My relationship with maki rolls, to borrow a phrase from a certain social network, is complicated. I tend to snub them unless friends have ordered, say, a tempura-fried roll bloated with tuna and avocado, and they can’t finish the fat stick. Of course they can’t. Like everything else, hand rolls have become Chipotle’d, giving rise to such concepts as Sushirrito in California and the recently opened Buredo in Washington.
Maki rolls frequently strike me as anti-sushi: The art of deceptive simplicity is jettisoned for an avalanche of ingredients, the quality of which remains secondary to their sheer volume. These thundering logs do not seize your attention as a small, elegant piece of nigiri sushi can. No, rolls just power wash your palate — wave after wave of rice, tobiko roe, fried shrimp, pickled jalapenos, goat cheese, eel sauce, spicy mayo, fried Spam, smoked salmon, the potential ingredients are endless — until you’re rendered unconscious.
Maki Shop on 14th Street NW seizes your attention, and it does so with that neglected stepchild of hand-roll ingredients: the toasted sheets of red algae known as nori. Perhaps like many of us, you think of nori as a mere binder, a dark-green wrapper designed to hold your crab stick, rice and cream cheese together. Darren Norris, one of the principals behind Maki Shop, considers nori as important as rice in the proper preparation of hand rolls.
The interplay between the crisp nori and the vinegared sushi rice is “where the real flavor is,” says Norris, proprietor behind the late, lamented Kushi. “That’s the real umami.”
The problem is, few maki- sushi-makers treat their nori with the respect it deserves. Have you ever seen anyone in Washington toasting sheets of seaweed over a coal flame, like the poor, psychologically tortured son of Jiro, the sushi master at the center of “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”? Me neither.
In Norris’s system, no open flame is required. Riffing on a concept popular in Melbourne, Australia, Norris and this team have created a grab-and-go sushi shop unlike any I have experienced before. Inside the minimalist, sun-dappled corner shop, you encounter two display coolers stuffed with side dishes, drinks and pre-made maki rolls. It sounds about as appetizing as those plastic trays of pre-made sushi at the local Whole Foods, right?
Here’s the difference at Maki Shop: The stuffed rice roll and the nori are packaged separately (and snugly) in cellophane, which means your ingredients are protected from oxygen’s degrading effects. It also means you have to assemble your meal. If you’re uncertain how to unsheathe the rice log and nori from the cellophane and build your own bite, a wall-mounted television offers a step-by-step instructional video. It’s painless.
Each roll weighs around six ounces, meatier than your standard maki but skimpier than those gut-expanding sushi burritos. Sometimes your appetite may not clamor for two rolls, but it desires more than one. You may need to fill that hunger gap with a side dish or a puckery, probiotic tea from Capital Kombucha or a sweet Puck’s fountain drink. Frankly, the sides demand attention: The kimchi tempts you with wickedly potent cabbage somewhat muted by baby kale. The seaweed salad combines two varieties of slippery, crunchy algae, both dressed with a tart ponzu-sesame oil sauce and spiked with peppery watercress. The miso soup features a delicate, slightly sweet broth loaded with firm tofu, scallions and wakame seaweed.
Once you lock down your order here, you may come to the same realization I did: Until now, you may feel as if you’ve been living in an alternate maki roll universe, colorless and cold. With one bite, you’ll immediately sense a new reality crackling under tooth. It’s an otherworldly crunch, the key texture missing with rolls encased in limp and lifeless nori.
The crackle is just one benefit of the Maki Shop approach. Norris has also purchased a Suzumo machine, which he initially wanted to use to roll all his maki. He would, in other words, specialize in mechanical hand rolls, ignoring the paradox for the sake of a consistent end product. But Norris wasn’t pleased with the work of his robotic employee, so prep crews have converted to hand rolling with a sushi mat. The Suzumo still has a job, however; it stamps out perfectly thin sheets of sushi rice, each one down to the millimeter.
I cannot overemphasize the importance of this thin layer of seasoned sushi rice clinging to a skin of crunchy nori. This meticulously engineered outer shell plays a role as vital as sandwich bread or pie crust: It can elevate an average bite or promote a good one into something memorable. It helps that Norris takes as much care with his fillings as he does with his rice and nori. I found pleasures across the hand-roll spectrum: The understated curry chicken doesn’t need to shout to express its complex personality; the graceful California crab, at once sweet and briny, never surrenders to its domineering avocado running partner; and the crumbly miso tofu packs so many flavors and textures that I found the low-sodium, darkly brewed Little Soya sauce totally unnecessary.
Maki Shop’s rolls, like fine nigiri sushi, hide their sophistication in simple packages. The kitchen employs sous vide techniques for its lusty beef short rib roll (with a kimchi kick), but pulls out a roasting pan for a wild mushroom roll, whose light woody flavors are regrettably beaten into submission by rebellious strips of red bell pepper. The culinary team even plays around with rice; brown grains, for example, are paired with chunks of raw salmon to add a mild nuttiness to the lush, avocado-laced roll, while glistening black rice surrounds a grilled calamari roll to add earthiness to the bite.
If there’s a contradiction built into Maki Shop, it is this: You have to devour the rolls fast, within 10 minutes or so, before the nori turns soft, robbing you of the contemplative pleasures of such food. I guess that’s the implied arrangement with the increasingly sophisticated fast casual eateries. They’ll feed you better, but you don’t have the time (or even a comfortable space) to appreciate it.
1522 14th St. NW. 202-545-6333. www.getmakishop.com.
Hours: Daily 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Nearest Metro: Shaw or Dupont Circle, with about 0.6-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: Hand rolls, sides and soups, $3.50-$6.