Mediocrity: Do We Settle in DC?

Sushi… the one food item that I seriously crave on a regular basis. I love it so much that when I first heard that women shouldn’t eat raw fish during pregnancy I told my husband we were going to adopt. I can survive 9 months of no wine, coffee, hotdogs, or bacon but a life without sushi is unfathomable.

Being a sushi fiend is not like being crazy for french fries or fried chicken (my two other food vices). When you’re craving fries there are probably 5 decent spots to grab a bagful in walking distance from wherever you are in this country. Maybe a couple fewer if you’re on the hunt for fried chicken. Of course there are ranges in quality, but for a quick fix I’ll bet everyone can think of a handful of places that know how to cook a potato in oil.

Sushi is another story. My sushi preferences run towards the rice topped with raw fish. I’m not ordering California rolls, tempura whatever, imitation crab, or smoked salmon with cream cheese. I’ll never order take out sushi. I shy away from all the raw fish options at the Whole Foods and Dean and Deluca sushi bars. So where’s a girl to go for a few great slices of fresh fish atop correctly seasoned rice?

I live in DC, so it’ll take me a little time to think of a place… still thinking…. still thinking…

Before the renovations, Sushi Taro was my weekly indulgence. My non-fish eating husband would fill up on kara age (Japanese style fried chicken), inari, natto rolls (yes, he’ll eat those stringy, stinky fermented soybeans, but shudders at the thought of putting raw fish in his mouth, go figure), unctuous braised pork belly, and a juicy well-marbled rib eye steak served with a teriyaki sauce where for once the chef knew to add sugar sparingly. I would satisfy my cravings with whatever the sushi chefs recommended.

Personally, I appreciate the new Sushi Taro with its focus on serving the best quality fish, but my dining partner is not quite as enthusiastic, so we’re forced to look elsewhere.

Kaz Sushi Bistro was our spot for a couple months. The high quality of the fish and several incredibly delicious and interesting signature sushi options satisfied my cravings. But the menu rarely changes, if ever. Also, the ambiance doesn’t cry out party or romance. Rather, the dining room is most often filled by people in business suits discussing the latest economic, healthcare, foreign—fill in the blank—policy.

I feel the same way about Sushi Ko. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. It just fails to be memorable.

So you can imagine my excitement when I heard about the opening of Kushi. Finally DC was getting an Izakaya-style joint. A place where meat, fish and vegetables are cooked over hot smoky grills and sushi chefs prepare fish flown in from the Tsukigi fish market in Tokyo.

In theory it’s heaven. In reality? Sometimes, maybe, yes, no… I’ve been there 7 times and I still can’t decide.

The ambiance is fantastic. There’s lots of great cooking action viewing at either the robata or sushi bar seating areas. It’s loud enough that you wouldn’t shy away from bringing a group of friends there for plate-sharing and sake bombs, but not so overwhelming that a couple couldn’t enjoy a fun private conversation.

All the sushi I’ve had there has been beautiful. Nice fish to rice ratios (I really hate huge slices on tiny mounds of rice and visa-versa). Rice is perfectly cooked, seasoned and served at the right temperature. They have a seared fatty salmon nigiri that defines melt-in-your-mouth. It’s slightly smoky and topped with chopped scallions. I’ve fallen in love and it’s one of the first things I order every time. Of course the offerings from Tsukigi are ridiculously fresh, and you’ll probably find many first time experiences among the options (whole baby ice fish anyone?).

As for the kishiyaki (grilled skewers) or robata (charcoal grill) offerings… meh. All the chicken options are pretty much flavorless. The pork belly is ok. Wagyu beef skewers can be dry, in desperate need of more sauce and less cooking time. Most of the meat is pre-braised, skewered and placed over the grill for just a couple minutes. Perhaps if they added more interesting cuts and stopped all the pre-cooking they might have a better final product.

The kara age and daily yaki onigiri special (grilled rice balls) are well executed standards. I hear that the buta kakuni (braised pork belly) is absolutely crave-inducing but I never order it since I now make it at home fairly frequently. The pickles that come out with the miso soup at lunch are a bit of a head scratcher. It’s hard to say if they’re pickles or if they just took a quick plunge in a salt bath. Texture is great, but there’s no flavor.

Here’s my frustration. When I talk about going out for Japanese food the options we have can only be generously described as “decent”. But I’ll keep going. Why? Because pretty decent is the best we’ve got. Can anyone explain to me how cities like Minneapolis and Denver can have great Japanese food but DC can only eek out a “meh”?

Why are places like Nooshi and Café Asia thriving?—Asia is a continent folks, you can’t properly make 20+ countries’ cuisines in one kitchen. Why doesn’t DC have a real noodle bar? Soba, ramen, udon – I’ll take anything. Yakiniku? Yakitori? Are these dining concepts too alien? Is there no market for them?

Or, have all the Japanese food lovers just resigned themselves to our semi decent food while looking longingly at all the options just up I-95 in NYC? Simple economic theory argues that if there is a demand, there will be supply to match. Dear God, please don’t let DC be the exception to that rule.


  1. I LOVE LOVE LOVE YOUR BLOG SHARON…granted this is the first blurb I’ve read. Hee hee. But, I absolutely love your writing style. I’ll be back for more… Somebody never told me they could write so eloquently and descriptively. WOW! LOVE LOVE LOVE IT!
    Unfortunately the only place I know to get really great sushi is in Japan. You up for it?

  2. I’m always up for a sushi adventure in Japan with you. How about next year? Tsukiji fish market here we come.

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