Flying Fish sounds like the name of a seafood restaurant, and it is.
The new Flying Fish on King Street in Alexandria is also much more. It's a sushi bar, a public house, a karaoke bar (complete with enough whiz-bang equipment to make instant DVDs of your performance) and a general late-night-carousing sort of place in the middle of Old Town.
Open just five months, Flying Fish has been packing in the late-night crowd on weekends. There aren't many other places in town where you can get really good sushi Friday and Saturday nights until 1 a.m.
The flashy new neon sign outside presides over what looks like just a sliver of space two blocks off Washington Street. The narrow entrance gives way to a long sushi bar and two dining rooms in the back. There is vintage tile underfoot and vintage tin on the ceiling. The overall style is art deco, but those hanging lights over the sushi bar look a lot like fish heads to me.
The main floor is all no-smoking. Down a flight of steps is the Speakeasy Room, which incorporates a bar (with built-in video monitors for karaoke performances) and a dining space for smokers. It doesn't open until 5 nightly, and the bar stays open until 2 a.m.
Just when you think you have the place all figured out, you notice the tables. Each is hand painted by a local artist, and each is different and whimsical, with themes varying among the dining areas. Along the sushi bar, the emphasis is on fish, complementing the large fish tank (purely decorative). One dining room has nautical themes; another, sports figures. The tables in the Speakeasy Room depict entertainers, including Cher and Jimi Hendrix.
Brothers and co-owners Joe and Larry Vallieres, who once owned the King Peppers restaurant across King Street (where Cafe Salsa is today), spent six months converting the restaurant space into what they also consider a working art gallery.
The dinner menu includes such diverse options as shrimp and polenta (call it grits, if you wish), crab cakes and steaks, but the sushi bar menu is the heart of the restaurant. Though there are a dozen or so seats at the sushi bar, the current setup allows little interaction with the chefs. A waiter takes your order, relays it to the chef and then brings the food, removing the usual give-and-take that a seat at a sushi bar typically affords.
At least right now, you won't find innovative sushi specials or chef's choice dinners at Flying Fish. What you will find is very good sushi, made under the direction of Danny Simmavong, a veteran of Matuba who has trained with master sushi chefs. The fish is brilliantly fresh, with none of the mushy texture that too often characterizes sushi preparations. And the rice, which is real sushi, is properly just a little bit pungent-sweet and warm, in contrast to the (usually) cool temperature of the fish. The pillows of rice are just the right size -- not giant globs -- for the generous pieces of fish that rest on them.
Along with impeccable versions of sushi standards, Simmavong has some signature creations, including his Zoom Zoom Roll: tuna and avocado with a spicy sauce, topped with crab, tempeh (a form of tofu) and flying fish roe.
Lunch is limited to sushi selections, a couple of soups and salads and a half-dozen bento boxes featuring such items as a crab cake; salmon, beef or chicken teriyaki; and a French dip sandwich. The latter is a very good sirloin steak on a small baguette; it is particularly savory, though the sauce is thick and heartier than the standard jus. It's served with polenta fries, which are amazingly light and non-greasy.
Chef Winston Guerrero, who worked with David Burke in New York and at the former Elysium restaurant in the nearby Morrison House, has crafted a dinner menu of fish, fowl and red meat, including Kobe beef and a steak and lobster plate.
Two different preparations of fried calamari are among the appetizers. One version, with a simple cornmeal breading, was light, though a bit greasy. In the other, the calamari are accompanied by savory onions and peppers, and by slices of mild chorizo that do little to spice up the dish.
The chicken and shrimp tempura was greasier and heavier than it should have been.
The crab cakes, nice lump meat with little filler, were generous, with a bit of spiciness reminiscent of the typical Old Bay seasoning, though not quite the same. The shrimp (served with the heads on) with grits was a good rendition of an old-time southern favorite, though the chorizo added little.
The dessert menu is limited but delightful. The warm chocolate cake and the light-as-air key lime tart are good choices. The star of the show is the grilled doughnut, and it's just that: a rich glazed doughnut grilled and served with a scoop of ice cream.
Service can be a little disorganized -- a neighboring table received its large appetizer sushi order after the main course -- but it's clear the servers are trying. For a place that is open late and serves good sushi, Flying Fish is worth putting up with some breaking-in slips.
Flying Fish 815 King St., Alexandria, 703-600-3474. Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 5-10:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 1:30 p.m.-10:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Sushi bar: 5 p.m.-midnight Sundays through Thursdays, 5 p.m.-1 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Appetizers at lunch, $3.95-$5.95; bento boxes, $11.95. Appetizers at dinner, $6.95-$8.95; main courses at dinner, $14.95-$34.95. Accessible to people with disabilities.
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