PERRY'S 1811 Columbia Rd. NW. 234-6218 Open for dinner 6 p.m. to midnight Sunday to Thursday, until 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday. No reservations. AE, MC. Prices: Dishes range from $1 to $12.50, most items $4 to $6. Full dinner with beer or sake, tax and tip about $20 to $25 a person.
Punk sushi. New Wave sushi. Sushi with a disco beat. Perry's is not what you expect from a Japanese restaurant; rather, it is a delightfully funky-mod restaurant that serves Japanese food. It is what you might get if you crossed a sushi bar with a tapa bar: an appetizer restaurant, a Japanese grazing ground.
Although Perry's is hard to spot (last time I looked, its doorway was marked only by a paper sign), up the stairway of the old Biltmore Ballroom is a marvel of a space -- a pink and blue cavern with windows overlooking Adams- Morgan. Upstairs is a rooftop dining area, where you can have sushi under the stars.
Perry's -- named after Commodore Perry -- is the brainchild of the same folks who run Yosaku restaurant. The sushi chefs are Japanese, but the staff is an international mix of enthusiastic young people. The menu combines Japanese tradition with a few eclectic inventions, and, following the latest trend, it is virtually all appetizers. That means other items, each for $6 or less, and a couple of sushi and sashimi assortments from $10.50 to $12.50. It encourages you to construct a meal of a little of this and a taste of that; and it would be hard to spend more than $25 a person after all the food and beer or sake you could want.
The appetizers are large; yakitori is two hefty skewers of chicken with onions, peppers and shiitake mushrooms. The Oyster Perry's Style is as much as many restaurants' main courses: five fried oysters, in an inventive coating of hair-thin potatoes that enclose the oysters in a light and crisp french-fry cage, with the oysters just warmed rather than cooked. The oysters would be superb if they didn't have a taste that made me wonder if they came from a jar.
Here is a restaurant that really understands frying, which should aim you to the tempuras. The Crab Age Age is wonderfully juicy-crisp soft-shell crabs in a tempura batter. The more familiar tempura is equally light and crisp, grease-free and quickly cooked so the shrimp are still tender, though some of the vegetables are on the raw side. Slices of beef are also deep-fried, but the beef seems to have been already thoroughly cooked, and the dish is not as interesting as the juicier fried foods.
Here is a menu to encourage experimentation, though, for prices are low and some new dishes are new. Chicken Roll California Style, for instance, is moist and tender chicken meat, rolled around brightly colored vegetables, sliced into lovely pinwheels and served on a bed of avocado pur,ee. Beef tongue is even more delectable, tasting like an outlandishly good pot roast. The waiter said it was boiled, then sliced and saut,eed with ginger, onions, soy sauce and sake; in any case, it was meltingly soft and imbued with their flavors.
There are missteps. Miso soup has been pallid and salty. Salad dressings, sesame sauce on the Black and Green spinach and miso sauce with seafood -- called nuta -- are too sweet and lack tang. And the tofu bowl is a boring swamp of boiled bean curd, napa cabbage and other vegetables in watery broth. A few dishes are just middling -- Salmon Perry's Style tastes more like canned tuna mousse, though it is a pretty dish, topped with orange salmon roe. And Double S Balls -- skewered seafoods and shiitakes -- are not as distinctive as the fried dishes.
The focus of Perry's kitchen, though, is raw fish -- sushi and sashimi. And they are good. Available by the piece for $1.50 to $2 (sushi rolls are $3) or in assortments, the sushi are expertly constructed of fish that is more or less dewy fresh, depending on the day. (That's what we have grown to expect in Washington sushi bars.) Here, though, are some maki (sushi roll) combinations not frequently offered: flounder with minty shiso leaves, yellowtail with scallions, eel with cucumber, salmon skin. And there are specials, such as a cooked tuna-asparagus roll (the tuna tasted canned, but it was a beautiful combination). Standing above the crowd are Perry's stunning presentations: maki, rolled in black sesame seeds, topped with flying fish roe and shaped into petals forming a flower, then decorated with asparagus and real flowers. The wasabi -- green horseradish paste -- has been shaped and scored like a leaf. And the trays are filled out with colorful still lifes of shredded vegetables, carefully arranged ginger slices and shiso leaves.
This is a restaurant where the food sometimes comes as fast as a bullet train, but they don't seem to mind your lingering over it, or over a bottle of Sapporo draft beer, or over the tea that comes in handleless cups after dinner. Perry's is a gathering place, almost a club. Thus, for a modest price, dinner at Perry's becomes an evening of funky fun and Japanese food that is not only very good, but uncommonly creative.
-- Phyllis Chasanow-Richman Turning Tables
Escape to New York II -- Washington could learn a lot about Italian restaurants from New York. Il Nido, 251 E. 53rd St., represents the old guard: it is in the mode of Cantina d'Italia, a slightly hokey cave with flowers so bright and splashy they look as if they are trying to be artificial. The food is not always but certainly can be wonderful -- dreamy pesto on hair-thin capelli d'angelo or supple salmon in a darkly rich and wonderful barolo sauce. But the ravioli were stolidly bland, and a veal chop, stuffed with outstanding prosciutto and cheese, was pounded beyond its prime texture. At its best and friendliest, though, Il Nido is memorable, particularly if you end with the fashionable dessert, tirami su' -- a creamy fluff of mascarpone custard over liqueur-drenched cake, garnished with chocolate.
The tirami su' is even better -- more like a layer cake -- at Positano, 250 Park Ave. South, where the dining room is as refreshing as the seaside its name evokes. Here the menu is more inventive and the antipasto is a delicious nibbling of stellar cheeses (real parmesan and homemade mozzarella stuffed with tomato) with bits of marinated porcini, fine cold meats and such. The pasta can be as refreshing as spring -- linguine tossed with pancetta, grilled escarole and intense black olives, for instance. I was disappointed in the overgrilled red snapper, though it could have been saved if the lightly vinegared mint sauce had permeated it more. But Positano's cheerful, intelligent service and lovely dining room are drawing cards, and the cooking is hitting a lot of high notes.