1401 Wilson Blvd. (at North Oak Street), Arlington 703-527-8400
Open: for lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Saturday 3 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 5 to 10:30 p.m. AE, MC, V. Smoking on outdoor patio only. Metro: Rosslyn. Parking lot available after 5 p.m. Prices: appetizers $1.50 to $11.95; lunch entrees $6.95 to $18.95; dinner entrees $7.95 to $25.50. Full dinner with sake or beer, tax and tip about $30 per person.
1100 New York Ave. NW (at 11th Street)
Open: for lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Monday through Saturday 5 to 10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. AE, DC, MC, V. No smoking at lunch; separate smoking area at dinner. Metro: Metro Center. Prices: lunch appetizers $1.50 to $5.50, entrees $8.50 to $15.50; dinner appetizers $1.50 to $6.50, entrees $9.50 to $19.50. Full dinner with sake or beer, tax and tip about $30 per person.
With spring on the horizon, my thoughts begin to turn from snow and food that sticks to the ribs to such harbingers of the new season as shad and cherry blossoms. As the evenings grow lighter, so does my appetite. Now seemed like the perfect moment to check out two fledgling Japanese restaurants.
It was a quiet Sunday evening when I first encountered Kanpai, tucked away from the bustle of Wilson Boulevard in the corner of a small office building. All 10 stools at the sushi bar were empty, and with little to do, the chef stood watching a basketball game on the flat-screen TV hung in the slender front dining room. He seemed pleased to eventually get my order, which included sweet shrimp sushi. "It's the best time to eat sweet shrimp," he said. "It's in season now."
Those small shrimp glistened, and tasted cleanly of the sea. So did an order of scallop sushi I chose from a changing list of seafood on a board next to the chef. Each dewy morsel of scallop was banded in nori (seaweed) and garnished with tiny red roe and a few sesame seeds. Yellowtail proved almost as appealing, tuna a little less so. With a dry sake -- served in a small glass pitcher cooled by a well of ice in the center -- these fingers of raw fish made for a fine little repast.
The chef, Peter Yoo, also owns Bonsai in Shirlington but is a constant presence in his smart new domain. He named the place Kanpai after the Japanese word for "Cheers!" -- an upbeat idea that suits a lot of the food.
Among the cooked dishes, you should home in on the silvery, grill-striped smelt, plump with meat; the delicate vegetable tempura -- onion rings, green peppers, squash, mushrooms, green beans -- arranged in a crisp tepee; or Japan's answer to chicken-fried steak, beef katsu. The meat is pounded thin, breaded, fried to a crisp and presented with nicely tangy pickles in psychedelic colors and a sweet drizzle of plum sauce. There are meal-size soups, too, the heartiest of which partners fat udon noodles with slivers of chicken, pink-edged fish cake and spinach, whose flavors contribute to a more savory broth. Steer clear of the ordinary steamed mussels with their thin broth, though, and the tired-tasting shrimp teriyaki.
The servers are friendly if not always helpful. Must all the food come to the table so quickly? One night, I'd gotten both appetizer and entree within 15 minutes of walking in the door. On another visit, I attempted to catch the eye of a waitress to correct a wrong order, but she went outside to make a call on her cell phone. Space-age lights and Japanese prints dress up the trim, L-shaped eatery, which is less a destination restaurant than a neighborhood convenience.
Weighing in at a mere 55 seats, Sushi Aoi packs abundant style into its small space. Shiny bamboo poles grace the little tangerine-colored foyer, while the walls of the dining room segue from soothing yellow-green to blue-gray and are punctuated by a streak of recessed red light. Singles gravitate to the welcoming sushi bar; groups have the option of two big tables near the front window, where a rice-paper screen can be pulled around for privacy. Taped jazz plays at a level that enhances rather than intrudes on conversation.
But more than aesthetics draws crowds, particularly at lunch, to this restaurant across from the "old" convention center in downtown Washington. Masatoshi Seino, who worked at Sushi-Zen in Arlington and at Ginza in the District before moving here, has a sure way with raw fish and vinegared rice. Connoisseurs on a budget know to time their visits to Sushi Aoi; between 5 and 7 p.m., Monday through Saturday, a lot of the sushi -- including salmon, tuna, flounder and eel -- is available at $1 a piece (and can be washed back with sake or beer for $2.50 a drink).
A gentle way to ease into a meal is with a bowl of clear broth rounded out with bites of chicken and soft dark greens, or osuimono. A few spoonfuls of this elixir are the equivalent of a reassuring pat on the back. If it's something more forceful you're after, seek out the pork-filled dumplings, served with fruity ponzu sauce and bound in wrappers ignited with wasabi (here come the tears!). Grated mountain potato is one of those dishes you either like or run from; its slightly gluey texture and Cream of Wheat complexion are broken up here by a rectangle of ruddy fresh tuna and a bright yellow quail egg on top. Green tea noodles show up on a small bamboo plate with chopped scallions and a dark brown dunking sauce. Light and satisfying, the entree is just the ticket before that meeting back at the office. Of the fried dishes, tempura and gyoza are upstaged by lightly breaded and simply seasoned squid legs, a recent special.
Sushi Aoi's next-door neighbor is Haad Thai, which shares more with the Japanese eatery than just a block: Charles Kiatrungrit, who owns the Thai outpost, also has a stake in Sushi Aoi, which is watched over by co-owner Sumiko Abe. She's the graceful figure in the pretty kimono, her warm greeting one more reason to seek the place out.
Curious to try Persimmon in Bethesda for Valentine's Day last month, Zachary Levine called four days before February 14 to see if there might be a table for two available, reports his wife, Bethesda reader Jennifer Avellino. "The person on the other end of the phone cut him off and said, 'For Friday night? Absolutely not!' and promptly hung up the phone." She wonders: "Would a simple 'I'm sorry, we're booked' have been that difficult?" Doug Mason, Persimmon's operations manager, was dismayed to hear about Levine's experience. His staff, he said, had been advised to add names to a waiting list, and 15 or so such callers actually found seats for the holiday. "We pride ourselves on being extra-personable," Mason said, "and the fact that they had never been here makes it that much worse." The anecdote reminds me that first impressions of a restaurant don't start with food or drink but with whoever happens to answer the phone.
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