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The prospect of good cheap sushi does strange things to people.
I’ve listened to people rationalize any good sushi as cheap, somehow justifying an expensive habit as some sort of spiritual “necessity.” I’ve also heard people talk themselves into thinking that any cheap sushi is good, glomming onto even the mayoey offerings at all-you-can-eat buffets with the gusto of shoppers on the day after Thanksgiving.
It would be a lot easier if we could all just decide that “good cheap sushi” is an oxymoron, that sushi is either good or cheap, but not both. But we continue to believe—blindly, it sometimes seems—that our faith will one day be rewarded, that the place is out there that will respect both our bank balance and our taste buds.
The place is out there: Kotobuki.
How cheap is the sushi at this tiny walk-up on MacArthur Boulevard? Every time I’ve gone, I’ve found myself looking at my bill and wondering if my waitress has added wrong. The other night, at a table completely covered with dishes, a few of them unfinished, my wife pushed away from the table with a deep and satisfied sigh. “We’re total pigs.”
I showed her the bill.
Her jaw dropped. “How can that be?” she asked, demanding another look-see so that she could run the numbers.
How? It’s a buck apiece for most of the nigiri, including the superbly sweet white tuna, whose smooth-cut surface glistens like something just dredged from the deeps; it’s a buck-fifty for the more prized stuff, such as the fatty tuna, so rich and marbled that the soft flesh in between those white lines of fat has begun to separate, like the links in one of those metal flex watchbands.
There’s a larger, more complex “how” to be grappled with, of course: How can a place of this caliber possibly stay in business at these prices? Chef and owner Hisao Abe suggests that the answer lies in his dedication to a time-honored Japanese principle: simplicity in all things. Abe orders from a single supplier, Komoro Seafoods, in New Jersey—the same source he has used since long before moving his place from McLean to Palisades, late in 2003. “We have a trust. No headaches.” The running of the restaurant is made simple, too. “There are only two employees: one to cook, one to serve.”
Likewise, his menu is a model of minimalism, as notable for what’s not there as what is. No teriyaki, no noodles, no tempura. No nightly specials. The cleverest Abe gets with his maki? Dusting his Virginia Roll with an eye-catching red flying-fish roe.
Where the chef distinguishes himself is with his judicious eye for quality fish. Along with the white tuna and the fatty tuna, his uni—sea urchin—is some of the best I’ve had in the city. Few things are worse than bad uni, but few things are better than this soft, melting custard with its bracing, saltwatery finish. And Abe’s red-edged yellowtail is consistently firm, cool, and sweet.
With Abe, as with very few other sushi chefs around town, the fishier the fish, the better. (By the same token, salmon and tuna account for the some of the least rewarding bites here, being surprisingly dull and, in the case of the tuna, mealy).
One standout is the oshizushi: Abe layers a rounded slab of opalescent-skinned mackerel atop an inch-thick bed of rice, presses down hard to seal the connection, then slices the log into six huge pieces. The tops are anointed with a rectangle of marinated seaweed translucent as a layer of skin. The pieces fall apart (a malady common to a number of Abe’s rolls), but I’ll gladly sacrifice a little tidiness if it means eating mackerel as lusciously rich, sweet, and salty as this.
Abe proves his affinity for eel, too, with his meal-in-one casseroles. He tops a bowl of sesame-dotted steamed rice with a crosshatch of thin, soy-marinated slivers for a hearty yet delicate unadon. Kamameshi is unadon with a lid, the rice (here flecked with enoki mushrooms, carrots, and strips of seaweed) and the eel cooking together in an iron kettle to the point of caramelization.
The casseroles are accessorized, à la Korean panchan, with a quartet of small teacups. Their contents tend to be initially jarring for being too sweet (marinated mushrooms) or too sharp (bits of lobster in wasabi mayo) or too fishy (a slippery seaweed); but as the evening proceeds these snacks, which Abe rotates frequently (unlike the Beatles-anthology CD he keeps in continuous rotation), seem less dissonant, providing an intriguing counterpoint to the main meal.
All this in a cramped, nondescript space on the second floor of a town house above Makoto, one of the city’s premier sushi restaurants. When he informed his friends that he was moving his operations so very close to that justifiably revered temple of raw fish, Abe says they asked him, “Are you crazy?”
Perhaps he is. But I think I speak on behalf of all the sushi lovers of this city when I say that we could stand a little more of Abe’s brand of crazy. Not because he’s taking on Makoto, which he’s not—he’s got nothing that approaches the omikase for two at his downstairs neighbor, and certainly nothing that approaches its price. No: Because he’s proving, once if not for all, that the dream of good cheap sushi is no dream.
Kotobuki, 4822 MacArthur Blvd. NW, (202) 625-9080. —Todd Kliman
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