Open Tuesday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 to 10:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 5 to 10:30 p.m. MC, V. Reservations. Prices: Main courses at dinner average $5 to $7. Fixed price dinners are $10.25 to $11.25. With beer or wine, tax and tip, a meal costs about $25 to $30 a couple.
Dining Japanese-style begins with a call to the restaurant, and the response is patient, with directions given for getting there. Genji is in a shopping center, a hybrid restaurant with a sign that for a while was superimposed over the previous sign. Its half-timbered walls hint of European forbears to this Asian dining room. The main decorations are the waitresses' kimonos.
With the menus at Genji should come a warning: the waitresses do not understand as much English as they appear to comprehend. So point to the item on the menu as you order it, and be prepared for some confusion anyway. One day a complex order brought us double portions of the wrong dish, and we never did quite get it straightened out. There is an American woman acting as hostess, but her duties do not seem to go beyond seating patrons, and no amount of confusion over orders was ever enough to persuade a waitress to summon a translator.
Still, Genji is worth the trouble. The menu is not nearly as extensive as Washington's more entrenched Japanese restaurants, Mikado and Sakura Palace, but it provides enough variety to make choices difficult.
Starting with the appertizers, the yakitori are three small skewers of juicy chicken breast alternated with scallions, grilled with a slightly sweetened thick soy sauce.With a Kirin beer or sake in delightful blue and white mini-cups, it is an auspicious beginning. Even more delicious, if you are inclined, is octopus and cucumber, the purple-edged seafood slices marinated in a light soy dressing, with similarly marinated shredded cucumber and slippery green seaweed. The dish can also be served with crab -- fresh blue crab -- which is nearly as good. Less pungent but most beautiful is a spinach appetizer, the unseasoned cooked spinach molded to look like a flower and covered with sesame seeds centered with horseradish and scallion. Dip the spinach in soy sauce mixed with bits of horseradish and dried bonito, if you can bear to undo the sculpture.
The menu also lists soups, among them the best miso I have tried in Washington, its opaque salty fermented soybean broth floating cubes of bean curd and two kinds of mushrooms. Miso is also served with tiny clams in their shells, a lot of effort to eat and rather messy, but a dish of great charm. You can also find among the soups chawan mushi, a steamed egg custard studded with shrimps and mushrooms and such, Genji's version very soft and prettily served in covered pottery.
You are probably waiting for sushi, though. We could not learn much about our sushi alternatives from the waitress, so we tried an assortment of eight pieces for $6.50. The only alternative listed on the menu was tuna at $7.25. Our first samples of sushi were disappointing, the fish drying at the edges. On another visit the fish was delicately fresh and moist. And I found the sushimi -- sliced raw fish arranged on a ceramic dish without a rice base -- more rewarding than the sushi, with about six different kinds of fish and seafood to dip in soy and wasabi (green horseradish paste). at $5.95, it seemed a better buy in addition to being a better assortment than the sushi.
Genji offers four complete dinners: sukiyaki and shabu shabu at $11.25 each, tempura and teriyaki beef at $10.25 each. They are good buys, as they come with appetizer, soup, salad, rice, dessert and tea. In one case, tempura was substituted for salad, making it an even better buy. Basically, the main dish choices are fried dishes (tempura and tonkatsu, a pork cutlet that is dry and disappointing), grilled dishes (teriyaki) and dishes cooked in broth (yosenabe, shabu shabu) or sauteed in soy sauce (sukiyaki). A flyer attached to the menu offers rice topped with chicken, seaweed, eel or salmon, but the latter two were dry, strongly fishy and unpleasant. Tempura is light and fragile, well drained of grease. Teriyaki dishes are excellent -- crusty on the surface and very juicy, whether fish, chicken or beef, served with tartly dressed shredded raw vegetables. At $6.95, the beef teriyaki is a bargain steak dinner.
As for the tableside cooking, it depends on the waitress. One waitress left the sukiyaki boiling ferociously and went on to other tables; the dish became a stewed mush. Another waitress regulated the shabu shabu pot to a soft simmer, showed us how to cook it to the right moment, and checked back frequently. The shabu shabu was delectable, its paper-thin beef and sliced vegetables barely cooked in a black iron cauldron of seaweed broth, then dipped in a tangy vinegared soy sauce. Also leaving warm memories was yosenabe, a similar cauldron filled with already cooked chicken, fish, two kinds of clams, shrimp and vegetables. An apple-shaped laquered bowl of rice was left at the table for us to refill our bowls.
One eats with chopsticks at Genji, and drinks the soups rather than spoons them. One begins to acclimate to the Japanese way, to appreciate the pretty ceramic dishes that bear carefully arranged little portions. Americans probably need to order more dishes than usual, because the portions are small in Japanese restaurants. But at Genji the prices are reasonable, so one hardly regrets ordering lavishly. Dessert is not worth much attention. Instead, an evening of nibbling and dipping and dunking and sippling leaves one satisfied, comfortable, feeling well-treated and well-fed rather than overfed.