I remember listening to a friend of mine advising a newcomer to the area to steer clear of Prince George’s County when looking for her new apartment. “You take your life into your hands,” said the friend.
Correction: ex-friend. I don’t like holding grudges, but in this case, I couldn’t help myself. I banished her smug, entitled Monkey County ass.
The ex-friend, now a New Yorker, has been very much on my mind recently—and not just because she feared venturing into the county where I now make my home. She has been on my mind because she was a sushi aficionado, and she took a special pride in the preponderance of reasonably priced sushi options in Montgomery—solid if unspectacular places that somehow ratified her sense of herself as a woman of taste and discernment who’d made the correct choice to live in a county with such wealth and variety.
In a way, I wish she were still around, because I would have enjoyed dragging her to Osaka, in Greenbelt.
Osaka sits in a strip mall, across the street from the NASA gates. Visually, it calls to mind a neat cross between Bethesda standard-bearers Matuba and Hinode, being a snug little place with the familiar paper-and-wood dividers. A lone waitress patrols the floor. Owner and chef Kyung Lee has a single assistant flanking him behind the sushi bar.
I was encouraged by the bare-bones look of the place when I first walked in, because when a sushi restaurant doesn’t have the resources to spend on the very best fish possible, the last thing I want to see is a large staff. Show me, instead, a thoroughly streamlined operation, the better to encourage the chef’s full concentration and ensure a higher-than-usual degree of accountability.
But then came the dishwatery miso soup and a wan salad, followed by a round of tempura that was more limp than crisp. This was on the heels of finding out that Osaka doesn’t carry any cold sake. I began to wonder if Lee’s longevity—he opened the place in 1986—was perhaps more a matter of his being a Prince George’s novelty than anything else.
In other words, I could feel the old wound opening itself up again, the smugness of my ex-friend and her chauvinism intruding upon my meal.
But just a little, because no sooner were those plates cleared than the next wave arrived. Juicy slivers of white tuna marinated in garlic and layered atop a ponzu sauce. Fragrant, gingery steamed dumplings, their delicacy heralded by a paper doily. And a wonderfully sharp oshitashi, with its waving tendrils of bonito flake, its fluttering, theater-in-a-bowl effect created by the steam produced from the hot, soy-soaked spinach at the bottom.
Lee, I soon came to learn, likes his garlic. In one of the better, more interesting sushi selections on the menu, the chef tops a thin slab of garlic-marinated tuna with dried, shaved garlic. The tuna in this case is a supporting player as opposed to the star, a neutral conveyor for the bite of the garlic. If this were downtown, it’d announce itself as “Garlic Two Ways,” and Lee would be charging twice as much.
Instead, because he toils in the obscurity of Prince George’s, it goes for just four bucks. Almost as cheap, and even more inventive: a roll of masago, that orange, jewel-like salmon roe, anointed with a cracked raw quail egg. It’s a bit of artfulness you rarely find at this level—“Egg Two Ways,” anyone?—and further evidence of Lee’s fondness for matching flavor with flavor and texture with texture.
What else you rarely find at this level is platters as beautifully, and carefully, presented as Lee’s. The chef prides himself on distinguishing details. A nigiri of sweet, barbecued eel is made even better by a liberal smattering of toasted black and white sesame seeds. The potential chewiness of the squid is offset, in large measure, by three hash marks that have been etched into its smooth, alabaster surface. As a result, the flesh is resilient, not rubbery. I’m not usually a fan of mayonnaise in my sushi, nor do I look kindly on the predilection of some places for sprinkling chili flakes or a few shakes of hot sauce over a perfectly ordinary roll, but Osaka rescues both practices. It parcels out the mayo judiciously, and it favors the macho, nostril-clearing punch of chili sauce—both of which elevate the Osaka Roll, teeming with diced scallops, from a gloppy, uninspired mess to a glorious, thrilling mess. I couldn’t help but be reminded of a barbecue sandwich topped with cool, creamy coleslaw.
If the nonmarinated varieties of tuna are generally bland and disappointing (it doesn’t help that the fish tends to be served just a touch too warm) the other two-thirds of the sushi trinity have been excellent. I’d opt for the salmon belly instead of the salmon; Lee’s shopping results in consistently thick, marbled slices of fish. And his eye is equally keen when it comes to yellowtail; it’s been terrific on each of my four visits.
Can Osaka hold its own with the very best in the city? No. But can it hold its own with the kind of places my ex-friend regarded as practically her right for living in blessed MoCo? And then some.
Osaka Restaurant, 8855 Greenbelt Road, Greenbelt. (301) 552-1442. —Todd Kliman
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