Credit: Stacey Windsor

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Capitol Hill will have another place to get a sushi fix once The Roost opens. Neighborhood Restaurant Group is filling out the final slots in its multi-restaurant, multi-bar destination as they prepare for an early 2020 opening. 

NRG tapped the brother-and-sister duo behind KENAKI Sushi Counter in Gaithersburg to open a stall that will specialize in crudos and creative sushi rolls like the “Red Phantom,” with lump crab meat, asparagus tempura, avocado, crispy garlic and shallots, chives, and white onion ponzu sauce. 

Chef Ken Ballogdajan and Aki Ballogdajan come from a long line of sushi makers. Their grandparents owned Kyoko’s in Cleveland Park, at the same address where Spices currently stands. Later, they opened a restaurant of a similar name in Frederick, Maryland, which their parents eventually operated. Kyoko was their grandmother’s name. 

Aki has memories of helping out in Cleveland Park as early as elementary school and once the Frederick restaurant opened, she and Ken became more involved in the family business. “Eventually my brother, very early on, started cutting the fish and making the rice,” she says. 

Ken, a L’Academie de Cuisine graduate, has been in the restaurant industry for 25 years. Locally, he served as the corporate executive sous chef for three Raku locations and under Chef Bryan Voltaggio at VOLT in Frederick. Aki returned to restaurants after a career in software and tech to open KENAKI Sushi Counter last year.

The siblings have long connected over their passion for food. If they’re chatting, it’s probably about who ate what the night before. They’re always in search of the next great bite.

“I knew I wanted to do something with my brother,” Aki says. “We lost our mom when we were pretty young.” They were in their late teens. “It made us really close. It’s something that brought us together and has kept us together.”

Their stall inside The Roost, AKO by KENAKI, pays tribute to their late mother, Sayoko, whose nickname was Ako. “It’s such a small space,” Aki explains. “But my mom was also small. But she was super mighty. The things she could do and her energy!” 

Menu highlights will include the “White Tiger” roll with seared scallop, salmon, eel, Granny Smith apple, avocado, puffed rice, sweet shoyu, and chili sauce; a chu-toro negi roll with medium fatty tuna seasoned with shoyu, scallion, avocado, tempura flakes, and micro-shiso; and hiramasa crudo with cilantro pesto, watermelon radish, ponzu, crispy shallot, and chili oil. 

The Ballogdajans also hope to serve traditional nigiri and sashimi, depending on space, and will offer the occasional omakase tasting menu. Aki says she wants to serve sake, “since you should never eat sushi without sake.” 

Opening AKO by KENAKI is like coming full circle, since their family’s history in Japanese restaurants began in D.C. proper with the first location of Kyoko’s. “We’re excited about the energy that’s in D.C.”

Other bars and restaurants inside The Roost include Show of HandsHi/Fi Taco, Red Apron Butcher, Cameo, and Shelter. Caruso’s Grocery, a stand-alone Italian American restaurant, will operate next door. 

The Roost, 1401 Pennsylvania Ave. SE