Sushiko, one of the area’s top Japanese draws, recently emerged from a $150,000 makeover of just its sushi counter in Chevy Chase.
The original space, set off with walnut veneer and fish on display behind glass, has given way to a smooth pine counter and an unobstructed view of co-chefs Handry and Piter Tjan. Monday through Wednesday evening, the brothers feature a vegan tasting menu for $130 per person, tax and tip included; Thursday through Saturday, they weave eggs, seafood and meat into their twice-nightly show, for $160.
Owner Daisuke Utagawa named the new performance space Kobo, after the Japanese word for atelier, or craftshop. Over its long life, Sushiko, which originated in 1976 in Washington’s Glover Park, has been “many things to many people,” says Utagawa: a destination for discerning members of the Japanese Embassy as well as for families who might simply be in a California (roll) state of mind. A mere eight seats, Kobo is an opportunity to provide Sushiko’s longtime chefs with a stage befitting their talent, says Utagawa, and “a platform for bringing more of Japan” to the restaurant.
Like omakase, both tasting menus revolve around dishes selected for diners by the chefs. Kobo also infuses the experience with a sense of intimacy, as the chefs slice, fry, smoke and style the food directly in front of customers. The ceremony, along with an emphasis on seasonality, help define kappo-style cooking. Whatever their plan of action, diners are likely to leave counting the days until they can return.
The Tjan brothers waste no time making their audience grateful for front-row seats. After a welcome of green kelp tea, prepared in a fashionable siphon, patrons receive an amuse-bouche of three spoons holding yolk-size spheres of different fruit flavors: litchi, strawberry and mango. The orbs, made using calcium water, delight the eye and tickle the palate as they burst inside the mouth. The dish skews more modern Spanish than traditional Japanese; in a later conversation, I’m not surprised when Piter Tjan tells me the amusement was inspired by Ferran Adria, the revolutionary chef behind the late El Bulli on the Costa Brava.
A tiny bouquet of baby turnips shows up with a dollop of edamame puree, a twist on the French idea of butter-dipped radishes with sea salt. Close behind are a dish of dashi-topped house-made tofu, so silken it melts the moment it lands on the tongue, and a tin of what looks like caviar but is in fact saline black beads created from seaweed. The last element is eaten with a mother-of-pearl spoon, as if the little can shimmered with beluga. The assortment is billed as “Beginning of the Journey,” prompting its recipients to wonder: What next?
Beef tartare rethought without meat, that’s what. The handiwork looks as if it had been snatched from a steakhouse. In fact, the composition springs from diced tomatoes and red onions topped with an orange scoop of heirloom tomato sorbet. Piter says the vegetable tartare proved the most challenging dish to get just right. Over time, he and his brother found cayenne to be the best way to heat the sorbet. To make the tartare sing, they added chili sauce. Diners will appreciate the extra effort.
More poetry follows, as first some broiled eggplant, and then a pinch of thread-thin wheat noodles, make their way to the pine counter. The meaty eggplant is brightened with lemon miso, while the noodles soak with mushrooms and salty plums in a delicate broth. The pacing is perfect, neither too slow nor too fast, with everything arriving on a plate or in a bowl you covet for its form or fashion, often both.
“Every time you look over, there’s something magical” coming from the hands of the chefs, a companion says as he marvels at the sushi course. Instead of fish and seafood, the chefs present baby carrots marinated in soy sauce and yellow cucumber blossoms. The tiny vegetables sprout from rice pillows in an unexpected shade of brown. Kobo uses red vinegar, “an old way of preserving,” explains Piter. Made from sake lees, red vinegar lends fuller flavor to the rice. Known as akazu in Japan, it is the seasoning of choice of top chefs.
The last savory course finds shiitakes and shaved truffles on rice flavored with a delicate soy sauce. Simple, subtle and haunting.
Come dessert, the chefs slip a surprise inside a small mound of sweet potato puree freckled with sesame seeds: a candied chestnut.
Like a number of high-end dining adventures, Kobo doesn’t let you see the menu until the end of the meal. The list is offered as a scroll inside a gift bag that also contains a note from the chefs, some bonbons and a bottle of house-made yuzu dressing — a chance to enjoy another taste of Kobo back home.
Three nights later, I’m already back at Kobo, this time greeted with a single smoked Hama oyster. It’s crowned with caviar and flanked with foam, pink from a brush with red shiso. No less dramatic is the wide plate on which rests the oyster shell, supported on dark glass beads that look like miniature Japanese river stones. If the Tjan brothers ever leave the kitchen, they should head for an art studio.
But I hope they stay put. Because their house-made tofu, again served in a bowl of dashi, is wonderful in the company of briny sea urchin. And botan ebi, or sweet raw shrimp, is habit-forming when it becomes a creamy vessel for candied onion and (trend alert) cucumber blossom.
Kobo may be setting a new standard for decadence with a course called “message of the fauna”: richly marbled Wagyu beef wrapped around creamy sea urchin, finger food made even fancier with slices of black truffle. Ocean, meet forest (but quick, before you’re dispatched).
Where the non-vegan menu takes the most dramatic turn is with sushi. The latter list includes a succession of excellent fish paired with increasingly decadent garnishes. Smoked arctic char with truffle sauce yields to maguro (tuna) with chopped toro (fatty tuna) leads to foie gras and shiso on pearly rice. Gold leaf and sea urchin also make cameos as accessories. More, please — of everything. Honestly, though, the raw fish at Kobo is so lovely, I could happily enjoy it by itself.
Parting from sushi is sweet sorrow, but only until dessert shows up. Green tea tiramisu, presented in a wooden frame with a tiny cup of espresso, threatens to change my allegiance from Italian to Japanese.
At once rich and refreshing and beautiful, the creamy, not-too-sweet dessert does what too few don’t: create an impression as lasting as the men who dreamed it up.
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5455 Wisconsin Ave., Chevy Chase
Open: Two dinner seatings Monday through Wednesday (vegan only), Thursday through Saturday (non-vegan only).
Prices: Vegan tasting menu $130; non-vegan tasting menu $160 per person, tax and tip included.
Sound check: 70 decibels / Conversation is easy.