Washingtonians are snobby about a lot of things—what they read, what they listen to, and most importantly what they eat and drink. Please see the coffee snob, the pizza snob, the cocktail snob, the sushi snob. And here now, for the people who don't know what the hell they're talking about, some primers. Welcome to A Snob's Guide.
Every year, the National Mall is swarmed with tourists and locals alike all marveling at the beauty of the cherry blossom trees — and DC restaurants and bars add cherry-flavored dishes and cocktails to their menus to capitalize on it all. But the National Cherry Blossom Festival is really about the long history of friendship between the US and Japan. If you're looking for some traditional Japanese dining during this year's festival, here's a Snob's Guide to Japanese food in DC — full of tips on the different styles and best places to find what you're looking for, all in glossary form.
Agedashi tofu: Tofu cut into cubes, dusted in starch (potato, rice or corn) and fried until golden. The cooked tofu is served with a sauce made from dashi (a kelp and fish broth). It’s topped off with scallions, grated radish and shaved dried fish. Before you decide that you don’t like tofu you have to give this dish a shot.
Bento: A lunch box typically containing rice, pickles, vegetables, fish or meat. In Japan bento can be picked up at the corner 7-Eleven or any convenience store. Kaz Sushi Bistro offers a good variety of these carefully composed meals neatly tucked into separate compartments within a lacquered box.
Café Japone: The real reason to go to this second floor restaurant is not the food, but the late night karaoke. After a few rounds of sake bombs (shot of sake dropped into a mug of beer) you’ll begin to feel confident enough to vocally mutilate your favorite tunes in front of total strangers.
Chopsticks: Chances are high you are fairly competent using chopsticks. However, did you know that you should never stab your chopsticks into a mound of rice and never pass food from one set of chopsticks to another? Why? Because in Japan these are practices associated with ashes, bones and funerals.
Donburi: A bowl of rice with something on top—eel with a sweet soy glaze, simmered thinly sliced beef and onions, chicken and eggs, breaded and fried pork cutlets and slow cooked eggs—to name just a few variations. A good lunch choice for Japanese food novices and aficionados alike.
Fugu: Puffer fish—parts of which are extremely poisonous. In Japan, chefs who want to prepare and serve fugu are required to obtain a special license. Much like that bad-boy who had the ladies swooning in high school, fugu’s popularity and appeal is predominantly due to the danger quality associated with it rather than its actual substance.
Gyoza: Like their East Asian neighbors, the Japanese have an appreciation for dumplings. However, the variety is somewhat limited by comparison. The most common is crescent shaped with a thin skin enveloping a meat or vegetable filling. A favorite accompaniment to a bowl of ramen.
Hot sake vs. cold sake: It used to be the case that ordering this popular rice-based alcohol warmed meant that you’d be getting the crappy stuff. And while the best sake is still served slightly chilled, don’t let snobby remarks and eye rolls deter you from ordering it warm if you prefer it that way.
Hana Market: A tiny Japanese grocery store on U Street. It’s a treasure trove stocked with things like hard-to-find condiments, mochi, Japanese curry and snacks. Specialty produce arrives from California on Thursdays.
Inari: Sushi rice stuffed into pockets of seasoned tofu. Think of inari as the equivalent of first base for sushi virgins who are apprehensive about consuming raw fish.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi: Critics and audiences are raving about this documentary featuring 85-year-old Jiro Ono, an acclaimed sushi chef who operates a tiny three Michelin starred sushi restaurant in Tokyo. It opens March 23rd at the E Street cinema. Word of caution— if you show up hungry, you’ll be in for 81 minutes of pure torture. Here's a clip:
Video: Jiro Dreams of Sushi - Yamamoto Film Clip
Kaz Sushi Bistro: Chef Kaz Okochi keeps the diners coming back with inventive dishes that are predominantly Japanese, but have a touch of Western influence. The list of the day’s fish and featured dishes is always worth perusing. Constant standouts include the caramelized brussels sprouts, Asian style short ribs, spicy broiled mussels and crispy chicken wings.
Kushi: An expansive and lively Japanese restaurant on K Street that splits its attention between skewered and grilled items, sushi and a mini raw bar.
