Review: Sushi Taro in DC

The story

Washington DC in 1986 would not be recognizable to many of its recent brunchgoing denizens. Marion Barry had just been elected to his third term. 14th St was desolate; the few storefronts that were still occupied were liquor stores and Chinese bodegas. The gay subculture in DuPont was still a sub-culture, not fully open and out; you still chose bars based on what gender of person you wanted to have sex with. Frank Kameny was still alive, and would have laughed at the idea that a block of 17th street would one day be named after him. And, in 1986, on that block between Church and P streets, Nobu Yamazaki's parents opened a restaurant above a massage parlor.

It was an informal, 120-seat izakaya-style grill, serving hot Japanese-ish small plates as best they could using the ingredients they could get in DC. And, for 20 years, it chugged along looking for all the world like just another niche ethnic restaurant that would appeal to diplomats, tourists, and the occasional college student seeking to appear worldly; the kind of place that fills up DuPont and Adams Morgan, or at least used to. And then Nobu took over his parents' restaurant and decided he wanted a change. He began sourcing ingredients directly from Japan and paring down the menu, particularly items that had been put on there to appeal to American palates.

In 2009 he took the leap fully, and closed the restaurant for a 6 month renovation. What came out of the other end was unrecognizable. Where before Taro had been a rowdy open-air joint with Japanese-style seating at the table and a focus on the television above the bar, now it seats 72 at Western style tables, has a tiny bar at one end, and an intimate chef's bar for customers doing omakase. Gone is the noisy, shared izakaya menu, and instead they have a contemplative kaiseki style card, including three tasting menus. And instead of being a dive beloved of diplomats and journalists, it's now a destination restaurant complete with a Michelin star.

Sushi in the US

Like Sushi Taro, sushi itself has come a long way in the US over the past 30 years. The first known sushi restaurant in the States was Noritoshi Kanai's Kawafuku in LA's Little Tokyo neighborhood, opened in 1966. The first peek outside of that neighborhood was Osho, opened 1970 in Rancho Park, where the cuisine caught the attention (and borrowed the cachet) of some movie stars.

It took another 14 years for sushi to leave LA with Bon Yagi's Hasaki in NYC's Little Tokyo; Sushi Taro was part of the copycat wave once Hasaki proved it was a viable plan. Sushi was growing, but it still didn't play in Peoria. It took another decade before America's changing palate and American sushi's changing style would finally meet.

On the palate side, it's not that Americans ever got fully happy with the idea of eating raw fish (and you'll still hear that said, incredulously, disturbingly often). But Americans did start to like the idea of light meals, and sushi offered that. On the Americanization side, some anonymous genius had the idea of putting the rice on the outside of a maki, and of replacing kewpie with avocado. The California roll was born, and American sushi never looked back. (Amusingly, the California and Philadelphia rolls have since migrated to Japan, where they are wildly popular.)

Now, of course, you can buy a tray of pre-prepped sushi at the grocery store, or most mall food courts. Even if some Americans will never reconcile themselves to the idea of eating raw fish, there are vegetarian rolls and light rolls and low carb rolls and just about anything the American sushi consumer could ask for. And there's even a growing market for "authenticity", among the same foodie class that was gobbling up the innovative California roll 30 years ago.

Globalization and fulfillment played a roll here: Yamazaki sources about half of his fish from Japan, something that is possible today in a way it wasn't when his parents opened the restaurant. The ability to deliver fresh fish from all over the world makes those cellophane-wrapped spicy tuna rolls in the grocery store's prepared food section possible, if at an environmental cost.

As of 2018, there are over 4000 sushi restaurants in the US, and 6 of them are in Peoria.

The food

The star of Sushi Taro's menu, and the reason it has a Michelin star, is its omakase preparation. The word literally means "entrust yourself", and this is accurate. An omakase is different from a tasting menu, in that it is not pre-defined. The chef creates it improvisationally by incorporating feedback from the diners with each plate. There is also no telling in advance how much it will cost, since it's not known in advance what ingredients the chef will use.

We did not feel like dropping that much money on that meal (it varies, but it orbits a point somehwere up in the Minibar altitude). There are also "normal" tasting menus, in the $50-$100 range, but we ended up going a la carte.

Sushi Taro's chief "inauthenticity", from a kaiseke standpoint, is that they serve both sushi and sashimi. There is also a limited selection of hot dishes. Yamazaki has commented that the limitation of choice is deliberate: he wants to bring Americans out of their comfort zone here.

Accordingly, I got some pieces I normally don't: mackerel, uni, and flounder fin. Yamazaki has said that technique is less important in sushi preparation than many Americans think; the cuisine exists primarily to showcase the real skill of ingredient selection. There are some showstoppers that you must try: the fatty tuna belly if it is available, the raw Kobe beef, and the Japanese uni. Sake drinkers will delight at the multiple pages of Japanese and domestic sakes available, but anyone looking for a more familiar cocktail is out of luck: they deliberately do not stock rail liquors or American mixers.

The tempura plates we got were a highlight. The ginger blossom was sharp and flavorfull, and the shitake mix was brilliant.

Anthony Bourdain has said that the American obsession with freshness has us get sushi entirely wrong. Proper sushi and sashimi fish is not "the freshest", it's processed (minimally) at exactly the "right" point of losing freshness. The mackerel is a great case in point: there is never any doubt that you are eating a fish, and an oily fish at that. The nori draws out the saltiness in the fish, and the oils mix in with the rice; the whole thing is brought together with a minimalist application of wasabi (the nigiri come with what the chefs consider the proper amount of wasabi).

Sushi in Japan

Sushi has come a long way in Japan, too. The dish seems to have started in the Mekong delta in the centuries before Christ, and spread to China proper during the Han dynasty and to Japan during the Yayoi period along with wet-field rice cultivation. The rice was originally just a storage medium for pickling fish; the fish was eaten and the rice was fed to animals.

The rice was not retained in Japan until the Muromachi period, and the whole nigiri package did not become emblematically Japanese until late in the Edo period, when the fish also went from pickled to fresh (it was billed by some nationalists as helping Japanese people retain their primal ancestral connection with the sea).

Today sushi is an emblmatic food of the global upper middle class, and like everything we love it is environmentally tenuous. Nori is not particularly endangered by harvesting (sushi-grade nori is usually farmed) but its habitat range and growth patterns are affected by changing ocean temperatues and salinity. The bluefin tuna itself is critically pressured by harvesting; the population is at less than 3% of its pre-industrial population, and fishing rates are three times what is considered sustainable.

Going forward

A decade in to his relaunch, and with three years Michelin stars under his belt, Yamazaki could be forgiven for resting on his laurels and just cranking out sushi for the next twenty years. But fortunately, he's looking forward to a new project.

Social Restaurant Group (i.e. the people that develop the places that 40-something former hipsters eat) has offered Yamazaki space at the national wharf, where he will open Tabu, a pan-Asian take on Hawaiian cuisine.

I wish Chef Nobu the best of luck, but I definitely want an omakase from him before he heads to the wharf.

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