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My dubious parents trailed behind as we entered Hinode, a Japanese restaurant tucked into one of the malled rows in the New Bethesda. The first and only other time I’d convinced them to try sushi, they’d teetered on high-concept stools at a brushed-stainless bar, nervously eyeing the twists of exotic raw flesh floating past them on a river around the bar; patrons had had to reach out and harpoon their choices. Perhaps a bit too bleeding-edge for them.
At Hinode, they sank happily into their chairs at blond-wood tables, admired the subtle geisha prints and rice-paper screens dividing the room into sections, and smiled gratefully at the six pages of menu devoted mostly to cooked items. Around us, groups of well-fed citizens in pleated-front khakis and pastel golf shirts slurped from large iron kettles of pillowy udon or dark buckwheat soba. Many dunked side dishes of chicken or greaseless tempura into their bowls, filled with gently flavored miso broth, a scattering of surimi, bamboo shoots, and tofu chunks. “I come here a lot on Friday nights, and I always get a seat right away,” confided one boomer when I wouldn’t believe the chipper hostess who said, “No problem” when I asked about the need for reservations if I were to come back on a weekend.
We eased in with honey chicken, two sweet grilled skewers with a faint whiff of curry. The shrimp shu mai smelled strongly of green onions that had been cut too early in the day, but it tasted discernibly of nothing, not even shrimp. “I think it’s some kind of fish,” my mother pronounced. Both parents scarfed up the aged tofu, amazed that the crisp-skinned cubes that melted in their mouths were actually bean curd. Orders also come with miso soup and an iceberg salad with that ginger dressing—you know the one. An entree of broiled yellowtail arrived unadorned by sauce but sizzling hot and carefully cooked. Mom manfully tackled an order of katsu—meat breaded in panko and deep-fried. Her seafood katsu proved to be a mammoth portion: a dozen sweet scallops the size of mini bagels.
I next convinced some members of the sushi generation to have dinner at this trim, efficient restaurant, assuring them it is not “suburban concept,” though Hinode does have two sibling establishments in Rockville. There were some cutting comments. “They have a buffet,” one hissed, balking. “Lunch is different,” I hedged. When I had stopped by on a weekday, Hinode was doing a brisk trade with workers from the office towers over the nearby Bethesda Metro, who presumably appreciate the restaurant’s convenience. Starting at 11 a.m., the staff arrays its cooked offerings—teriyaki; chicken yakitori; and beef, chicken, or tofu sukiyaki—on a steam table that is changed often enough to keep the food fresh. Beef, chicken, or salmon tempura might also appear, but the lacy batter quickly turns leaden. Sushi offerings include maki rolls and a few standard nigiri. The $9.95 price also buys a drink and a bowl of miso.
“This is not the place to come if you have a weak bladder,” groused another dinner companion, after the waitress seated us in the place of honor, beside the tinkling fountain. When there was muttering about Zamfir, I brightly announced how much I enjoy listening to traditional shakuhachi while dining (though I’m not sure these ancient flutes are often used to play the Young & the Restless theme; mercifully, the music is muted).
Despite its bevy of cooked entrees, Hinode does want patrons to try its sushi; the menu gently highlights an assortment of “non–raw fish sushi”: smoked salmon, shrimp, egg pancake, and California roll with surimi. And the sushi set did find enough to satisfy. With nothing too unusual on the menu—and after a collective shudder at the Lasagna and Vegas Rolls (respectively, a baked California roll and one comprising eel, crab, avocado, and cream cheese)—they settled down to soft-shell crab, large shrimp with their heads intact, quail egg, uni, two kinds of eel, a sedate spicy-tuna hand roll, and an appetizer of broiled salmon jaw. Other sushi is also standard: maki or nigiri, in mackerel, flounder, salmon, shrimp, eel, tuna, clam, crab, and whitefish versions. After plying their break-apart chopsticks for some time and swilling sake and wine, palates suitably cleansed with a mild plum sorbet, they made agreeable, contented noises as I shepherded them out the door. It was 9 on a weeknight, and we were the last to leave, but the manager sat quietly poring over the day’s receipts until we were finished, calling a pleasant goodnight when we finally left her to the task.
I wouldn’t drive out to Bethesda just for a wasabi hit, even though there’s free parking in the lot for the surrounding shoppes, but if I had a meeting in Bethesda around noon and 10 bucks in my wallet, and I had been Chickened Out, I might pick a hefty helping at Hinode over a wait at Tako Grill. And I suspect my parents will go back for a meal on their comfortable edge.
Hinode, 4914 Hampden Lane, Bethesda, (301) 654 0908.—Rebecca Porter
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