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Just because Americans can find General Tso’s chicken in Montana and sushi in airport delis does not mean that Asian cuisine has achieved a stateside status equal to that of its European counterparts. Celeb-chefs still tend to come in the form of white males, and often when one encounters Asian accents on menus deemed worthy of wine lists (most straight-up Asian menus aren’t), the flavors have been subjected to so much fusion that their roots have burned away. Locally, Asian restaurants, particularly Vietnamese and Thai ones, are nearly as ubiquitous as Blockbusters. But when I opt to dine, say, in Little Saigon, I’m not acting on a craving alone; it’s a choice informed also by my thinning wallet and my appetite for something familiar. At least that was the case until recently.
Kaz Okochi recently opened a sushi emporium, Kaz Sushi Bistro, in downtown’s expense-account market. The name is a touch misleading—the interior’s too sharp-edged to feel homey, and you’d need a scalpel and glue to get most of this food to stick to your ribs. But if everyone from Michelin-starred chefs to loaded American chain-makers can open a “bistro,” who’s to say that Okochi can’t? The chef has certainly earned the right to do as he pleases. He was instrumental in winning his native cuisine local respect during his years at Sushi Ko, and from there he went on to test the commercial waters at a more mainstream venture, Raku, before realizing that if you want to do something right, you’re best off doing it yourself.
To help him make a splash downtown, Okochi recruited some impressive talent (namely Thomas Pryzystawik and Esther Lee, alumni of Melrose and the Morrison-Clark Inn, respectively), but Kaz Sushi Bistro is centered on its founder. During lunch one day, a couple of investor types to my left instruct their waitress to “Give us the full experience. We’re at the mercy of the chef.” It’s a good way to go.
The chef’s creations are more audacious on paper than in the flesh. My chef’s platter includes a thin cut of tuna fixed with a rectangle of duck foie gras, smelt-roe-crowned shrimp, sea trout fastened with hair-thin strips of chive, and a plump piece of salmon topped with a dollop of mango sauce. The presentations are mildly amusing—I, for one, never realized that mango and salmon are practically the same color—and the nonfish flavors are so subtle they seem merely suggested; with sushi, Okochi uses auxiliary ingredients so sparingly that they’re more like seasonings than equal partners. The end results are thrilling because their perfection seems so perilous—stretch or slacken the proportions either way, and the outcome would be either overly indulgent or ordinary.
Stray from the sushi bar and your chances for experiencing that delicate balance drop—but not by much. Short ribs are the only real disappointment; they’re tender, as billed, but surprisingly bland given their sake-soy marinade. I’m much more enamored of the dishes painted with bright colors, like the whimsical, gingery sea-trout napoleon made crunchy with peanuts or the beautifully green sweet-pea soup threaded with musky strips of seaweed. Either dish will leave you thinking as much about the creator as the creation itself.
Yanyu, like Kaz, is run by people who’ve had great success with less ambitious ventures (in Yanyu’s case, Spices and the Oodles Noodles minichain, all of which are still around), and it too has opened in an area (Cleveland Park) flush with competition (Spices is a neighbor). Both restaurants are shoved into narrow, problematic spaces, but the folks at Yanyu have chosen to invest more in the task of turning frumpy digs into something fanciful; Kaz is sleek, but its interior follows the form of scores of other sushi restaurants, whereas Yanyu, which sits in a space once occupied by a small bank, is cannily arranged as a collection of alcoves that seem to open up as you enter them.
Yanyu’s soft leather booths, hushed lighting, smart wine list, and galactic bathroom sinks all speak to chef Jessie Yan’s intention to let diners view her tradition-based cooking in a different light. Her menu is billed as Asian, but it largely comprises Chinese dishes, most of which she’s happy to refine rather than re-invent. Yan’s mode is to riff on classics to make them a touch better than as you remember them—shrimp-chicken-and-veggie-stuffed dumplings topped with a bit of roe and set in a pool of eggy sauce; pad thai made with lobster instead of shrimp; tiny spring-roll rods filled with sea bass and bedded on leaves of mint; Shanghai “soupy” buns that fill your cheeks with a heady, shrimp-and-pork-pocked liquid as soon as you pop them in your mouth.
Yanyu is fairly new, and there are still plenty of kinks that need ironing out. One night our appetizers take just short of forever to arrive; a seafood stir-fry is dry and tepid, as is the taro basket that it’s served in; the sauce on the deep-fried pork loin is unforgivingly sweet; and the shark’s fin soup is more bland than bracing. Furthermore, I wish Yanyu hadn’t followed the lead of so many steakhouses by deciding to charge for side items. I don’t care if it is flavored with jasmine, white rice at restaurants should be free.
Yan’s forte is definitely seafood, and when she’s on, as she often is, her food will leave you breathless. There is nothing wrong with the seafood tempura—and I mean nothing: The pieces of seafood are so utterly light and greaseless that it’s hard to imagine a better way to prepare them. Steamed Chilean sea bass, artfully layered with shiitake mushrooms, scallions, and ginger medallions, is better still, and the cod is absolutely stunning: Whether it’s the oven roasting, the delicate glaze, or some sort of voodoo, Yan’s managed to turn a famously mild fish into something totally rapturous. Ideally, this is the kind of food you’d eat with gold-plated chopsticks and interesting wine. Yanyu offers both.
Kaz Sushi Bistro, 1915 I St. NW, (202) 530-5500.
Yanyu, 3433 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 686-6968.
Citing a past column that he thinks was too harsh on suburban dining, one reader urges me to “lighten up” and drop into the Shark Club. The reader ranks the restaurant-bar’s pasta as “unbeatable,” and the staff at the small chain’s Bethesda branch apparently agrees; the night I stop in, there’s a plate of what looks like chicken carbonara set out on the sidewalk, presumably to lure people inside. If I had to put money on it, I’d bet that the food on the plate outside is warmer than the one that I’m given to eat. Take my word for it: Nearly congealed cream sauce is not a pretty sight.
The Shark Club & Pacific Grill, 4915 St. Elmo Ave., (301) 718-4030.
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.