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Our waitress at Uni is a case study in how ineffable charm conquers all. She’s inattentive and forgetful. The time gap between order and delivery stretches forever, and then, when the food finally comes, it’s almost all at once. We have to ask for two thingssake and edamametwice, and the edamame never materializes. When I get home, I notice that we’re charged for a small item that we never received.
Yet the whole time that our waitress is flubbing the basic requirements of her duties she’s doing other interesting things, like smiling shyly and then peppily skipping out of view. Her face tells us that we can sit wherever the hell we please. Her psychic embrace is immediate and undeniable. My girlfriend concludes: “I love our waitress. There’s nothing about her that’s jaded or pretentious or mean or hidden. She’s just warm.”
Credit it to whatever you wantthe food, the sake, the charisma of a waitress who probably doesn’t realize she has anybut the fact remains that Uni is the type of restaurant that can make you like it even when you think you shouldn’t. Anyone who sampled the fare of this particular address’s last occupant, a Latin-themed meat market, should feel a sense of relief just by walking into the place. The leopard-print carpet survived the overhaul, but it gives way soon to slick wood, and the overall design is such a sharp update on sushi-joint chic that you can forgive the punishingly angled banquettes, which make you feel as if your spine has been permanently creased. From the marble-topped sushi bar to the forward-looking dinnerware to the expansive streetside window, the overall vibe is appetizingly spic-and-span.
But one look at the menu and you know that the food is designed to be the real draw. Miso soup is offered with flourishes, like salmon or oyster, as is its clear broth cousin, suimono, which comes with some bobbing strands of enoki mushrooms. Uni’s kitchen is intent on not simply being a spot for California and spicy tuna rolls (although you can get those, too), and further proof of its restlessness lies on the bright-green printout of specials. That list includes a clean-tasting, seared-salmon sushi number bundled with fresh mint, as well as a fried oyster roll that incorporates red cabbage without falling flat on its face.
Items that fall in that nebulous space between plain-old sushi-bar fare and modern Asian cuisine are Uni’s forte. You can find them on the menu under the “Small Dishes” heading, a list that runs from steamed soybeans to broiled green-lip mussels cloaked in jalapeño cream. The taste spectrum here is fairly wide. On the one hand, you have seared scallops in a sea urchin butter that’s rich enough to be French; on the other, there are sheer slices of raw flounder pocked with roe that burst in your mouth like swollen poppy seeds. Sesame-crusted tuna is as soft as room-temperature butter, barely seared and finished with judicious drips of roasted-garlic sauce.
The extent to which you enjoy the natto tempura hinges largely on your taste for fermented soybeans, which are surprisingly bitter and strong. I don’t much like the stuff, although the shiso- and nori-wrapped pockets are fried crispwhich isn’t always the case. Breaded pork is flavorless and mushy, and the batter coating the balls of tempura ice cream sags from the cold orbs like old skin.
Uni’s narrow dining room has a compressing, intensifying effect on the atmosphere; the restaurant feels busy even when it’s not. This is one of Uni’s great virtues; a party of four can make it seem like the place to be. Unfortunately, the kitchen sometimes seems to buy into the illusion that it’s rushed. A few dishes simply fall prey to their design. Moist, teriyakilike frog legs could be winners, but the small side salad does not make the dish an entree, which is how it’s billed. Bite after bite, I keep waiting for a red-wine vinaigrette to lend sea trout sashimi some spark, but the fish is gone before the jolt ever comes.
Order some nigiri pieces à la carte and you’re bound to be treated to some good-quality fish and seafood; raw shrimp doesn’t get more creamy-sweet, and every scent you’ve ever associated with the ocean streamlines to the back of your palate once you pop the flying-fish roe into your mouth. The challenge is the popping-it-into-your-mouth part. Too much of Uni’s vinegared rice has a way of falling apart when you clasp it with chopsticks, and an indisputable fact about sushi is that it loses its appeal when you’re forced to eat the rice one grain at a time.
The problem isn’t uniform; my salmon skin temaki cone comes tightly wound, and the fish skin crackles, tasting not unlike a snack chip you’d catch with a net. The sushi chef has a wild streak (see the watermelon roll), and his grunted greetings (I swear he’s doing the Bud commercial “Whazzup?” in Japanese) bear an unexpected warmth. You’re bound to forgive before you even need to.
Uni, 2122 P St. NW, (202) 833-8038.
Every Saturday, Cafe Atlantico ushers in the midday with a fantastical series of little dishes that could very well add up to the best baconless brunch you’ve ever had: an unadorned puddle of sweet-potato foam, arugula stuffed into the cavities of jicama wheels, duck confit falling from the bone in a passion-fruit emulsion. The restaurant calls it “Latin dim sum,” and the food keeps coming until you can barely muster the energy to say, “No más.” One reader can’t manage to leave town for fear of missing out. The best part? Just before the food barrage ends, the wait person asks which dish you liked best and then brings out another helping to remind you why.
Cafe Atlantico, 405 8th St. NW, (202) 393-0812.Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.