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Fish Tales

By Phyllis C. Richman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 21, 1999

  Richman Review

Turning Tables
For years we've missed the old Omega restaurant. Last month a new one opened at 2473 18th St. NW. It's not exactly on the site of the original Adams-Morgan Cuban restaurant, and only one of the owners is even distantly related to the original's. But it's an attempt to revive local restaurant history, even down to such prices as $4.95 for the chicken, $7.95 for the paella. The classic ropa vieja will be available only as a special; black beans and rice, however, will be served every day, with every entree.

In Rockville, Cuban Corner, at 825 Hungerford Dr., serves a long list of Cuban specialties, from the inevitable Cubano sandwich to ropa vieja. Shrimp in garlic sauce is scrawny, tamales are crumbly and roast pork can be dry. But the black beans are fine and the vaca frita – shredded beef tangy from a vinegar marinade and pan-fried with onions until it's crisp – is wonderfully earthy
– P.C.R.

It's the pizza of the '90s. Sushi used to be a food of ceremony, a matter of ritual. Only a few intensely ethnic Japanese restaurants served it, and then only at specific hours. Now supermarkets are selling it. Little kids take it to school in their lunch boxes (one hopes it's not the kind made with raw fish). I wouldn't be surprised to find it in vending machines.

It is a measure of how thoroughly sushi has invaded our lives that now it's bar food. In fact, it's the only food at downtown's newest superchic bar, Dragonfly, a place so cool that it can be hard to find even when you know the address. It's the kind of bar where you wonder whether the guy at the door will look you over and turn you away. It's a place where you'd hardly dare to wear anything but black, or maybe gray. But if the gray is in your hair, you're likely to be treated with sweet young indulgence – as if you were a foreign visitor who couldn't be expected to understand the language.

Behind the mysterious frosted-glass front of Dragonfly is a vast room that looks like a set for a Woody Allen movie about swinging singles on a spaceship. A kind of intergalactic mixer. The brushed-aluminum bar is lit from below with a greenish-blue light that makes the all-white furnishings look virtual – you're inside a computer screen looking out. The artwork is ethereal – literally. It's projected on the walls. Videos run continuously, mostly Japanese cartoons for – I hope – adults. Of course a deejay keeps the music throbbing. Sometimes it's the sound of vibrating wire, other times it's more emphatic pounding. If we were really in space, I'd be scared that something was going very wrong with the navigational system.

If you're lucky or early, you can find a seat at the bar – the plastic stools remind me of well-trimmed white artichoke bottoms – or in a low cushiony leather chair before a little white coffee table. Or you can join a group at a long white table that looks like a designer copy of one from a school lunchroom. All of the tables have reserved signs on them, but that just means they're reserved for people who plan to eat.

Which gets us to the sushi. I've found some good sushi here – though given the lackadaisical pace of the sushi makers, Dragonfly has to be losing money with every bite. They're not too particular about reading their orders carefully, either. Once the sushi arrives, though, you find that the fish is cut generously, the rice has the right stickiness and faint vinegar aroma, and the chef has displayed a few flourishes such as a ribbon of seaweed around the curled-up sweet shrimp. The finesse varies – our futomaki fell apart – and the tuna has no taste I could discern. But the yellowtail is buttery, the salmon roe pops on your tongue, and if toro – fatty tuna – is available, it is truly succulent.

The sushi list doesn't get too adventurous, and some nights it is particularly limited, but the liveliest combos I've tried are eel with asparagus, smoked salmon with avocado, and salty plum with shiso leaves. All of the sushi can be ordered as sashimi at the same price, and I'd trade two pieces of rice-based sushi for three slices of sashimi any time.

You could order sake, but martinis and cosmopolitans are really what you're here for. In fact, that's all that most of the crowd is here for. Just watch the couple on a date at the next table. Their lone pair of cooked-shrimp sushi sits untouched throughout the evening. Too fattening? Too hard to eat gracefully? Clearly it's just for show.

Okay, so you don't like sushi with a techno beat and haven't any skin-tight black jeans. Besides, you crave sushi at lunch. Preferably at bargain prices. You're just the audience that Benkay's new management is trying to appeal to – unsuccessfully.

It's still the same old downstairs buffet/sushi bar restaurant, open for lunch and for karaoke in the evenings. The furnishings are comfortable, and the buffet selection runs the gamut of Japanese hot dishes and sushi rolls. All for $8.95.

The a la carte menu is also tempting, and fellow lunchers with big bowls of noodles seem happy. I'd be happy, too, with just an order of Sake 2 Me noodles, which are stir-fried with vegetables and chicken in a lightly creamy and garlicky sesame-studded sauce. But this is a restaurant that can take half an hour to prepare sushi for two. And one day when I was brought yakitori ($4.95) instead of kushi-yaki ($6.95), the hostess's idea of an apology was to volunteer to remove the extra $2 from our bill. What's worse, when the sushi eventually arrived, it all tasted old and fishy (had our order taken that long?).

So why bother to tell you all this? Because the buffet is a deal. Like any buffet, it's freshest, juiciest, crispest and most appealing at the beginning, so aim to get there by noon. The salad has a gingery sesame dressing, and the cold marinated vegetable dishes – spinach, napa cabbage, eggplant, tofu – would be a delicious meal for many of us. On the other hand, the various cutlets, though they look greaseless and crunchy, taste bland and starchy. Tempura is heavy and greasy. More satisfying are bonnet-shaped pan-fried dumplings, honeyed wings and chunks of fried boneless chicken. And the buffet's sushi rolls, which include no raw fish, are much better than the a la carte sushi. The half-dozen choices include tempura crab or shrimp – not prime seafood but a pleasant crunch wrapped in roe-covered rice – and smoked salmon with cream cheese. That's not all: At the end of the sushi bar is a tray of ripe-looking melon slices, tempting for appetizer, entree or dessert.

Dragonfly – 1215 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202/331-1775. Open: Monday through Thursday 5:30 p.m. to 12:45 a.m., Friday 5:30 p.m. to 1:45 a.m., Saturday 6 p.m. to 1:45 a.m., Sunday 6 p.m. to 12:45 a.m. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. No cigar or pipe smoking. Prices: two pieces of sushi, $3.50 to $6.50. Sushi dinner with drinks, tax and tip about $40 per person.
Benkay – 727 15th St. NW. 202/737-1515. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for karaoke Sunday through Thursday 8 p.m to 2 a.m., Friday and Saturday 8 p.m. to 3 a.m. All major credit cards. Reservations accepted. Smoking in bar area only. Prices: lunch appetizers $1.50 to $11.95, entrees $7.50 to $11.95, two pieces of sushi $3 to $4. Full lunch with beverage, tax and tip $15 to $25 per person.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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