Rakuya sashimi
Rakuya sashimi

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Sushi chefs Mario Dominguez and Byron Navarro Credit: All photos Laura Hayes

Two sushi chefs at Rakuya in Dupont Circle make a salmon avocado roll, cut it, and plate it with wasabi and ginger. They’re being timed to see who can complete the task first. If you’ve ever dined at the sushi counter you’ve probably noticed how the chefs’ fingers fly as fast as those of e-sports gamers in action. 

Byron Navarro, who’s been with the company on and off for 20 years, finished in 42 seconds only to be bested by Mario Dominguez, who’s been with the company for ten years. He finished in 41 seconds.

That’s how swift the sushi chefs must be to meet the demand most nights. “Chefs get used to it,” says Masaru Homma. The head chef and partner from the Niigata prefecture of Japan oversees the kitchens at Rakuya and the Raku restaurants in Bethesda and Cathedral Heights. “It’s the repetition. They’re learning all the angles and multi-tasking. They don’t even have to think about it. It just happens.” 

The atmosphere at the neighborhood Japanese restaurant is at odds with places like Sushi Nakazawa or Sushi Ogawa where a single sushi master serves one piece of nigiri at a time—a ritual that calls for quiet contemplation of a chef’s handiwork swirled with appreciation for the bounty of the sea.

“There’s more energy in our kitchen instead of slowly making sushi,” Homma says, adding that diners feed off the rollicking vibe. “If there are ten people in the dining room spending $300 per person over two hours that’s different. Here we have more reasonable prices, good quality, and it’s high volume.”

Despite being a high-volume restaurant that also supplies the surrounding neighborhood with take-out, Homma and his business partner Marcel The ante up for quality ingredients. They bring in fish straight from Japan so customers can sample sea urchin from Hokkaido, for example. Look for delicacies on the daily specials menu and experience the breadth of available fish by ordering the deluxe chirashi sushi or the 12-piece jo nigiri selection. 

“We were at Nakazawa a few months ago,” The says. “It’s basically the same fish. We want to provide value and we take pride in that value. The Japanese fish that we get, it’s not for the sake of making money, but for providing something good for our customers.” They’re willing to take a loss or break even on speciality seafood because they pay the bills with all the sushi rolls they sell. There are about 40 to choose from.

“To me, sushi is so big now,” The continues. “There’s no reason that you cannot eat good sushi. People shouldn’t think that good sushi costs a lot of money. It doesn’t have to be that way.” 

Rakuya is everything you want in a neighborhood restaurant: The happy hour is long and generous; the bartenders are friendly; they don’t take the best dishes off the menu; there’s something for everyone, even for picky eaters; and although the restaurant is consistently slammed, there’s seemingly always a table to slide into.

One of the best times to visit is during lunch when Rakuya sells sets much like restaurants would in Japan. Try the bara chirashi lunch set with diced sashimi splayed out like precious gems in a jewel box, a miniature udon noodle soup, shrimp and kabocha squash tempura, and a side salad for $19.

Marcel The and Masaru Homma

Before there was Rakuya there was Raku. Homma, The, and a third partner, Diana Goldberg, changed the name and feel of the restaurant after a complete renovation about three years ago. Mark Miller, who most Washingtonians know from Red Sage, opened Raku in 1995. He was going for an Asian street food theme with a menu made up of small plates. “To me it wasn’t really working because Mark’s vision was ahead of its time,” The says.

The and his partners took over in 1998, bringing with them experience working for some of the pioneers of Japanese cuisine in D.C. Homma and The first met working at Sushiko in the ’90s under Daisuke Utagawa. The also worked at Sushi Taro under Seishi Yamazaki before the chef turned the restaurant over to his sons, Nobu and Jin Yamazaki

Despite his training, Homma “isn’t your typical old Japanese chef,” according to The. “Before we had a lot of Japanese chefs that were playing by these old school rules like in Japan,” The says. “They don’t tell you anything, you’re just supposed to watch and one day they just tell you, ‘OK make it!’ And if you don’t know how to do it, you’re out the door. If you’re doing it that way in this country, no one is going to get to learn sushi.” 

Homma trains up chefs who have never made sushi before and says he considers the work styles of different cultures when teaching them. He’s even hired female sushi chefs, something that’s as rare as the fish sushi chefs slice. 

Just as Rakuya is exposing more D.C. cooks to the art of making sushi, Rakuya’s pricing and casual atmosphere make it an easy place to for diners to explore a range of fish, plus small dishes that could be served at a Japanese pub known as an izakaya. For reasons like this, The believes there will always be a place for the neighborhood restaurant.

“The big names, José Andrés and Fabio Trabocchi, all these guys are dominating the story these days,” The says. “But there are so many little gems out there that people don’t talk about that the neighborhood appreciates. Places people can walk to and call for a last minute reservation. Places where you know all the people that work there. We need neighborhood restaurants.” 

Rakuya, 1900 Q St. NW; (202) 265-7258; rakuyarestaurant.com