Open Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10:30 p.m.; Sunday, 5 to 10:30 p.m. AE, MC, V. Reservations weekdays. Prices: sushi $1.25 to $2, assortments $9 to $12; complete dinners $13.50 to $15.
If Takane were to open six months from now, I would have great hopes for it. But it opened several months ago and still has an air of not quite being ready for business.
Japanese restaurants are born with certain traditional advantages, among them an inherent talent for decorative arts. And Takane displays its heritage of artistic simplicity from the pitched wooden ceiling to the carrot slices carved like stars. A row of booths, a parallel row of tables, a sushi bar and two low Japanese-style tables with cushions on the floor add up to varied seating for a very small space in which the tables are necessarily close. But betwen the tables are movable latticework dividers that partition them into privacy without their seeming confined. At every turn the eye rests on something beautiful.The polished light wood tables are constructed with wooden butterfly joints. Flowers are arranged in pottery vases. Colorful cushions are tied to the chair seats. Wall lamps are fashioned of bamboo and rice paper. And along one wall are the sushi bar and shelves of the glorious array of pottery and lacquerware on which the foods are arranged and served. The design sense continues into each dish, poised on one lovely plate after another, adorned with snippets of vegetables and leaves intricately carved. The eye feasts.
The palate and stomach, however, are not consistently so well treated.
Japanese menus are confusing, not only because distinctions are subtle between fish marinated in seasoned vinegar or in piquant sauce or in sweet and tangy sauce, but because price is not always an indication of how substantial a dish is. Besides, certain dishes are inexplicably offered only as part of full dinners. Soup, for instance, is apparently not available a la carte here. Appetizers are divided into those described as "Traditional companions to sake and beer," and other appetizers, presumably not meant to accompany sake and beer. And there are sushi and sashimi, which can serve both as appetizers and main courses. In any case, the beer-compatible appetizers include seasoned bean curd, toasted seaweed, small marinated fish, broiled or marinated vegetables, and the most familiar yakitori, skewered chicken bits. They are good excuses for warm sake in tiny blue and white ceramic cups or for Kirin beer, but otherwise they are unexciting. The yakitori is dry meat excessively seasoned with soy and sugar. Broiled vegetables with bonito shavings are tasteless mush (a contrast, anyway). I would highly recommend the sesame-marinated cold string beans, but $2.50 seems excessive for the small portion, no matter how crisp and delicious. Marinated tuna was similarly sesame-flavored and piquant, just as delicious, but even more breathtaking at nearly $5 for a few spoons of apparently canned tuna. In investigating appetizers, we found our task made easier by the fact that several of the choices were simply not available.
The choice among sushi was also simplified by the nonexistence of many of the menu entries. One's choice should be made by visiting the sushi bar and pointing to what looks fresh and most appealing. Then you can watch the sushi chef slice and roll and pat the fish and rice into beautiful little packages, which is much of the enjoyment of the sushi tradition. The skill is there at Takane's sushi bar. Unfortunately, the freshest fish are not there. The tuna has been seeping juices from drying flesh, as if it were carelessly defrosted. The abalone has been tasteless, the red caviar tasting of preservatives. While the fish has been flabby and soft, the sliced omelets have been dried out. Japanese diners have complained to me that the fish are not cold enough and the rice too sweet, but only the most discriminating sushi eater would notice that. More obvious is that the fish lacks the pristine freshness that is crucial to the dish. The best I tried, therefore, was fried egg stuffed with rice and black sesame seeds, because it contained no fish.
Americans are best acquainted with tempura and teriyaki in the Japanese repertoire. And tempura ($7.50) is Takane's best effort. An order of Tempura Assortment brings four large, juicy shrimp well coated with the lightest, laciest, well-crisped batter, and several kinds of vegetables left with just enough firmness. Beef teriyaki ($8.50), to the contrary, was an inferior steak in soy sauce, overcooked and sliced. Teriyaki, tempura, sashimi and sushi are also coordinated into full dinners that start with suimono or miso soups, both of fine fragrance and flavor, plus a second course and dessert. Or you can have sukiyaki as a full dinner, but I wouldn't. The sukiyaki looks depressing, a brown mess of very salty and sweet broth in which swims overcooked shaved beef with onions, celery, cabbage, spinach, trnsparent noodles and a slice of fish cake. The sauce is too salty and sweet, and only the vegetables are cooked with any consideration. Dessert is pure decoration: pastel sticky-sweet bean paste cut into pretty shapes.
It all costs a pretty price, too, for dinner plus a beer or sake will leave you $15 to $20 poorer, or more so if you do a deep investigation of the appetizers.
Takane needs more maturing. In the meantime, however, you can at last get sushi in Bethesda, even if it is not the best sushi in town. You can dine on top-notch tempura in a delight of a dining room. And in case you are in a hurry (which we weren't) you might want to know that without even trying, we had sake and four courses and were out in an hour. Getting a lot done quickly, that is another Japanese tradition.