IN THIS country, we tend to expect that Japanese restaurants will proffer their entire culinary repertoire: sushi and sashimi, yakitori (grilled marinated chicken and the like), katsu (battered and fried dishes), the one-pot meals such as sukiyaki and shabu-shabu, noodle dishes, donburi bowls (meat or fish over seasoned rice), and so on. In Japan, however, it is far more common for restaurants to have a more limited focus -- to be a sushi bar, or a grill, or a noodle shop, or even to be limited to fugu (blowfish) and not much more.
Two smallish area establishments, both previously reviewed but somewhat altered in the meanwhile, are slightly quirkier in this sense. One touches on many of the foods mentioned, but in street-snack style, almost the Japanese equivalent of bistro fare; the other offers sushi only, and nearly only carryout sushi at that.
Rockville's Temari Cafe more closely partakes of two common informal Japanese eatery styles, the nomi-ya, the neighborhood tavern, and the yoshoku-ya, which specializes in Japanese adaptations of European and American dishes -- sort of reverse fusion fare. (Consider the quintessential yoshoku dish, omu-raisu: omelet-rice, or "omu rice" in Temari's shorthand, an eight-inch half-moon of omelet stuffed with a kind of chicken pilaf or chicken fried rice and sauced with ketchup.)
Despite having over time succumbed to the necessity of purveying some maki rolls -- it originally had a sign in the window proclaiming, presumably as a precaution but somehow sounding more like a prohibition, "No Sushi!" -- along with nightly specials including sashimi courses, Temari is still idiosyncratic by American standards. It turns out, often at remarkable speed, adapted Singapore-style yellow curry gravies and "wafu" hamburgers, such as griddled slabs of meatloaf with mounds of vinegary grated daikon and sides of sauteed bean sprouts and onions; deep-fried oysters and pork, adopted from the Portuguese centuries ago and served with a thick, Worcestershire-ish sauce derived from the India trade; and even a version of potato salad. On the more traditional side are drinking nibblies such as charbroiled smelts (particularly fine with cold sake), delicate shrimp-filled steamed shumai dumplings and variously flavored rice balls (onigiri), which are something like sushi buns stuffed with salmon or seaweed.
Among other popular dishes are the shougayaki, gingery sauteed pork; huge bowls of ramen or green tea noodles that can be topped with tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet) or the gelatinous fishcake; and oyaku donburi, the teriyaki-flavored chicken and egg ("mother and child") scramble over rice. Most dinners come with miso soup, a green salad and rice and sometimes a special appetizer, such as yudofu (cold tofu), which makes the simple grilled fish choices substantial and healthful meals for $11 or $12.
"Healthful," that is, before you get to dessert, a range of pastel-colored snow cones and chocolate parfaits dripping with chocolate syrup and, instead of nuts, crunchy puffed rice or corn flakes. Don't say we didn't warn you.
Temari has undergone a change in ownership: The decor -- along, perhaps, with the clientele -- is a little less punky/funky cartoonish, and the television over the counter is more likely to feature the Japanese equivalent of the Food Network than sumo wrestling or teen-pop videos. But prices have remained remarkably stable, and service is perhaps even more outgoing. It may be anomalous in these parts, but for some of us, at least, it's a sneaky little addiction.
Katsu, the former Ivy Sushi Carryout, is still in the same hands -- a spinoff of Makoto, the highly regarded restaurant in the English basement of the same townhouse. Like Temari, Makoto originally declined to have a sushi bar built into the restaurant, American-style, and made only the amount of sushi appropriate to its more formal, multicourse omakase dinners. But Makoto, too, eventually bowed to patron pressure, and in fact found the local taste for sushi so lucrative that it built the upstairs for that purpose alone.
However, following a "renovation" of several months' duration (which left little visual trace), Katsu's most obvious difference is in its price. Sushi can no longer be ordered by the piece, much less for 75 cents. These days, most nigiri (the most familiar form of sushi, slices of seafood over rice) is $3.50 for two pieces, with a handful of more expensive options at $6, while rolls range from $4 for the vegetarian makis to $6 for toro (fatty tuna). An order of toro sashimi, seven slices, was $20 (but it did come with real wasabi as opposed to the reconstituted powder). An assortment platter is $17.
On the other hand, you don't have to bring cash anymore, as Katsu is now plastic-friendly.
Not surprisingly, considering its Makoto connections, the quality of the fish is very high, and several lesser-known tidbits are available upon request. (This pleases the staff, which frankly admits "most Americans order only rolls.") The rice is very good, too, distinct in grain but carefully and not too heavily seasoned, which, if your idea of carry-home sushi comes from the jolly grocery Giant, may come as another small pleasure.
There are only a couple of tables for in-house dining, and no beer cooler anymore, although you are kindly served green tea while you wait. Just as well, because Katsu's rush hour can literally mean an hour's wait.