By Elana Schor - 03/11/10 11:02 PM EST
Washington is full of aspiring tastemakers, but few can top Michelle Obama. So when the first lady served sushi instead of hors d’oeuvres at the White House Christmas party, reportedly inspired by a trip to the year-old SEI in Penn Quarter, capital foodies took notice.
“Obviously she knows the place to be,” one commenter dished at Chowhound, an online mecca for local diners.
But SEI’s sushi, crafted by chef Noriyaki Yasutake, is far from its only strong suit. Avinesh Rana, formerly Yasutake’s colleague at the underrated Perry’s in Adams Morgan, aims high with a slew of small plates, the best of which could be Japanese cousins to Jose Andres’s tapas. Though Rana’s creations can fall short, SEI turns out to be a walk on the culinary wild side.
Take the sashimi pizza, which sounds like a misprint on the menu but tastes like a dream. A round of scallion pancake with just enough oil to stay crispy is swathed in wasabi aioli and topped by velvety layers of raw tuna, yellowtail and shrimp. A dousing of low-sodium soy sauce from the artful dispensers on each table brings out its dueling salty and creamy flavors.
Wasabi makes another memorable supporting appearance in the short ribs, which are tender enough to fall apart upon first bite and taste best when dipped in the accompanying mustard-infused mashed potatoes. The dish is finished by a miso glaze that lacks strong flavor, but it hardly matters.
For diners eyeing a more pungent meat dish, the black pepper chicken wings are another standout, their finger-licking sauce redolent of ginger and lemongrass. The kobe sliders come with a tomato compote curiously lacking in zest, but the top-quality beef and generous portions make them an indisputable crowd pleaser that gets recommended repeatedly by servers.
In fact, that cast of servers can’t help but intervene to recommend new orders, a trait that can be helpful for inexperienced sushi eaters but tends to feel excessive after too many table visits. (One solicitous staffer from another table, upon seeing my companion sip from a full sake glass, sprang into action to refill that tiny amount of wine.)
One arena where it’s wise to take their advice is the cocktails. While the sake offerings, from the milky Snow Maiden to the heartier Hideyoshi label, take up nearly three times as much menu space as the food, the bar has at least two virtuoso tunes. The Brokers Royale is a more adult twist on the once-ubiquitous lychee martini, adding sticky fruit puree to gin but cutting the intensity with sparkling white wine and elderflower cordial. And the Liquid Wasabi, pairing nutty sake with ginger-habanero pepper syrup, provides a welcome punch to the palate.
For a less forcibly posh meal at SEI, avoid the front of the house, where thumping dance beats are often turned up a bit too high to make conversation. Instead, try sipping one of those signature libations from a perch near the sushi bar, where perfect rows of red cherry trees are perched inside a trompe l’oeil tableau mounted on the wall. The dizzying sight, trading snow-white for apple-red, goes well with an order of the Snow White sushi roll, which mates a slice of raw eel with avocado and apple.
Sashimi with fruit? It works not once but twice at SEI, as the S.O.S. roll scores by filling a curlicue of delicate salmon with strawberry-flecked rice. The “fish and chips” is another roll much-touted by the servers, and while its sprinkling of potato flakes is pleasingly crunchy, the base of raw flounder might as well be fully cooked, thanks to a too-assertive tartar sauce.
Despite their affinity for witty presentations on the plate, Yasutake and Rana don’t neglect the fundamentals. Their tuna poke, a Hawaiian twist on sashimi that blends diced fish with spices, is so perfectly accented by bright mint and earthy coriander that your only regret will be its small size. The standard spicy tuna roll is rendered similarly well, though the chef does toss in an unexpected snip of sour pickle.
The menu’s one real lowlight is also its most enticing concept: wasabi guacamole, which promises a color-coordinated commingling of spice but wilts on the plate, its accompanying wonton chips too flimsy to handle the thick, bland avocado mash.
The dessert list is short but reliable. A warm, gooey chocolate cake looks suspiciously like the flourless “bombs” churned out by many a kitchen 10 years ago, but its feathery texture and frosty coat of sake sorbet make the old taste new again.
There is also a selection of rich house-made ice creams and sorbets designed to match (go for the green tea, avoid the honey tangerine) and a mound of fluffy bread pudding that forks open to reveal pieces of sweet yuzu fruit. A scoop of soy ice cream completes the picture. If you’re not swayed at first by that marriage of Asian citrus with Anglo dough, consider that the first lady chose the bread pudding on her visit to SEI — and give in to the trend.
444 7th St. NW
Hours: Lunch: Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dinner: Monday through Thursday, 5 p.m. to 12 a.m.; Friday and Saturday until 1a.m.; Sunday until 9 p.m. Reservations recommended on weekend evenings but unnecessary at other hours.