[from October 1998 issue]

Just when you thought sushi had reached its zenith in Washington, the city's first, and possibly foremost, sushi place has reinvented itself and its menu. That's, of course, Sushi-Ko, made really famous recently by its former sushi chef, Kaz. Now a new kitchen crew gives this old-timer a new menu, and possibly a new stake in the local sushi games. And it's still a high-profile place: Wasn't that Kristen Scott-Thomas heading downstairs recently?

But Sushi-Ko is about more than just sushi. Its owner, Daisuke Utagawa, dispels the notion that sushi is just about raw fish and that a sushi restaurant need serve only sushi and sashimi. Although the menu is short and sweet, patrons get a taste of both traditional and unconventional grilled and "small" dishes, plus the restaurant's more famous sushi creations. Not for them the ordinary sushi with slightly stale rice and less-than-fresh veggies.

At a recent press dinner, we were treated to sushi inventions and other dishes that prove the new cooks, Executive Chef Tetsuro Takanashi and Chef de Cuisine Duncan Boyd, can work in East-Meets-West tandem to produce some rather interesting fare. For the event (a tasting of French cognacs), Utagawa set about proving that Japanese food and brandy have a natural affinity. After all, he pointed out, the Japanese drink copious amounts of brandy anyway. But for the foodies, the real prize was enjoying the succession of courses, an array of sushi and Japanese-Western small dishes that ranged from seared tuna served with Japanese eggplant to foie gras Matsutake gyoza (imagine, dumplings served with a goose liver filling), to robata-style squab glazed with calvados and served with prickly ash pods, the last a kind of turnip. A triumph of mind over matter, these samplings dared those present to ever declare Japanese food monochromatic, possibly even dull.

Even so, kitchen genius cannot make foie gras a perfect partner for a fried dumpling, no matter how clever the execution. The combination was too heavy to satisfy. Nor could the nubbly textured sesame ice cream prove smooth and creamy, because it wasn't.

But the rest of the menu succeeded where these two dishes failed. The rectangle of steamed halibut was a delicate foil for the wild mushroom fricassee (in a cognac-based sauce) and the plate of assorted sushi with ama-ebi, jack fish, anago, and flounder with shiso and ume, was sublime. Even the soy-marinated mozzarella tempura, a dish that purists might scorn, was a smash hit. And Japanese chef Takanashi got his share of applause with the cakes soaked in Armagnac. It turns out that Takanashi, beaming and bowing in his chef's hat, is also a certified French pastry chef.

True, none of the above dishes come from the regular menu, but the scope of their inventiveness indicate what you can expect. For example, the restaurant's menu for that night included grilled baby octopus, steamed Alaskan halibut with wild mushroom and spinach, soft crab Kara-age with ponzu sauce, and roasted duck with gobo roll sushi. Desserts included banana tempura with black berry ice cream and sake ice.

Sushi-Ko, 2309 Wisconsin Ave. 333-4187. Hours: lunch, Mon.-Fri., noon-2:30pm; dinner, Mon-Fri., 6-10:30pm; Sat., 5-10:30pm & to 10pm Sun. Major credit cards accepted.

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