Desperately Seeking Sushi Profiling Sushi-Ko
[from November 2004 issue]

Sometimes it gets very hard to figure out the American penchant for new foods. Who would have thought that for such a beef-eating nation raw fish would have many takers? But when something as once-exotic as sushi gets cello-wrapped for sale at local supermarkets, you know that times have changed. Or at least, palates have.

Taking that into consideration--and if you love sushi as much as most locals do--then it’s about time to go back to the source, the place where Washington’s deep-seated and long-held love for raw fish got its debut: Sushi-Ko.

Believe it or not, Sushi-Ko first cast its nets out for patrons as far back as 1979, when the restaurant opened its doors and way long before Washington and America thought much about ethnic foods. At that time, tacos must have seemed extremely exotic to the man on the street and the idea of Chinese food probably conjured up visions of egg foo young and canned bean sprouts. So imagine the audacity of someone bringing raw fish to the DC crowd!

Purchased in the mid-80s by its present owner--an extremely energetic sushi advocate, Daisuke Utagawa--Sushi-Ko has become a sort of mecca for celebs and a kind of fetish for 20- and 3--somethings looking for a groovy night out. But those not in the know might never take a backward glance as they head up Wisconsin past Sushi-Ko. The restaurant’s not-so-glamorous exterior--which reminds one, sort of, of a derelict row house--hides a veritable sushi-making factory of the very highest caliber and a setting that would do any more extravagant restaurant proud. Small and elegant, in a casual sort of way.

For the diehard, sitting at the sushi bar--a place of some entertainment at most sushi restaurants--is strategic for getting a handle on how the sushi chefs create Utagawa’s and head chef Koji Terano’s unique sushi inventions. Note that in Japan, chefs traditionally study the art of sushi making for a full eight years before they are (or, at least, were) considered well-trained enough to slice fish up for patrons.

Despite Utagawa’s and Terano’s passion for pushing onto new twists, you’ll find such familiar-sounding dishes as a crunchy toro roll or spicy salmon with avocado or even a tuna-and-jalapeño roll (not so familiar, but you get the idea), and entrées such as chicken teriyaki or shrimp or seafood and veggie tempura. But don’t kid yourself that this is just business as usual. Utagawa and staff put their own spin on each offering.

But broaden your horizons, fish lovers. The new fall menu created by Terano should convince you that Japanese cooking is not static or devoid of humor. Take the soup offerings, for example. Forget about monochromatic miso. Instead, sip delicately of a broth infused with the flavors of eggplant and smoked mussels. For a cleaner flavor, Terano’s Maine lobster and asparagus suimono parallels the clearest French stock.

The best advice for the balance of the meal--sample an assortment of small dishes from the new menu and the specials sheet. That gives you the best chance to indulge on a wide assortment: the crispy eel tatsuta-age served with a balsamic reduction; the honey-roasted duck breast with mustard miso (a layering of meat, fat and crispy skin); the very delicate seared white tuna tataki; the ceviche trio of salmon, yellowtail and tuna and inspired more or less by the Hispanic take on marinating raw fish; the very sweet and tender Gulf shrimp that are lightly sautéed and served with a creamy ponzu; and the show-stopper Tuna Six Ways--served on a bright yellow ceramic serving dish, this stars both blue fin and big eye tuna sashimi fixed, of course, six different ways. Outstanding.

You might consider dessert, a step up from the usual offering of ginger or green tea ice cream. What about house-made coconut ice cream with mango mousse?

Note that Utagawa and staff formulate their own soy sauce and make real wasabi and pickled ginger. As a footnote, Whole Foods markets has contracted with Sushi-Ko to provide fresh, organic sushi to their markets in the DC metro area. Can’t make it to Sushi-Ko? Pick up lunch or dinner from Whole Foods, but realize you’ll be out the full Sushi-Ko experience.

Sushi-Ko, 2309 Wisc. Ave., NW; tel., 333-4187. Hours: Lunch, Tue.-Fri; dinner, nightly. Prices: $4.50-$24. Major credit cards accepted.

*Alexandra Greeley is a food writer, editor and restaurant reviewer. She has authored books on Asian and Mexican cuisines published by Simon & Schuster, Doubleday, and Macmillan. Other credits include food editor of Vegetarian Times, restaurant reviews and food articles for national and regional publications, as well as former food editor/writer for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong.

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