Light clear broths. Seafood and vegetables in a fragile crust. Precise arrangements of raw tuna, vinegared rice and seaweed. What better way to deal with these dog days than the delicate cuisine of Japan? Here are just a few local restaurants to try.
Descriptions have been excerpted from reviews by Phyllis C. Richman and Pat McNees; the reviewer's initials are at the end of each excerpt. Credit-card abbreviations are as follows: AE, American Express; C, Choice; CB, Carte Blanche; DC, Diners' Club; MC, Master Charge; V, VISA. GENJI -- 2816 Graham Road, Falls Church. 573- 0112. L $3.25-$6.50, D $6-$9. MC, V. Reservations suggested on weekends. Full bar service. The menu is not nearly as extensive as those of Washington's more entrenched Japanese restaurants, but Genji provides enough variety to make choosing difficult. For appetizers, try yakitori (octopus and cucumber), the purple-edged seafood slices marinated in a light soy sauce, with a similarly marinated shredded cucumber and slippery-green seaweed. This dish can also be served with fresh blue crab, which is nearly as good.
The menu also lists soups, including Washington's best miso. Sashimi -- with about six kinds of sliced raw fish and seafood to dip in soy and wasabi (green horseradish paste) -- is more rewarding than the vinegar-rice-based sushi. Genji offers four complete dishes: sukiyaki, shabu shabu, tempura and teriyaki beef. These are good buys since they come with appetizer, soup, salad, rice, dessert and tea. Basically, the main dish choices are fried (tempura and tonkatsu, a pork cutlet that has been dry and disappointing), grilled (teriyaki), cooked in broth (yosenabe, shabu shabu) or saute'ed in soy sauce (sukiyaki). Tempura has been light and fragile, well drained of grease, teriyaki dishes excellent -- crusty on the surface but very juicy. An evening of nibbling and dipping and sipping leaves one satisfied, comfortable: feeling well treated and well-fed rather than overfed. JAPAN INN -- 1715 Wisconsin Avenue NW. 337- 3400. L $4.75-$7.50, D $9.50-$18.50. AE, CB, DC, MC, V. Reservations accepted. Full bar service. You get three choices at the Japan Inn -- the Teppan-Yaki Room, the Japanese Room and the Tempura Bar -- all beautiful. The Japanese Room has low tables so you sit on the floor (without shoes) to eat sukiyaki and shabu shabu. The Teppan-Yaki Room has the knifework at the grills in the center of the tables. The show may not be so virtuoso as Benihana's, but the steak has been marbled and juicy. Chicken has been fairly good, shrimp less so at our last visit. For a cold appetizer, consider rolled-and-stuffed chicken slices, chicken livers and matchsticks of celery with caviar, called tsukedashi; or a pretty salad of marinated cucumber shreds stuffed with fish. For a hot appetizer, try the tempura or a bowl of steamed egg custard with chicken and seafood, called chawan mushi. Better yet, have a full dinner of tempura at the Tempura Bar. NARA -- 7756 Wisconsin Avenue, Bethesda. 986- 9696. L $3.95-$8.95, D $7.50-$12.50. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Beer and wine. A prominent local surgeon was watching the sushi chef at Nara. "The things he does with a knife I couldn't do," he urchins, herring, shrimp, flounder, crab, clams -- and handles them with decorative flair. The fish are as fresh as you can expect to find in Washington. Each visit, it seems, the sushi assortment is slightly different; it might have a clam tied with a strand of seaweed or soft coral salmon as well as familiar tuna, shrimp and such. Only here have I seen futomaki, a wonderful, fat roll of sushi rice with pickled vegetables and egg, studded with green beans: a beautiful multicolored mosaic. But not all is fish; try the Japanese-style fried chicken wings, lightly floured and fried to a juicy crunch. Appetizers and raw fish are Nara's most interesting possibilities, but main courses include a creditable tempura, teriyaki, noodles with tempura or sukiyaki. One dish, however, stands out: Negimaki is thinly sliced beef rolled around scallions, marinated and grilled, sauced with a sweetened soy. SAKURA PALACE -- 7926 Georgia Avenue, Silver Spring. 587-7070. L $5-$8, D $14-20. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Full bar service. Sakura is more than 20 years old and feeling fit. Through the years it seems to grow continually more Japanese. First came the wide assortment of Japanese cooking modes -- tempura, teriyaki, sukiyaki, nabemono, donburi -- served Western-style or with diners kneeling shoeless at low tables. Several years ago a sushi bar was built, the production adding a show to those eating at the bar and new dimensions to the menu with a wide variety of sushi, sashimi and maki zushi (sushi rolled in seaweed). The menu is long and complicated, with wildly varying prices that make ordering a challenge. Order teriyaki; in that category charcoal-grilled pork is juicy and savory, and the rolled, stuffed beef negimaki is a lush combination of rare meat, scallions and seasonings. Then there is an interesting range of broth-cooked dishes such as shabu shabu and yosenabe. SAMURAI SUSHIKO-2309 Wisconsin Avenue NW. 333- 4187. L $5-$6, D $8-$12. Reservations suggested. AE, MC, V. Full bar service. This delicate, precise little dining room is like eating in the middle of a Japanese brush painting. One half is sushi bar, where you can sit and watch the chef slicing and shaping raw fish and rice into edible jewels. The other wall is a row of booths cushioned with geometric prints. The menus, covered in silk, are handwritten on rice paper. Waitresses wear kimonos and serve with a bow. The menu is short, but still manages to be confusing because of the array of sushi. The uninitiated should try an assortment of sushi, then try more of their favorites. Try also the dumplings, supple noodles filled with a tangy, peppery ground meat. Japanese beer and sake complete the meal. If you don't watch your sushi consumption, a meal can add up to an alarming price. But otherwise, Samurai Sushiko is a delightful blend of good taste for every sense.