The following review appears in The Washington Post’s 2019 Fall Dining Guide.
The most controversial sushi counter in Washington is one of its most fascinating. An import from New York, where a chef from the documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” holds court, the spinoff at the back of the Trump International Hotel is in the superb hands of head chef Masaaki Uchino. The best place to catch his show is at his 10-stool counter.
Guests are not offered a menu, just hot towels and drinks. Every course is a surprise. Some nights might launch with three bites of nigiri that show off salmon — sockeye whispering of smoke is a favorite — followed by aged scallop sushi that hides fire in its seasoning: yuzu kosho. Cured pickled gizzard shad, we learn, is among the most ancient sushi preparations, dating to the 18th century; we tease tiger prawns out of red shells to reveal warm, sweet and succulent flesh.
While you’re consuming one dish, another is being prepared. Watching the cooks set up a flight of lean-to-fatty tuna, then marveling at their range of flavors, is akin to attending a master class at sea.
Sushi Nakazawa: 11100 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. 202-289-3515. sushinakazawa.com/washington-dc .
Open: Dinner and lunch Monday through Saturday.
Price: Omakase $120 at a table, $150 at the sushi counter.
Sound check: 61 decibels / Conversation is easy.
The following review was originally published June 15, 2018.
The fishing is prime at Sushi Nakazawa in D.C.
If the arrival of Sushi Nakazawa off Pennsylvania Avenue NW is met with tepid applause, it could be because Washington is on a nice Japanese roll at the moment. See, among other additions, Sushi Gakyu.
A more accurate explanation for any shrug is a New York owner, Alessandro Borgognone, who initially derided the District’s dining scene, and the placement of the newcomer — a branch of the acclaimed restaurant of the same name in Manhattan — at the controversial Trump International Hotel.
General manager Cody Nason understands all that. A former maitre d’ at the original Sushi Nakazawa, whose chef, Daisuke Nakazawa, appeared in the 2011 documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” Nason says he also thinks the offshoot offers something special to the city: “a highly specialized, nigiri-only omakase,” or chef’s choice, featuring only wild fish.
There are two ways to experience dinner: at a 10-stool, marble-topped counter, where executive chef Masaaki Uchino and his colleagues prepare the meal in front of you at one of three nightly performances, or in the sleek 30-seat dining room. Proximity to Uchino costs a customer $150; the price of the tasting menu at the table is $120.
For my maiden voyage, I opted for a seat at the bar, where the parade of fish was launched with three kinds of salmon — chum, hay-smoked salmon and soy-kissed king salmon — along with some advice from Nason: “One bite, please, and no ginger.” The slender folds of fish applied to warm fingers of rice are meant to be dispatched whole, like a chocolate truffle, he says, and with nothing more than what the chef has already seasoned them with.
Guests are not offered a menu when they sit down. Every course is thus a surprise.
“Scallop,” Uchino says as he hands over a bite under which the tongue detects yuzu pepper. The position of the citric heat is intentional. “I want you to taste the scallop first,” says the chef.
Pleasantly chewy reef squid follows. The fish, garnished with a pinprick of plum sauce, is sliced so sheer, you can see the strip of shiso beneath it.
No two pieces of fish get the same treatment, which is no small task when you consider the omakase runs 20 or so courses long. A rare sight in restaurants, barred knifejaw from Japan is complemented with a bit of cherry blossom powder, black gnome fish is lit with sea salt and lemon, Spanish mackerel gets a jolt from mustard, and amberjack’s clean flavor profile has a friend in grated ginger. First among equals might be spot prawn, its exclamation point courtesy of finger lime, revered as the caviar of citrus.
Midway through the meal, diners receive a cube of pressed rice topped with delicately sweet Dungeness crab capped with a puree of crab innards. Bring in da funk!
While one dish is being consumed, another is getting ready for your consideration, a visual patrons in the dining room are denied. Watching the cooks set up a flight of lean-to-fatty tuna, then marveling at their range of flavors, is akin to attending a master class at sea.
On and on the evening goes (sea urchin from Hokkaido: yes!), ending with the option of a second helping of a favorite piece of fish or an a la carte delicacy, such as briefly blow-torched wagyu beef. The menu is the same wherever you sit, with the exception of one item: Fatty tuna hand rolls go to the premium seats at the bar.
To close, there’s a revivifying mango-passion fruit sorbet dropped off in a frosted glass with a mother-of-pearl spoon.
The cooking show at Sushi Nakazawa is enhanced by piped-in jazz, hyperattentive staff and featherweight Zalto stemware, into which a sommelier might pour sake, champagne or burgundy. The mood at the bar is what you make it. On an early visit in June, the four strangers at the counter seemed to treat the occasion with churchlike reverence, at least until my dining companion, a brash former tuna fisherman from Massachusetts, broke the hush to ask questions (and laud the chef’s shopping skills).
Depending upon your appetite, and maybe your patience for fine dining, the omakase is a blur of a school of fish or a pescatarian fantasy. No question, the feast is expensive. With drinks and extras thrown in, the outing approximates the cost of dinner at the Inn at Little Washington or Komi, two of the area’s priciest propositions.