; what can surprise us anymore?

Sushi-Ko can. It was the first sushi bar in Washington, more than 20 years ago, and has always been the most adventurous. Now it has redecorated its dining rooms – trading the nondescript for a costly austerity that features bare laminated tables with unfinished edges and a spare emptiness in shades of gray. On a brighter note, it's brought back from Japan its former sushi chef Tetsuro Takanashi and teamed him with American chef Duncan Boyd. They've created a menu of daily specials that is so packed full of seasonal, rare and creative small dishes that it makes the printed menu no more pertinent than the tourist menu in a Chinatown restaurant.

So skip the teriyaki, the tempura. They're perfectly all right, but tame stuff here.

To set the scene, there's a long and fascinating list of sakes. The crown jewel is called onna nakase, a $10 brew served cold in a tiny iron cup you refill from a small iron kettle. It's amazing how much complexity can be coaxed from fermented rice.

Depending on what you order, a miso soup with velvety cubes of tofu might come next. Or you could splurge on the clear lobster broth with tender bits of lobster and chanterelles or perhaps sweet, bright green slivers of asparagus. It's $6; most of the small dishes on the specials list run $4.50 to $7, so you can dine – and pay – lightly, or you can construct a substantial feast and a bill to match.

Seafood is the mainstay, along with vegetarian salads and a few tokens of meat. But not all the seafood is raw. Grilled baby octopus is as tender as its name implies, delicately salty and sugary from its sweet soy glaze, jeweled with tiny cubes of mango and a fluff of shredded daikon. Salmon – sometimes Alaskan sockeye rather than the commonplace farmed variety – is bound with its crisp skin, the fish inside so tender it practically melts.

Shrimp, butterflied and grilled in their shell, take on a smokiness and retain their fragile flavor, though scallops do not. Instead, experiment with monkfish fillets the size of dominoes on a bed of corn, green beans and green soybeans. Or mussels nestled under a warm cloud of peppery mayonnaise glazed until gold. There might be a whole small mullet, barely coated with batter and deep-fried, though behind the crunchy skin the flesh has been too dry. Baby conch, too, is more glamorous in its tiny shell cornucopias than it is delicious. The most amazing cooked seafood is ankimo, a smooth, pale pâté of monkfish roe that tastes like foie gras of the sea, with a luscious jolt of lemony, soy-sharpened ponzu aspic.

The strongest East-West connection is in the salads. There might be a cross-cultural mozzarella with greens and baby tomatoes, marinated in miso, or cherry tomatoes with shiso and mizuna in balsamic vinegar.

But we're here for raw fish, aren't we? Sea trout is chopped, tossed with peanuts, ginger, cilantro, soy sauce and sesame oil, then piled on weightless fried won ton rounds. It's a lovely and exotic napoleon. Tuna is seared yet raw, topped with a knot of shredded scallion and a dash of ponzu. Spot prawns are cut in chunks and served raw alongside their fried and crunchy heads, with slices of lemon.

The range of sushi is exciting. There might be jackfish, coarse-fleshed yet mild. Various kinds of extravagant tuna belly show up; my favorite is the pinkish-ivory chu-toro. And among the sushi rolls is tuna sharpened by jalapeno and cilantro, with a bit of crunch from vegetables. For an interesting contrast try a roast duck roll, the rare meat akin to raw fish with extra chew and a robust flavor.

Even the routine sushi – tuna, yellowtail, sea urchin, salmon roe – is high-quality, and for a $2 surcharge you can glorify it with grated fresh (rather than powdered) wasabi. Dab the fresh paste directly on the fish; it's a waste of its texture and subtlety to stir it into soy sauce. And sometimes the server brings a small kettle of light, mild soy sauce with rice wine and a small paintbrush as an alternative to dipping your sushi in ordinary soy sauce.

Sushi-Ko is proud of its desserts, but I'd rather end with another pair of yellowtail sushi. The banana tempura has tasted of old oil, not quite saved by its flowery blackberry ice cream. Understated ginger or bright green tea are also churned into ice creams, and there's a sake ice that would be stellar if the sugar were tamed.

But don't go to Sushi-Ko committed to a list of particular dishes. This is a menu responsive to the season, the market, the weather and the chefs' whims. Just watch the white sheet of daily specials. And try not to play it safe. Without a leap of faith, you'd never have known the joys of sushi.

Sushi-Ko – 2309 Wisconsin Ave. NW. 202/333-4187. Open: for lunch Tuesday through Friday noon to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 6 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 to 11 p.m., Sunday 5:30 to 10 p.m. AE, MC, V. Reservations accepted. No smoking. Prices: lunch appetizers $2.50 to $5.25, entrees $7.50 to $17; dinner appetizers $2.50 to $6.25, entrees $9 to $18.50. Full dinner with wine, beer or sake, tax and tip $25 to $45 per person.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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