NOT THAT it would surprise readers of this column, but sushi and sashimi have been mainstays of my diet since I could vote (and for sure since I could drink sake). In those days, one pretty much had to travel to Manhattan to find much beyond maguro; and in fact, it wasn't until about the early '80s that Washington's Japanese restaurateurs took to building sit-down sushi bars rather than simply offering three or four pieces as a formal dinner course.
Since then, of course, Washington has experienced a sushi bar tsunami that has rippled into nearly every neighborhood, no matter how sub- or even ex-urban. Mikaku Sushi Taro isn't even one of Herndon's higher-profile restaurants, obscured as it is from Centreville Road by gas stations and groceries and the other typical strip-mall clutter. Nor is it any sort of oasis in a sushi-less desert, what with Hama Sushi and Yoko II only minutes away and a handful of Japanese steakhouses and pan-Asian eateries. But it is one of the more tempting destinations. The odd thing is, it's not because of the sushi, which is certainly fine (although the rice has been only so-so, a disappointing slip). It's because of the kitchen.
Mikaku is a great place to discover the otsumami, or seasonal small plates -- Mikaku's menu also suggests the trendier "tapas" -- that the Japanese use to while the drinking hours away. "Small" is relative, incidentally: The whole grilled squid was a serious eight-inch beauty for $6.75, and the roe-filled smelts were four for $5.25. (And actually, the Japanese don't do much in the way of big plates; the so-called entrees are mostly adaptations to American habits.)
Beyond that, Mikaku offers what may be the ultimate Japanese comfort food: fresh house-made udon noodles, translucent and tender, like the most ethereal tapioca; and in hot weather, the chewier buckwheat soba noodles as well. Owner Yasuhiko Seino is from the Sanuki area of Shikoku, famous for its hand-kneaded ("te-uchi") udon, and it shows. They come hot or cold, in soups (with really good broth) or dipping sauces, with vegetables or tempura or even the very traditional natto, the fermented (some would say decomposed) soybean paste that divides the mere Japanophile from the true addict. If you can't get your sushi-phobic friends past the teppanyaki table, Mikaku is the place for you.
Not only are the otsumami generally not raw -- chilled poached octopus in ponzu sauce; salt-grilled (shioyaki) pike mackerel with grated daikon; and grilled razor clams (mategai) -- but they range far beyond the usual fishy territory to velvet-soft duck, roasted then steamed and sliced thin; and seared rare beef tataki. There is even some ethnic crossover here, like the deep-fried crab gyoza with a bit of guacamole (pleasant but not particularly memorable) and the pork sausage with what the menu calls sauerkraut (remember Japan's familiarity with Korean fare). And for those who dare the unusual uncooked, there is diced raw tuna mixed with unctuous mountain yam; and the bitter-rich squid liver, which is a step beyond even natto, called ika shiokara.
There are a couple of dozen other appetizers as well: tuna in nuta (miso-vinegar) sauce, grilled or fried tofu, garlic-sauteed or chilled boiled spinach, edamame, various steamed or fried dumplings and the tiny sake-steamed clams called asari. And to cap it off, there's a nice if not knockout sake list to choose from. It would be undoubtedly be better-spirited of me to want to educate those guy groups who scarf down six scary party trays of sushi and beer, but this is no job for saints.
Mikaku (the Sushi Taro surname reflects a financial but not managerial connection) is good-looking in a very understated way, all blond wood and simple framed scarves on the walls. An L-shaped space on the corner of the mall, it's divided into the sushi bar on the short side and the dining room down the other. There are banquettes along some walls, with surprisingly comfortable woven-rope cushions; and a tatami room with a kindly pit for legs.
There are a few things that could use rethinking (including some really strange background music). The tempura batter has variously been a little too stiff, more Southern than southern Japanese, and on another occasion, in the mixed-veggie pancake called kakiage, doughy. The plain rice, which is of course the basis of the sushi rice, is only okay. But with those mouth-candy noodles, and so many small plates to share, you are unlikely to notice. And if you get in before 6:30, some of the more popular nibblies, such as edamame and dumplings, are discounted.
A few dining hints: If you wish to eat your noodles in the traditional style, silence your mother's voice in the back of your head and slurp away. The flat-bottomed spoon is generally used only for the skinnier ramen noodles, so just bring the bowl or plate near your mouth, as you would rice, grab some udon with your chopsticks and suck them up. Mild noises are not considered rude, although excess splattering may annoy your companions. Some noodle dishes come with various dipping materials in separate bowls; combine them to your taste.
Also, Mikaku's servers pour chilled sake in the yamamori fashion, overflowing a glass so that it splashes, rather like a Japanese hot soaking tub, into the cedar box (masu) beneath. You are expected to empty the glass first, then the box, and traditionally a bit of salt is poured on the corner you're drinking from, sort of like the Japanese version of a tequila shooter. You've been warned.