If you’re a raw fish fancier and can accommodate a splurge, forget — if you can — the location of the restaurant I’m here to tell you about. Good sushi counters are easy enough to find in Washington. Great ones have the power to transport you to a different realm.
Perhaps you’ve already heard about Sushi Nakazawa. The restaurant, introduced last summer, is a branch of a same-named Japanese retreat in New York that garnered four stars, an “extraordinary” rating, from the New York Times in 2013. Counter seats at the original remain a precious commodity. An admired chef will do that to a stretch of seating. No less than Daisuke Nakazawa, a character in the acclaimed documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” lends his name to the brand.
The Washington spinoff benefits from the talent of Masaaki Uchino, Nakazawa’s acolyte. Trained in his native Japan, Uchino met his mentor in Seattle and helped open Sushi Nakazawa in New York. Uchino’s stage is fronted with 10 tall stools, into which guests settle after positioning their feet on a step and sliding into position with the help of one of several suited servers. To the side of the marble surface is a small, undistinguished dining room, although in three visits, I’ve never seen anyone at a table. If you’re shelling out more than a Franklin per person, and you will, you want a front-row seat.
Hot towels are proffered, and drinks are poured: Soto Junmai Daiginjo sake for the guest who asks for something on the mineral-y side and Aki no Mori Houjicha tea for the one who’s taking time off from alcohol. (The tea is produced from stems and leaves roasted over charcoal.) Customers watch Uchino, whose assembled props include a sharp knife, brushes for applying sauces and a blowtorch, with what seem to be equal parts reverence and expectation. There is no menu, at least not until the end of a meal. The chef is serving what he thinks you should eat, which is mostly wild fish. On occasion, upgrades are dangled before you. Osetra caviar transferred from its tin to a bit of rice and gilded with a few bits of dried nori and gold leaf will set you back an additional $40: sushi for the 1 percent.
The first three bites of nigiri show off salmon in different guises: chum with a sprinkle of Japanese sea salt, hay-smoked sockeye whispering of a campfire, and robust king salmon, simply brushed with soy sauce. The catch is all from Alaska, which the chef says competes with Japan in quality.
Scallop sushi (“aged 10 days,” intones a voice behind me) contains a surprise: a pinch of yuzu pepper between the dewy featured ingredient and the lightly vinegared rice. The unexpected dynamite causes diners’ eyes to pop and the chef to grin as he points to the source of the heat in a small bowl on his workspace. Squid, dotted with plum sauce and sliced so sheer you can read through it, reveals the green under it to be shiso, that punchy relation to mint. A lobe of house-cured karasumi, or dried mullet roe, is grated over a strip of black fin sea bass. The sunny yellow filings that threaten to hide the sea bass add a sumptuous salinity to the fish.
Dinner unfolds like a lovely play. Cured and pickled gizzard shad, we’re told, is among the most traditional sushi, depicted as it is in Japanese paintings dating to the 18th century. History, thy name is herring. To prepare the palate for the voluptuous aged yellowtail that follows, we take a bite of the young ginger that the chef prepares in-house.
Uchino introduces each course as he sets it before you, after which an attendant leans in to repeat the announcement. (From a distance, the back-and-forth must look like a U.N. function.) Dinner in stereo is also reminiscent of a master class, with students encouraged to ask questions. A co-chef stands to Uchino’s side, typically preparing the next treat. Watching the colleague strip some tiger prawns from their shells, and deploy a tweezer to devein them, reminds us that we eat first with our eyes. The eventual course is gently warm, sweet and tender.
You know you’re approaching the end when a flight of lean-to-rich tuna is served. While I like them all for different reasons, chu-toro, or medium-fatty tuna, lingers in my memory for its umami and balance. Call it the Goldilocks of tuna. It’s “just right.”
As the chef gets to know you, or as diners open up, he’ll tailor the procession of fish to your taste. Signal that you’re getting full, for instance, and he might make smaller pillows of rice going forward. And if you’ve dropped by before, he offers different tastes.
To close the feast, there might be a faintly sweet bite composed of just four ingredients, one of which imbues mountain yam, egg and sugar with a hint of the sea. “Shrimp!” a guest at the counter correctly guesses.
“Would you like to revisit anything?” a server always asks. Tempting as it might be to eat another fatty tuna hand roll, the quality and quantity of the tasting menu are plenty to digest. If there’s one nit, it’s the flimsy wooden chopsticks. Sushi Nakazawa prompts fans to go the totally acceptable route and eat with their fingers.
Two hours, about what it takes to eat 20 or so courses, go by quickly. So can your money if you like to drink (wines by the glass average $22) or incorporate some a la carte fancies. A morsel of wagyu A5, the highest grade of Japanese beef (rib-eye, in this case) costs $13. Its richness, however, is such that a single well-marbled, garlic-lit, blow-torched bite can sate some carnivores. “Everybody’s favorite fish!” jokes the chef as he hands over the prized beef.
About the location. Sushi Nakazawa is a tenant of the Trump International Hotel, with a 10-year lease. While you can’t access the dining room from the lobby of its controversial building, the restaurant is tucked on the back side of the property, next to a Starbucks. The connection to an owner who once derided Washington’s food scene, and, more significantly, to a divisive POTUS, gives some potential patrons pause; five people turned down invitations to join me on multiple visits.
All I can say is this: For singular sushi, the omakase at the Nakazawa counter is best in class. Ultimately, though, chef’s choice is your choice.
Sushi Nakazawa (Excellent) 1100 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-289-3515. sushinakazawa.com.
Open: Lunch noon to 1 p.m. Monday through Saturday; dinner 5 to 10 p.m. in the dining room. Sushi counter seatings are 6 and 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 5, 7 and 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Prices: Omakase (chef’s choice) starts at $120 per person at a table, $150 at the counter. Sound check: 61 decibels / Conversation is easy.