TAKO GRILL -- 7756 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda. 652-7030. Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5 to 10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. AE, MC, V. Reservations suggested. Separate non-smoking section. Prices: lunch appetizer combinations $2.50 to $4, entrees $5.50 to $8.75; dinner appetizers $2.50 to $4, entrees $3.50 to $8. Full dinner with beer, tax and tip about $20 to $30 per person.
Beyond sushi, there is much more seafood in the Japanese repertoire. And the new Tako Grill, which took over the quarters of Nara in Bethesda, has much to teach us about Japanese seafood cookery.
At first glance, even Tako seems to focus on sushi. A big chunk of the dining room is occupied by an L-shaped sushi bar, and the chefs working it are the focal point. They slice, they roll, they arrange, they serve. They also joke and chat. And every now and then they make a big production of serving somebody across the room with the dish balanced on a long paddle. At night the sushi bar becomes a gathering place for the chefs' friends who join the show.
All the usual raw fish are available by the piece or as sushi rolls, with a checkoff list for ordering. The fish tastes fresh, the sushi is well made, and assortments are artistically arranged on trays decorated with real bamboo leaves rather than the usual plastic grass. I've been told that these sushi chefs can come up with extraordinary assortments if you give them free rein, but except for a daily special, I was never able to get them to make anything other than what was on the checklist.
Which gets us to Tako Grill's most serious flaw: service. There are too few waiters -- namely, only one on each of my visits, even when the 13-table dining room was full at lunchtime. What's more, the waiters I've had couldn't communicate very well. Once, when the manager stopped by our table at the end of a meal, I was left with the impression that we would have been steered to a better meal with his help at the beginning.
So you are on your own at Tako Grill, with a menu that is fascinating but confusing. The dinner menu announces that "our concept is for you to create a dinner to your taste." Thus the menu is strictly a la carte, and most of the dishes are small, modestly priced portions meant to be teamed with others rather than served as an entire entree.
The menu is divided into cold dishes that are largely raw fish (salads, sushi and sashimi) and hot cooked dishes (fried, grilled, steamed or stewed). Of the nearly five dozen choices, only eight are meat; the rest are mostly seafood, from squid to swordfish, fillet of sole to eel.
You can order tempura of shrimp, sole, squid, oyster, flounder, soft-shell crab or tofu. At lunch the tempura was on the soggy side; at dinner it was light and crisp. There are the usual sukiyaki, yosenabe and nabeyaki among the stews, and the steamed dishes include tofu, custard studded with chicken and vegetables, and clams or mussels in a fragrant wash of garlic sauce. Salads are complex and beautiful, consisting of such seafood as octopus or crab in a clear sweet-tangy vinegar sauce; tuna or squid in pale, thick sweet-salty miso dressing garnished with colorful seaweed; and salmon or pale pink slices of raw beef with a soy-based ponzu sauce.
If sushi provides the dining room show, the grilled dishes display the kitchen art. The dinner menu lists 18 grilled dishes, but if that sounds one-dimensional, you are in for a surprise. Some are kebabs, some small fillets, some large hunks and some thin slices rolled into cornucopias. Meats include ginger pork, the scallion- stuffed rolls of shaved beef called negimaki, chicken as a fillet or skewered, and beef teriyaki -- which, along with king salmon at $7.75, is the highest priced grill selection. Some of the grilled dishes are brushed with that sweet-salty miso sauce, others with darker and thicker teriyaki sauce. There are also a Tako sauce of the kitchen's invention, ginger sauce and a more western dill butter.
The choice is difficult, but if you are lucky, the kitchen will have a supply of yellowtail or salmon cheeks -- called jaw of yellowtail or jaw of salmon on the menu. Any fisherman knows these are the best parts of the fish, and in this case these large triangular bony pieces are grilled with salt so the skin is very crisp and the meat light and fluffy, much as blackened redfish is supposed to be.
In a less adventurous vein, the familiar grilled salmon and fillet of sole are also exceptional. Glazed and crusted with teriyaki sauce, they are soft and velvety inside, cooked so the center is set and warm rather than firm or dry. Orange roughy is a beauty, rolled into a cornucopia and stuffed with a stalk of celery to contrast with the pure white of the fish and the red-gold of the glaze. A few bright green beans and bright orange carrot slices complete the picture.
The art at Tako Grill is in the cooking. Serving gets short shrift here, and the decor is minimal, just rustic wood tables and nondescript carpeting, wood slats covering the sloped ceiling and a gilded swirl of a sea monster painted on the wall behind the sushi bar. A fading flower was on each table during my visits. Each dish is served from a different pottery plate, lacquer bowl or iron casserole, but there is no particular beauty or graciousness to the service. The amenities we've grown used to at other Japanese restaurants -- damp towels, a pot of tea refilled whenever needed -- are not Tako's style. A small dish of soy-dressed bean sprouts starts the meal, and your check ends it.
Thus, unlike most Japanese restaurants, Tako Grill impresses more with its cooking than with its style. It expands our experience with Japanese seafood, shows us that there is more to the cuisine than slicing and arranging. And it shows us that for Japanese restaurants in America, there is life after sushi. ::