Some restaurant dishes are so tied to their makers, food lovers can’t think of one without the other.
Mention palak chaat, and Vikram Sunderam pops into our heads, along with Rasika, the modern Indian restaurant he brought to life in 2005.
No one roasts a finer chicken than Frank Ruta, at least the way he served the bird at his much-missed Palena in Cleveland Park. Wherever the chef, last seen at Mirabelle, decides to cook next, legions of us are hoping his celebrated chicken is part of the package.
The steam-inflated scallion pancake that floats through the dining rooms made famous by Peter Chang? Thank his wife and co-pilot, Lisa, for the dish.
Then there’s the lush fish napoleon dreamed up by Kazuhiro “Kaz” Okochi at Kaz Sushi Bistro. Like “Phantom of the Opera,” his signature appetizer has enjoyed a long run: 20 years at the Japanese restaurant near George Washington University, longer when you consider that the chef created it at the late Sushiko in Glover Park, his first job after leaving Osaka for Washington in 1988.
A single bite of the little tower, encircled in a garland of seaweed, demonstrates its appeal and endurance. Chopped raw sea bass (originally sea trout) tossed with a soy-ginger dressing and roasted peanuts, then layered between crackling rounds of fried wonton skins, engages all the senses.
I’m back at Kaz Sushi Bistro partly out of nostalgia — two decades is a milestone in the mercurial restaurant industry — and partly to see how the business measures up to the competition, which is considerable these days. Japanese restaurants have been popping up like Democratic White House aspirants, some examples (Sushi Gakyu) better than others (Zeppelin). Meanwhile, consumers are savvier than ever. Twenty years ago in this city, sushi was thought of as something special — appointment eating, if you will. Now, it’s as available as a burger and fries, routine for a lot of diners.
Chances are, you’ll spot Okochi in the dining room rather than behind the sushi counter. The owner, 58, has hired a couple of chefs from Japan over the past several years — meet Satoshi Kagaya and Nao Matsui — which allows him to focus on customers, catering and a new addition to his family, granddaughter Madeline.
I’ll admit from the start that I miss Okochi’s presence at the counter, as much for his informed banter as for the dishes he handed over. (Fingers crossed, the chef brings back his vivid sashimi gazpacho, a onetime summer refresher.) Reading long-ago, mostly rave reviews — mine and others’ — I’m also reminded that the service isn’t as reliable now, either. At meals in the dining room, dishes have been dropped off with no introduction, and while I looked forward to some edification with a flight of sakes, a server was unable to flag their distinguishing characteristics. (Spring for the lovely junmai, aged in cedar.) She also had to be reminded that there were seven little cups for $32, not six. Service improved when I was in the company of insiders, but what outsider wants to hear that? Your mileage may vary.
You’ll want to make a reservation, especially at lunch, when seemingly as much Japanese as English can be overheard in the dining room, sedate in champagne shades, frosted glass dividers and backlit slender wooden slats that from a distance look like curtains. But I’ve been surprised to encounter a fully committed space even on a Monday night, along with the occasional boldface name. Hello, Tiffany Trump (and Secret Service agents, dressed like students to blend in, but dead giveaways from their ear pieces).
You may have come expressly for sushi, but before you take the plunge, consider some small plates. The best tend to be hot. Clam tempura, gathered in a clam shell, has my friend from Rhode Island sighing (and snatching the last golden bite, made even better with a spritz of lime and a dip in green tea salt). Spring was sprung when I got a taste of some of the season’s first soft-shell crabs, explosively juicy beneath their light jacket of potato starch. Cabbage pancake striped with a sweet barbecue sauce and animated with bonito flakes is an okonomiyaki not to be forgotten.
One of the most exquisite things to have crossed my lips of late was this restaurant’s fragrant chawanmushi, every spoonful of silken egg custard bearing a treat: sweet shrimp one moment, a nugget of foie gras the next, maybe a bit of mushroom. Too bad the treasure hunt was a special. It deserves longer play.
Enjoy those fleeting moments. Scallops from Hokkaido? They seize the day, their sea sweetness jousting nicely with a dab of electric pico de gallo. Saba perfumed in the smoker? It’s mackerel from heaven. Three dollars for a teaspoon of freshly grated wasabi is money well spent, and a reminder that the real deal is pale green and delicately spicy, not a clover-colored assault on the palate.
Modern restaurants are compelled to feature vegetables, so there’s sushi topped with mushrooms, roasted tomato or tofu, and flash-fried cauliflower and blanched kale draped in what looks like melted cheese but is actually a sassy carrot dressing. Nice combo — and better than the stolid, hard-to-eat whole Brussels sprouts tossed with bits of sweet potato.
The quality of the fish at Kaz remains excellent. Okochi buys everything but his tuna whole before breaking down the fish in-house. One of the most indulgent ways to explore a chef’s range and the kitchen’s inventory is to ask for chef’s choice, or omakase (in this case an all-sushi affair, as at the high-end Sushi Nakazawa).
No two omakase are likely to be the same, because they’re tailored around what the season offers and the preferences of the customer, who is best served by a perch at the sushi bar, the better to interact with the chef doing your bidding.
We ate the sushi, designed to be dispatched in one bite, with our hands rather than chopsticks. Although both methods are acceptable, diners can appreciate the texture and temperature of sushi better with their fingers. The execution is for the most part serious, the setting less so; on the wall near the kitchen is a clock that tells the time with the help of sushi numerals.
“Spot prawns from Canada,” Ho said as he surrendered the sweet specimens, one piece served with crumbled egg yolk and yuzu juice. The nigiri that stood out, because it felt less like everything before it, was striped bass with a precise dot of intense tomato. The carefully cut fish suggested Japan, but its accent put us in Italy. Okochi, who initially aspired to study French cooking, has long looked to Europe for inspiration and America for its sense of humor. (He built that sushi clock.)
An hour or so in, and we’re ready to raise a white flag. “How many more courses?” I asked the chef. Your call, he responded.
Note to self: Set a limit next visit. A dozen courses of nigiri left us more than sated, but I still made room for the last taste: sea urchin from Maine alongside sweetly fresh lobster bound with wasabi mayonnaise, both prizes bundled in delicately crisp nori. And had I not feasted, I would have dipped into the tiramisu, a dish that’s been around since Day 1. Unlike the Italian classic, Okochi’s cloud of mascarpone and cake is infused with green tea, resulting in a lovely shade of spring.
While I came back for the fish napoleon — for old time’s sake — I left with something equally choice: the sense that Kaz Sushi Bistro is aging gracefully.
Kaz Sushi Bistro (Good/Excellent) 1915 I St. NW. 202-530-5500. kazsushi.com.
Open: Lunch Monday through Friday, dinner Monday through Saturday. Prices: Sushi $6 to $10 (two pieces), dinner small plates $8 to $17, eight-course tasting menu $90 to $120. Sound check: 69 decibels / Conversation is easy.