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It was hard enough swallowing the idea that my beloved hole-in-the-wall Nava Thai had moved into more spacious digs, which essentially forced the owners to expand their concise, noodle-soup-heavy menu to cater to the expansive new location. But now this: The Wheaton operation has added sushi to its offerings.
Several months back, Suchart and Ladavan Srigatesook built a new sushi bar, complete with these smooth river stones buried in it, and hired a chef to work behind it. The sushi menu includes the standard nigiri and sashimi items as well as some “signature” rolls, including a “Turtle Roll” (“Eel, Cream Cheese tipped with Avocado”) and “Nava’s Spicy Tuna Roll” stuffed with Thai chili.
As much as this shot-gun marriage between rice-oriented cuisines may conform to Wheaton’s image as a culinary melting pot, I still have to resist this particular fusion, almost on principal. It smacks of all those Korean eateries and gentrified grocery stores that decide to peddle sushi as if they were adding a new line of craft beers. Sushi is not a “product” to stock. It’s a craft that takes years to perfect. The best sushi requires a discriminating eye when buying fish and an exacting hand when preparing it.
Few things are as easy to spot as cut-rate or amateur sushi. The small sampling of nigiri sushi I bought at Nava came awfully close to falling into these categories. See the picture below.
The slices of tuna had turned gray at their edges from oxidation and, worse, had the distinctly wharf-like aroma of fish past its prime. The eel had been cooked until all its fat had been rendered out, leaving the only a chewy piece of fish behind, its flavor bolstered mostly by its sweetened soy-based sauce.
If it weren’t for the sushi rice — fluffy, not-too-packed, and the perfect bite size — the nigiri would have been a disaster. We ate only three of the four pieces, leaving the last slice of eel to find its way to the trash, where it would clearly pick up more flavor.
I took solace from this misadventure in sushi by ordering a bowl of Nava Thai’s true signature item: the floating market noodle soup, with its dark, gumbo-like broth that looks so tame and warm and inviting. It’s a total ruse. The street soup remains one of the most savage spoonfuls around, a concoction whose sweet and savory subtleties are all too easy to miss as you’re trying to extinguish the California wildfire on your tongue. This is a class A catapult rollercoaster of a dish. It is the reason to visit Nava, not the lukewarm efforts at sushi.