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A year ago, chef Tetsuro Takanashi was in Tokyo, in love, and the master of his own domain. Proof of his autonomy could be found in the name of his restaurant, Marutetsu, which translates to “Moon Face,” the roundish chef’s nickname. The restaurant sat 12 at the most, so he was his only employee. He called the sushi bar his “stage,” and from it he dispensed much more than raw fish. He prepared stews. He used cheese from his own goats. He made his own tofu.
So it’s a little weird that today, having left his family, his restaurant, and his native Tokyo, Takanashi sits sipping tea in Sushi-Ko, the restaurant that landed him in D.C. in 1986 and where he worked for eight years before leaving to chase a dream. Having intimate experience with the emotional baggage that comes with taking back your old job, I look between Moon Face’s knees in search of a tail.
“The first reason he came to the States is because I was here,” asserts Daisuke Utagawa, Sushi-Ko’s owner since 1988, implying that his friend’s return voyage is as much a story of friendship as it is of fish. Takanashi and Utagawa, former high school classmates and current roommates (at least until the chef’s new wife arrives from Tokyo), also point out that Sushi-Ko is hardly the same restaurant it was just a few years ago. Sushi-Ko, which opened in 1976, has long claimed to be “Washington’s first sushi bar,” and in recent years it’s arguably been the city’s most popular. But the restaurant Takanashi left was also a dark, unglamorous place known as much for its folksy, grottolike setting as for the reliability of its sushi, teriyaki, and yakitori.
But in Takanashi’s absence, Sushi-Ko was gutted. The atmosphere at the old Sushi-Ko had a strange kinship to that of the nearby strip club, but the new place is cleaner than my dentist’s office. Sleeker, too. Rice-paper lamps illuminate two minimalist dining rooms painted in shades of white and gray and striped by random, brightly colored columns. The sinks in the bathrooms look like galactic birdbaths. The new sushi bar downstairs is stainless steel, and it sits on the opposite side of the dining room from the old one, somehow making the whole place feel bigger.
The menu’s been tweaked, too. In the six months it took Utagawa to lure Takanashi back from Japan, Duncan Boyd came on board to run Sushi-Ko’s kitchen. (He’s now technically chef de cuisine; Takanashi is executive chef.) Using much of what he learned as chef at Restaurant Nora, Boyd helped usher Sushi-Ko into the organic age, creating a restaurant garden and directing his colleagues to the best local ingredients.
The most successful dishes are simple and elegant, many of them served in snackable portions that encourage heavy sampling. A single soft-shell crab has a tempura sort of weightlessness, dusted with potato starch, lightly fried, and served with lemony ponzu sauce. One tuna dish comes seared, sliced thin, and squirted with garlic sauce; I can’t remember the last time I’ve eaten fish so tender. Grilled baby octopus could convert even those who get the heebie-jeebies thinking about those little legs; the mollusks are soaked in a salty marinade and charred enough for the flavor to approach pure Southern barbecue. The yellowtail jaw, available with sea salt or teriyaki-marinated, requires a hardier constitution. But difficult as it is to pry meat from fish heads, that moist flesh is prized for good reason.
As delicious as they are, all of the above carry with them the whiff of pretension (a friend can only laugh when I sing the praises of the miso-marinated fresh buffalo mozzarella), and it’s no surprise to hear that Utagawa has plans to build a cellar and champion the pairing of Japanese food with French wine. But we don’t wait 30 minutes for a table on Sunday night because Sushi-Ko’s trying to shove fish heads down its regulars’ throats: To the kitchen’s credit, the tempura, yakitori, and teriyaki dishes are just what you’d imagine. And the sushi and sashimi are still stellar. Given how much fish the restaurant moves, freshness is a given, and if you’ve got two bucks to burn, it’s worth ordering the fresh grated wasabi in place of powdered. Sea eel, flounder, and mackerel are personal favorites; each is cut to perfection and evokes that subtle sweetness that makes well-handled raw fish so sensual.
The new Sushi-Ko is not a well-oiled machine just yet. Duck sukiyaki is lacking the good stuff, it’s all broth the night we get it. Another night, the miso soup is too salty to finish. And I’d rather eat seaweed plain than with the creamy dressing smothering one of the house salads.
Ironically, given the restaurant’s beefed-up kitchen and staff, regulars are more likely to judge the new place with their eyes. “I hate it here, by the way,” my girlfriend offers one night, referring to the modernized upstairs dining room. The dank old place did provide a stark relief to its increasingly yuppified neighborhood, and Utagawa reveals that he’s turned off some of his clientele. “To them, this was like their second dining room,” he says. “They’re like, ‘How dare you change my mom’s dining room?’”
Whether or not the old can seem new again is a much more personal concern for Takanashi. For him, time may prove that you really can’t go home again. “But this is it,” he says in a bit of broken English. “Home.” Pause. “Now.”
Sushi-Ko, 2309 Wisconsin Ave.NW, Washington, (202) 333-4187.
“Welcome back,” the hostess says. I’ve never been to Cafe Rose before, but I play along for the sake of copy: “Good to be back.” Set next to an empty pool in the Stratford Motor Lodge, the restaurant probably sees more itinerant types than most. But while the cramped, vaguely kitschy dining room suggests a haunt Bukowski might have romanticized in pulp mode, the Persian food served in it takes you someplace else entirely. In hot weather, I’m sweet on Persian yogurt dips, and Rose’s mast-o-mousir (yogurt sprinkled with shallots) goes great with the house’s paper-thin flat bread. And the gormeh sabzi, a thick beef-and-bean stew tingly with lime, actually provides a means to pig out and be refreshed at the same time.
Cafe Rose, 300 W. Broad St., Falls Church, (703) 532-1702.