Lean, fattier, fattiest: The omakase at Sushi Capitol includes a course that showcases different cuts of bluefin tuna. (Scott Suchman/For The Washington Post)

GOOD/EXCELLENT

One bite of kurodai,or black sea bream, and the tumblers fall into place at Sushi Capitol, unlocking the exquisite, all-too-elusive pleasures of nigiri sushi: A ribbon of fish, cool and clean, shoots out sparks of freshly grated wasabi, while a glaze of nikiri sauce and a rectangle of seasoned rice generate sweet-and-salty counterwaves, a perfectly engineered shock to the system.

With one bite, the world outside this Capitol Hill establishment seems to fall away, momentarily replaced by a piece of fish over rice. It’s quite a trick: At a time when we can stew over petty online distractions and unfathomable global threats alike, this little bite has the power to snap us back to the present, to primal ingredients from the land and sea, and perhaps remind us that humans and nature still have the ability to work in harmony, despite much evidence to the contrary.

This is what Sushi Capitol does better than just about anyone in the District: It delivers raw fish to your table with a Japanese precision (albeit augmented by an occasional American penchant for supersizing). From almost the day it opened in 2013, the intimate, 20-seat spot on Pennsylvania Avenue SE has maintained a fairly tight focus on the fish and rice, a conscious decision by management to abstain from yakitori skewers, donburi or kaiseki menus.

Once the man behind the sushi at the late Hisago in Georgetown and Mandarin Oriental hotels, chef and owner Minoru Ogawa has spent decades proving his bona fides to companies that supply the world with the finest fish. This is a cold, hard reality of the sushi industry: The best specimens don’t always go to those with the deepest pockets; they go to those who know how to treat fish right (and with deep pockets). Ogawa and his team at Sushi Capitol treat their seafood like visiting royalty (well, visiting royalty that’s served for dinner).

Your first order of business should be to review the “features” menu, a one-sheet separate from the sushi house’s standing menu and ordering form. On the sheet, you’ll find the seasonal selections. It might be Mediterranean otoro, the fattiest section of the bluefin belly, or it might be live sea urchin from San Diego, still encased in its thorny, black-and-iridescent shell. If you dine at Sushi Capitol often enough, you might even be given access to such off-the-menu pearls as beltfish or smaller sea urchin from Maine, the stuff reserved for regulars.

Or you could just sit at the counter and let the chef decide dinner with his omakase, a $50 tasting menu that, save for a plate or two, is a rice-confetti parade of nigiri sushi and maki rolls. At least mine was. This semi-one-dimensional tour might be cause for concern in a lesser sushi house, but not here, not when Ogawa takes pains to source such quality fish. Just as important, he has the temperament — you might call it a lack of ego — to hide his technique and let the ingredients hog the spotlight. One such technique, perhaps naked to the eye, is Sushi Capitol’s housemade nikiri sauce, a sweet-and-savory concoction that the chefs brush on fish, rendering the table soy sauce superfluous.


Chef Minoru Ogawa sources the highest-quality seafood at Sushi Capitol. (Scott Suchman/For The Washington Post)

Sea urchin from San Diego is presented still in its thorny shell. (Scott Suchman/For The Washington Post)

The highlight of my omakase was a flight of three nigiri tuna pieces (plus yellowtail for a lean contrast). It was an instructional course in the multiple personalities of the bluefin family: otoro, as unctuous as bone marrow; medium-fatty chutoro, so elegant and full-flavored it tasted like some mysterious amalgam of French and Japanese cooking; and seared otoro, which added a slight caramelized edge to the fatty bite. If that weren’t enough lusciousness, the omakase opened with a tempura-fried striped-jack fish jaw, the flesh of which melted on the tongue (unlike a later order of grilled yellowtail jaw, whose flesh had turned to cotton).

The sushi counter in back of this minimalist, brick-lined room should be your destination, an aim that may force you to pour yourself into a tight, glass-enclosed nook behind the host stand to wait. So be it.

The counter offers a direct connection to Ogawa or one of his knife-wielding lieutenants, such as Kazuhide Aoki, Ogawa’s childhood friend from Tokyo. Even when words fail between chef and diner, the eyes will provide the necessary information: You can witness nigiri mastery at work, and the chef can monitor your fish intake, perhaps suggesting something altogether new in response.

Such was the case one evening when I shared a counter seat with a cracked iPod hooked up to speakers, which quietly vibrated with jazz and blues, as if the music player could read me as well as the chef. Otis Redding poured out his aching heart, while the chef put forth one plate after another of oceanic pleasures: chilled Maine sea urchin in its spiny shell, its creamy organs tarted up with ponzu; komochi konbu, a racy strip of herring roe and kelp, looking like a slice of Morbier cheese but going down like a crunchy, elastic fish cake; and oily Spanish mackerel topped with freshly grated ginger to ignite it.

I consumed this meal with such gusto that Aoki felt compelled to offer an extra bite, holding up a thin coil of something foreign.

“What is it?” I asked.

He indicated it was snake, then started laughing.

It turned out to be beltfish, a sweet, slightly chewy length of charred flesh that smacked of the sea.


Beyond the standard rolls at Sushi Capitol are truly special dishes. (Scott Suchman/For The Washington Post)

The surprise plate, a little Japanese lagniappe, is just one of many buried treasures awaiting diners who dig deep in Sushi Capitol’s offerings, beyond the salmon nigiri, spicy California rolls or spider rolls (all of which are available to the robotic eaters among us).

To dine on these sushi standards, though, is to miss what’s special here: the silky-and-chalky monkfish liver, the crispy salmon-skin roll, the raw botan shrimp or spot prawns (complete with fried heads on a separate plate), perhaps even the selection of Kona beers like the Castaway IPA, whose light bitterness practically serves as a secondary seasoning.

Not all of these offerings can be easy to swallow; the gooeyness of the botan shrimp, for instance, proved too distracting for me to notice the shellfish’s inherent sweetness. Nor is Sushi Capitol a bloodless machine stamping out perfection daily: Some days, like on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday when I visited, it can sputter and spit. A server can stand there dumbfounded when you want to know the species lounging on your plate. Worse, the nigiri sushi can emit aromas hinting at fish past its prime.

But these are rare signs of trouble. My only recurring complaint concerns chef Aoki’s habit of slicing fish into long, luxurious strips that smother the rice — and undermine my affection for clean, one-bite nigiri. But this is the chef’s preferred style, if not a nod to American-sized portions.

Frankly, I thought Aoki’s finale to my omakase was a clever twist on our pro-forma dining experience: He presented two tiny pieces of maki roll, filled with rich, briny uni. They would be my “dessert” at Sushi Capitol, which is only apt for a place dedicated to stopping time with not-so-simple pairings of fish and rice.

2 1/2 stars

Location: 325 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. 202-627-0325. www.sushicapitol.com.

Open: Lunch noon to 2:30 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner 5 to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Prices: Appetizers, $3.95 to $18; entrees, $18.95 to $50 for the omakase(which requires a minimum of two orders)

Sound check: 65 decibels/Conversation is easy.

Tom Sietsema will return next week.

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