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James Tan’s business plan doesn’t seem brilliant.
In 1999, Tan left Sushi-Ko, the city’s most respected sushi bar, to start his own restaurant. Good idea, bad timing. If Kaz Okochi, under whom Tan had worked, hadn’t made the same jump a year earlier, leaving Sushi-Ko to open Kaz Sushi Bistro, the move might have garnered Tan some well-deserved buzz. But his decision to strike out on his own had the look of the apprentice aping the mentor.
And when Tan set up shop for himself, he did so on none other than P Street in Dupont Circle, in the two-block stretch that counts Johnny’s Half Shell, Pesce, Al Tiramisu, Obelisk, Pizzeria Paradiso, Sakana, and Gabriel among its tenants. It’s one of the most competitive places for restaurants in the city.
Tan sums up his decision-making with a bit of self-deprecation: “I’m OK with sushi, but I’m a bad businessman.”
Maybe so, but once you spend a little time at Uni: A Sushi Place, you begin to realize that you are in the hands of someone who might not be ignorant or unlucky so much as, well, oblivious. This is a man who goes his own way, in his own sweet time.
Credit Tan’s blowtorch—yes, that gourmet kitchen device that turns crystals of turbinado sugar sprinkled atop a pot of crème into crackling brûlée—for a number of the better items on the menu. A few seconds of torching and an otherwise conventional salmon nigiri is transformed: The slight heat produces a melting softness, and a lingering smoke on the tongue plays neatly against the fatty lushness of the fish. And after you begin to chew, you notice that Tan has slipped in a tiny leaf of mint—an inspired bit of herbal counterpoint. For a recent special, the Extreme Picante Escolar, Tan dusted his tiny maki of white tuna and jalapeño in chili-pepper flakes, then applied the flame. It wasn’t as hot as its billing made it out to be, but something far more subtle and interesting. Call it “Heat Three Ways”: the jalapeño, the pepper flakes, the smoky char of the rice.
Tan’s pyromania, he says, is meant to serve a purpose: his desire to expand on the experience the diner can typically expect from a plate of raw fish. “In some ways, we’re very limited when it comes to sushi. Aroma, for example. Everything is the same—every piece of sushi smells like every other piece. This is unusual for a cuisine. I want to add some aroma, excite the senses.”
Tan’s crawfish roll is clever, deriving its crunchiness not from the expected tempura batter (which would only overwhelm the little critters) but from a few pinches of fried panko. Equally good is his S&S Roll, which makes you wonder why the juxtaposition of the cool slipperiness of salmon with crispy, smoky bits of salmon skin isn’t more common. The Hamachi Trio is one of those creations that’s more satisfying for the chef than for the customer, but it’s not without its pleasures, especially if you linger a little as you trace the arc from the sweet to the fatty to the slightly bitter. All of the above are enhanced by Tan’s own dipping sauce, which combines soy with a splash of sake and a shot of chicken stock.
Often, with sushi places, the less fuss there is on the part of the chef, the better; at Uni, it’s generally the opposite. But I’m warning you: The failures are as almost as notable as the successes. So aromatic is the chai-tea-smoked tuna, you’ll be assaulted not once, but twice: the first time by the acrid smell, which sends your nostrils twitching before you can even take a bite; the second by the notes of tobacco that not even a strip of pickled ginger can clear away.
The irony, of course, is that Tan emphasizes tradition in calling his restaurant “a sushi place” but appears most invested in those creations that have nothing to do with raw fish and vinegared rice. Witness, for instance, his wonderful plate of katsu-style breaded oysters: The four huge bivalves, bound in panko and fried, ooze a sweet, briny juice; the dipping sauce is spiked with Worcestershire. It’s a clever, if modest, mingling of East and West. Or tuck into a bowl of his Grilled Barbecue Chicken Soba: strips of teriyaki-marinated chicken and slices of boiled egg layered atop a snarl of noodles in a rich miso broth, with a sprinkling of pickled radish and shredded lettuce for crunch—a perfect rainy-day lunch.
To say that Uni is not the place to order up plate after plate of salmon, yellowtail, and tuna nigiri, or to load up on sashimi, is not to say that Tan’s fish isn’t fresh and firm. And I applaud him for delivering some very good mackerel even in the heart of the off-season. But, on balance, it’s better to save the urge for raw fish in its pristine form for those places where freshness is the be-all, end-all—and command prices that reflect that priority.
It’s nice to know, though, that, even as you scrimp and save for likes of Kaz and Sushi-Ko, you have a convenient, moderately priced outlet for indulging your jones for good, inventive rolls and sundry Japanese snacks. Tan may be the bad businessman he says he is, but from where I’m sitting, it seems he has a pretty good formula for success.
Uni: A Sushi Place, 2122 P St. NW, (202) 833-8038. —Todd Kliman
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100, x322.