On the streets of Tokyo the best restaurants can be found in the unlikeliest of places, such as a train station or 15 stories up in a skyscraper with little signage to light the way. That’s why no one should question whether Sushiko, tucked in an unsightly plaza across from the Friendship Heights station and next to a Giant grocery store, can bring it.
Especially not now, with the launch of Kōbō, a restaurant within a restaurant that serves kappo-style Japanese cuisine in the form of 12 to 15 course tasting menus prepared directly in front of diners. Kōbō translates to “atelier” or “workshop,” implying an intimate, artistic experience.
Those who have tried an omakase sushi experience either at Sushiko or another Japanese restaurant will find the service style familiar, the difference is that there will be more composed dishes and warm food as compared to straight up sushi. The chefs leading the charge are brothers Handry Tjan and Piter Tjan, who were 2016 RAMMY finalists for the Rising Culinary Star of the Year award.
The Kōbō project has been four years in the making because it required an overhaul. “To do this, we felt we needed to create a separate environment,” says Sushiko owner Daisuke Utagawa. “Let’s re-do the sushi bar so we can do this regularly and take our cuisine up a notch.” What was once the sushi bar with glass cases obstructing diners’ views of the action is now a semicircle with a direct line of sight to staff preparing food. Utagawa adds that the restaurant has upped its game in terms of service, plate ware, product knowledge, sake, and wine.
Kōbō will offer two kappo experiences: vegan and non-vegan. The vegan option costs $130 (including tax and tip) and is available Mondays through Wednesdays. The non-vegan meal is served Thursdays through Saturdays for $160 per person (including tax and tip). Both focus on accentuating ingredients.
“While Japanese is a cuisine of subtraction, it doesn’t mean it’s easy or careless,” Utagawa says. “There’s a conscious effort to understand the ingredients and a conscious effort to pull out the best from that ingredient. These two things are hallmarks of Japanese cuisine.”
Highlights from the kappo winter vegan menu include a trio of spheres that burst in your mouth in flavors such as lychee dusted in rose flower crystals and a mango sphere sprinkled with basil crystals; tomato tartare with heirloom tomato sorbet and oregano; several courses of vegan sushi; and house made tofu with convincing caviar made out of black seaweed pumped into tiny spheres.
The single best bite on the non-vegan kappo menu may just be A5 Wagyu from Miyazaki, Japan delicately seared and twirled around California sea urchin topped with Burgundy truffles. But there’s also a layered dish of monkfish liver thought to be the foie gras of the sea with a yuzu gelee, shrimp tartare, and white sturgeon caviar. Like the vegan kappo experience, there are several sushi courses.
Utagawa, who is also a partner at Daikaya, Haikan, and Bantam King, recognizes that the kappo word is new to many, but expects it to catch on based on his experience pioneering Japanese food in the D.C. area. (Sushiko opened in 1976.)
“Twenty five years ago I was trying to spread the word ‘umami.’ Four years ago, I was trying to spread the word ‘Sapporo ramen,’” he says. Utagawa is therefore confident people will come to grasp kappo. “It’s an intimate setting where you sit in front of the chef and the chef can see you and feel you and sometimes adjust the food to your mood or preferences.”
Beverage pairings may become available at a later date. The restaurant tapped Christian Choi to bolster its sake program and Utagawa has long been fond of pairing Burgundy wines with umami-laden Japanese food.
Starting Dec. 15, two Kōbō seatings will be offered nightly (6:00 p.m. and 8 p.m.) and both are capped at 10 people. Those interested in making a reservation should e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call Sushiko.
Sushiko, 5455 Wisconsin Ave., Chevy Chase, MD; (301) 961-1644; sushikorestaurants.com
Photos by Rey Lopez.