A FUNNY THING happened on the way to the sushi bar: The sashimi was seared -- and modern American and European chefs started serving raw fish.
Chefs and restaurant owners naturally have to take advantage of dining trends, so they start by emphasizing the sort of dishes Americans already show interest in before trying to stretch either back into a broader tradition or forward into a modern, personal approach. So when you hear food writers say something about sushi's having become thenew pizza or pre-fab sushi the new salad bar, it should remind you not only of its ubiquity but of its narrow representation of Japanese cuisine. In the same way, the phrase "seafood restaurant" has been somewhat bent by the boom in grills (or "grilles") to imply only slabs of swordfish and tuna and maybe a soft-shell or two.
What should be a primary attraction of any restaurant, however, is the kitchen's proficiency and its innovation, not just its willingness to repeat its classic offerings almost infinitely (a patience and dedication that we do not by any means denigrate). And happily for Washingtonians, there are very forward-looking Japanese chefs, and equally world-view Western chefs, turning the raw fish/cooked fish stereotypes upside down.
For example: Jamie Stachowski of Pesce, Dupont Circle's quiet giant of a seafood cafe (2016 P St. NW; 202/466-3474), has been dealing four and five uncooked offerings into the daily easel's worth of appetizers. Among current and grin-inspiring delights are a patriotic flag-waver of a sashimi terrine, layers of red trout, white anchovies and glittering silver-blue sturgeon, held together by a pale lobster aspic and sliced like a Fourth of July torte. For a really delicate start, there's also a chilled tomato consomme with dollops of a lemon grass-ginger gelatin (the staff calls them "icebergs"), peeled cherry tomatoes and sweet, fresh, dry-packed calico scallops. The same scallops are stars of a tongue-tingling hot-cold medley: a crispy-fried wonton wrapper cradling a scallop dressed with a touch of lemon juice and mango and melon dice, smoothed over with an ancho chile-spiked whipped cream and run under the heat to a glaze; and the whole thing is drizzled with a clear red shrimp oil harissa and served with shoestring yucca fries.
The house-smoked salmon is folded into "pillows" and stuffed with Ahi tuna tartare (have you noticed this kitchen has fun with food?). And as for what the menu understates as a classic seviche, freshly flown-in Florida rock shrimp "big as [Stachowski's] thumb" are first turned into a shrimp mousse that is set in the bottom of a parfait glass, then layered in and topped off with a lime-ginger foam.
At Cafe Atlantico (405 Eighth St. NW; 202/393-0812), the offerings are just as varied. Chef Jose Ramon Andres studs a clear cantaloupe soup with sweet watermelon balls, tiny flash-blanched (for a warm contrast) clams and a flavoring of balsamic vinegar. Even sweeter is the spiny lobster "seviche," medallions of lobster warmed only by being in the vicinity of the oven and topped with an emulsion of the raw coral and mustard, lemon juice (hence the "seviche") and olive oil, and served with still crunchy beet ravioli. He does make a classic seviche of tuna, of course.
At the Park Hyatt's Melrose (24th and M streets NW; 202/955-3899), Brian McBride floats tiny, sweet Taylor Bay scallops, still in their shells, in a chilled coconut-carrot broth with nuggets of galangal-Key lime granita. New Heights' John Wabeck seviches his scallops with soy, lime and pickled onions (2317 Calvert St. NW; 202/234-4110).
And for a slightly Indonesian flavor, try the thin-sliced hamachi, the buttery "yellowtail" that is probably the second most popular sushi fish in America, laced with hot curry oil, soy and ginger at Indigo in Great Falls (774 Walker Rd.; 703/759-4650).
Tuna tartare, of course, has become almost fare ordinaire: From the Inn at Little Washington (Middle and Main streets, Washington, Va.; 540/675-3800) to downtown's 701 (701 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202/393-0701) to Georgetown's Tahoga (2815 M St. NW; 202/338-5380) -- most of them with an Asian flavoring of soy-ginger dressing, wasabi oil or mayonnaise and seaweed salad. Robert Wiedmaier of Marcel's (2401 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202/296-1166) has a sort of tricolor timbale with avocado mousse at the bottom, diced mango in the middle and atop, a tartare of tuna marinated in soy and cayenne oil and a final confetti of cayenne.
Tuna is so familiar now that many chefs are, like Stachowski, combining the tuna with a second "meat." Michael Ellis of Relish (in the courtyard at 18th and M streets NW; 202/785-1177) also combines smoked salmon and Ahi, dressing it in a slightly tangier but still traditionally minded blend of mirin (Japanese cooking wine), sichimi (Japanese mixed pepper blend), citrus-flavored soy sauce and sesame oil. And his version of seviche pairs fresh shrimp and hamachi. Frederic Lange of the Hay-Adams Hotel's Lafayette (16th and H streets NW; 202/638-2570) has been serving his lunch-time tartare with a daikon radish remoulade and fresh pea salad; but when his post-recess menu kicks off in mid-September, he plans a dinner "duet" of white tuna tartare and bison with the daikon remoulade (and, in a different sort of reverse fusion, a chilled shrimp tempura tower with smoked salmon).
Of course, the Japanese have always cooked fish in myriad ways: steamed, grilled, hot-stone grilled, sake-poached, fried, simmered. But as cultures and cuisines blend, new fusions are forming, along the lines of the thoroughly modern-eclectic dishes at downtown's Kaz Sushi Bistro (1915 I St. NW; 202/530-5500) and Sushi-Ko in Glover Park (2309 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202/333-4187).
At Sushi-Ko, chefs Tetsuro Takanashi and Duncan Boyd have begun offering a nightly multi-course dinner that is a cross between the modern chef's tasting menu and the Japanese traditional kaiseki menus. There are some in-jokes on just this reverse-fusion raw/cooked subject -- grilled rare tuna with roasted tomatoes and squash followed by seared beef tenderloin (or Kobe beef, when available) and the so simple and so perfect dressing of salmon tartare with yogurt, cucumbers, almonds and basil -- something that seems to fall in your palate's imaginary gazetteer between Denmark and Persia.
What throws Sushi-Ko's eclecticism into even higher relief is that while most Japanese restaurants are just beginning to stock better-quality sakes, Sushi-Ko owner Daisuke Utagawa has assembled one of the most astonishing collections of white and red Burgundys in the Washington area, and can make a fairly persuasive case for matching the cuisine to the wines.
While Kaz's eponymous chef-owner Kazuhiro Okochi presides over his staff from the traditional point behind the sushi bar, which establishes its strategic importance in the restaurant, his list of daily specials and "small dishes" is likely to include as many cooked dishes as not, sometimes more. Bonita, a very dark-fleshed, purple-black tuna cousin, is seared (which is actually the traditional treatment for this intense, meaty fish) and fanned out like a decadent orchid.
He's also fond of more serious than usual reverse fusion, topping tuna nigiri with duck foie gras or black olive pesto (which ought to shake up those old French and Italian stereotypes a little more); spooning a little mango puree over the raw salmon, Miami-nice style; rolling tuna with arugula, a Hollywood treatment that was just waiting for a producer; offering grilled portobello or plum wine-infused foie grass as sushi; and tucking picked blue crab meat with minced celery and red pepper into a seaweed collar -- a real Chesapeake Bay breeze of a bite.
UPDATE: The Yasaman Cafe and Market in the Ritchie Shopping Center in Rockville -- the place with the killer pistachio gelato -- now has an independent existence from the older Yasaman Bakery across the way: Its phone is 240/453-0404.