Open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, for dinner 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. daily (from 5 p.m. on Sunday). Reservations suggested. AE, DC, MC, V. Prices: Lunch dishes $4.50 to $9, at dinner appetizers $2.50 to $5.50, main dishes $6.80 to $21.
On the face of it, Washington's Japanese restaurants often seem interchangeable. Many are the same shape, the same size and have nearly identical menus. Thus I discovered Kaori Hana by accident, only realizing after I ordered that it was not just a slightly redecorated Japanese restaurant I had been to before.
There is the sushi bar off to one side. There are the black leatherette booths that look as if they are left over from an earlier ethnic incarnation. There are the traslucent white lanterns and the waitresses in kimonos. The menu lists tempura, teriyaki, and a page of sushi and sashimi variations.
But Kaori Hana distinguishes itself on closer examination. First there are daily specials -- lobster salad, for instance. There's broiled lobster in two sizes as a main course. The appetizers and soups are a little more extensive than most: broiled mushrooms, beef wrapped around scallions, clam soup and seaweed salad in addition to the usual bean curd and marinated vegetable variations, the yakitori and tempura. On the last page, dishes from the sushi bar, the list goes beyond the now-familiar array of sliced raw fish as sushi and sashimi; there are oysters and clams on the half-shell, vinegared fish and "chef's special choices," which include lobster sashimi and sushi-sashimi combinations and lavishly named "Sashimi Garden" and "Sushi Heaven."
Hidden on the menu is something called moriawase, an appetizer platter that serves as a delectable introduction to Kaori Hana. And the best of that was breast of chicken, dipped in a faint starch coating and fried so that it was still pale and quite juicy. It was so good that we ordered an entire portion of just that. The platter is a pretty array of meats and seafoods, enough to share or to serve as a light entree.
The standard dishes are done well here. Negima yaki -- thinly sliced beef rolled around scallions and seasoned with soy sauce -- is as delicious as it should be. Cold spinach in soy or sesame sauces is piquant and refreshing. Tempura is light, fragile and not greasy. And that clam soup is light and lovely.
There are misses: the yakitori is just ordinary, not as juicy as the kitchen knows how to make its chicken. And a main course of barbecued seafood -- one of the most expensive items on the menu -- included octopus too chewy to consume and undercooked bacon around the scallops; besides, it was a measly portion for the price.
Most Japanese restaurants oversalttheir broiled fish. Kaori Hana, to my great relief, served its salmon brushed with teriyaki sauce that escaped oversaltiness; the fish was broiled to a crusty surface and velvety interior. Tuna is done the same way, and the fish are prettily accompanied on their small rectangular pottery plates with tiny mounds of shredded carrots with black sesame seeds, shredded cucumber salad and spinach with sesame. Even more attractive and interesting was a special of lobster salad, the tail meat sliced and marinated, to be dipped in a sweet-salty miso paste, the claw meat to be pulled from well-cracked claws. The garnishes were paper-thin carrot strips and cucumber cut into extraordinary intertwined fans. It was a lovely appetizer to share for two, and a good value at $8, though the lobster's body had been refrigerated too long to make extracting the meat tempting.
The centerpiece of a Japanese restaurant these days is its sushi bar, and Kaori Hana's is a good one. The fish have repeatedly been pristine and dewy, the rice constructions professional in their appearance and taste. The Sushi Heaven is a hefty array of about 20 pieces for $21, though it should have included more exotica; it did include, to its credit, the hit parade of sushi fish: tuna, yellowtail, salmon, salmon roe, eel, and crab and avocado. This sushi bar, like most these days, also makes hand rolls, those large and filling cone-shaped rolls of seaweed stuffed with rice and fish.
What Kaori Hana does that most Japanese restaurants don't yet do is show its dishes -- rendered in plastic -- in a front window and in photographs in the entrance hall. The photos depict lunch specials, about $5 or $6 each, most appealingly presented in lacquer boxes with a series of compartments containing sushi, sashimi, tempura or teriyaki, for example, with rice and pickles and other cunning-looking little condiments. The front entrance also informs you that after 10:30 p.m. you can order sushi at $1 apiece.
The service at Kaori Hana is fragile: While every staff member has exuded charm and eagerness, waitresses have grown flustered at crowded times so that dishes were forgotten, drinks long in coming and utensils brought after the foods for which they were aimed. The restaurant needs more waitresses or they need to be more conscious of meshing the service without wasting trips back and forth for one beer or extra plates.
The small touches add up at Kaori Hana, however, to make you feel a special guest. When diners at our table were asking about soft drinks, the ma.itre d'h.otel suggested fresh pineapple juice -- and it was very good. The rice is served in pottery bowls with wooden lids, which not only look handsome but keep the rice hot. The dining room staff are perfectly willing to make special requests of the kitchen staff; in all too many other restaurants they are unwilling to even ask for other than the routine. And the kitchen staff has seemed ready to comply.
In all, Kaori Hana is a gracious restaurant, reasoably priced and with some very good food. Once the service gets straightened out and the menu shakes down to what it does best, Bethesda will have yet another excellent Japanese restaurant.