By Elana Schor - 07/16/08 06:39 PM EDT
Light, portable and endlessly combinable, sushi has earned its status as a trendy cuisine. But can Washington’s staid food culture warm up to the sort of bizarre raw-fish creations that captivates New York and L.A.?
The owners of Sticky Rice, the self-styled “funnest sushi bar this side of the Mason-Dixon,” won’t take no for an answer. Their Japanese culinary funhouse has stormed into the Atlas District of H Street NE, with lines forming out the door even on weekday nights.
Sticky Rice is a lot like that friend who talks a bit too loud and parties a bit too much, but knows how to show you a good time. Decked out in salacious scarlet, with globe lights dangling from the ceiling and psychedelic light paintings along one wall, it maintains an ambience that’s at once welcoming and exclusive.
The servers are an integral part of Sticky Rice’s welcoming vibe, staying attentive without hovering yet willing to make substitutions to many a dish. Never do you feel rushed into finishing a meal — a welcome change from other assembly-line restaurants.
Unfortunately, that rule comes off as highly exclusive to the frustrated customers who can wait as long as an hour for a table. Reservations are recommended and easy to procure — I called at 6 p.m. and found a roomy booth waiting for me two hours later, with one diner asking to know how I “cut ahead.”
Given the quality and ample portions, I can’t blame his envy. Sushi at Sticky Rice takes a while to emerge, and the kitchen doesn’t always roll its seaweed tight enough to prevent a roll from falling apart, but aesthetics hardly matter when the fish is this delicious.
The decadent Sticky Balls get their velvety kick from a blend of tuna and lump crab that is folded around spicy Sriracha dressing and rice, then fried inside a wonton skin. Garden Balls, the dish’s equally mouth-watering vegan twin, are filled with shiitake mushrooms, red pepper and cilantro.
The Snap Crackle Pop and Crazy Calamari rolls are brilliant uses of texture. In the former, jalapeño snaps in your mouth before the cooler crunch of cucumber and tempura flakes give way to the salty tang of high-grade salmon. In the latter, smaller panko flakes stick nicely to the tiny flying-fish roe called tobiko and chewy cooked calamari.
These and other specialty rolls are the kitchen’s biggest achievement, offering inventive and intense flavor pairings. I was content to spend the entire meal nibbling a Chili Roll, which perfectly balances the heat of jalapeños with a tender slice of tuna, sweet grilled pineapple and some palate-cleansing cilantro.
One warning on the sushi slate: It’s not for the faint of heart. Most dishes contain fried elements, and even the lighter sashimi contains decadent ingredients such as toasted coconut and goat cheese.
For the less adventurous raw-fish lover, nigiri sushi by the piece is available, as are traditional maki rolls. You may find it hard to go back to imitation California rolls after tasting Sticky Rice’s jazzy take, made with lump crab meat and beautifully under-ripe avocado.
But anyone who chooses simple edamame over “jolly green wontons” — soybeans coated in wasabi, deep-fried in a wonton skin — may not be the Sticky Rice type. The rollicking spirit of the spot makes it easy to try new things and indulge in a sip of sake to wash them down.
In fact, if you add a pint of Kirin or Sapporo beer to that thimbleful of sake, the friendly bartenders will invite you to bang the tremendous gong that sits behind the pagoda-themed bar. Anyone who cringes at the prospect of spontaneous loud gongs during dinner also may not be the Sticky Rice type.
The menu includes a cornucopia of hot plates, from barbecued pork marinated in umeboshi pickled-plum sauce to a teriyaki flatiron steak on a bed of wasabi mashed potatoes. Yet my dalliances with the non-sushi dishes proved less satisfying, with one coming to the table cold and the second lacking any of its promised spice.
The route to happiness at Sticky Rice, then, is clearly cold. The soba salad tosses buckwheat noodles with edamame in lip-smacking cilantro vinaigrette, while the “Summer” sashimi is delightfully refreshing. Each slice of ocean-smooth tilapia arrives bathed in lime juice and crowned by a dollop of the flame-red Vietnamese chili paste called sam bahi.
The tater tots are one hot dish on the menu that the kitchen is right to take pride in. The fried-potato nubs may have made their comeback in Washington thanks to Bar Pilar and Tonic, but Sticky Rice’s take first prize on the strength of their “secret” sauce, a superb sweet-and-sour mayonnaise.
Although dessert is unnecessary after the large rolls and a bucket filled to the brim with tater tots, Sticky Rice offers a rotating cast of sweets. The fried banana and lemon pound cake with honey sauce are both pleasing palate-cleansers after a spicy meal.
Sticky Rice has certainly captured the attention of capital scenesters, so I would be remiss to suggest changing a clearly popular formula. Still, the excitement of its exotic fish fades when you can barely hear your companions discussing whether they prefer the crunchy shrimp to the smoked salmon.
Banging gongs are one thing, but the ear-splitting volume of music on the ground floor requires conversations to be yelled even after the crowded dinner rush.
Try reserving a table on the second floor, where the acoustics are more hospitable and a written chalkboard of nightly specials means no new dish will be missed. Order a drink, watch the servers strut by, and you’ll still feel like the Sticky Rice type.