Maguro: Tuna is an insanely popular fish for sushi and sashimi. The best specimens go for ridiculous sums of cash. There are four grades to keep in mind: akami or regular tuna, toro-fatty, chutoro-fattier, otoro-fattiest. The debate about sustainability of the blue fin tuna rages on, leaving many to consider ordering alternatives.
Makoto: This small restaurant in the Palisades neighborhood serves elegant Japanese food in a serene setting. Be prepared to remove your shoes, turn off your cell phones and keep your conversation to a whisper. Order the tasting menu, sit back and be wowed.
Natto: Fermented soybeans, the only time you really encounter them in restaurants here is in a sushi roll. Slimy, stringy and smelling slightly of damp feet they can be off-putting at first, but don’t be surprised if you suddenly develop an obsession with them.
Omakase: Selecting this option on a menu means you are placing yourself in the hands of the chef. This is for the brave diner, as there is little to no say in what you are served. But if you eat just about everything—and are at a top-notch restaurant—you are pretty much guaranteed a memorable dining experience. The best place to enjoy this style of dining in DC is the semi-private sushi bar at Sushi Taro.
Plum wine: This sweet, fruity, mellow drink is made by steeping green plums in Japanese liquor (shochu). Served ice-cold, it makes a great summer aperitif or digestif. Order the kind that is served with a single plum in each glass and double-dog-dare an unsuspecting friend to eat the liquor-loaded fruit.
Quail egg: Put a check next to the quail egg add-on at the bottom of that long sushi list and what will arrive is a raw quail egg yolk atop your desired selections. It’s an excellent partner with the salmon roe and other fish egg options. As an added bonus, the jiggling, bright yellow orb is pretty much guaranteed to freak out your more squeamish dining companions.
Ramen: A real bowl of ramen is nothing like the stuff that comes in a Styrofoam cup. There will never be consensus on what constitutes the perfect bowl of ramen, but basics include fresh, slightly chewy noodles in a savory broth, typically topped with slow cooked pork, bamboo shoots, soft-boiled egg, scallions and seaweed. Here in DC, Toki Underground whips up ramen with a Taiwanese slant. Let their hakata classic be the gateway ramen to a full-fledged addiction.
Sushi / Sashimi: Sometime you hear these two words grouped together or used interchangeably in conversations. Sushi, however, is seasoned rice topped with a slice of raw fish (occasionally the fish will be cured or seared) while sashimi is simply raw fish.
Sushiko: A Japanese restaurant with two locations—one in Glover Park, the second in Chevy Chase. The sushi selection is limited but sufficient. Diners often rave about the fried soft-shell crab with ponzu (a citrus and soy dipping sauce). Soft-shell crabs are almost in season, so keep an eye out for these to show up on the menu soon.
Sushi Taro: Perched above the CVS on the corner of P and 17th Streets, Sushi Taro is arguably one of the best Japanese restaurants in DC. The sushi and sashimi are stellar, as are dishes like the tempura, sanuki udon, braised pork belly and grilled pork skewers.
Tataki: This is a technique of smoking and searing the outside of a piece of fish or meat over burning hay. Albacore, tuna and mackerel for sushi are sometimes given this treatment. Judging from the spike in "hay smoked" items on menus around town, this technique is gaining in popularity among chefs of other cuisines as well.
Unagi: Eel, it has a strong flavor that leaves most people either loving it or hating it. The two most common ways of serving it in local Japanese restaurants is as sushi or in a lunch rice bowl. In both preparations the eel has most likely been deboned, grilled, steamed and grilled again with a sweet soy glaze.
Wasabi: Often called Japanese horseradish, wasabi is a wild growing rhizome similar to ginger or galangal. Its spiciness is unique in that it affects your sinuses rather than setting your mouth on fire. The "wasabi" that comes with your sushi order is usually a paste made from horseradish and mustard powder, green food coloring and water. However, some restaurants do offer fresh wasabi for a few extra dollars.
Yakisoba: Egg noodles stir-fried with vegetables and meat and typically topped off with seaweed flakes and bright red pickled ginger. The signature brown sauce that flavors this dish is similar in flavor to Worcestershire. Keep an eye out for these popular noodles during the National Cherry Blossom Festival.
Yakitori: chicken bits—breasts, thighs, skin, liver, heart, neck—grilled with a sweet soy glaze over hot coals. Unfortunately, no restaurants in DC really focus on yakitori but Kushi does offer a few variations of chicken grilled on a stick.