By Elana Schor - 07/22/10 10:48 PM EDT
Variety is the spice of life, as the saying goes, and the sentiment holds especially true for restaurants. Short menus often focus one’s attention on a single dish, raising the stakes for one sauce or side item, while a longer tapas-style list affords the joy of jumping from flavor to flavor — the foodie’s version of multitasking.
That thrill of dining diversity is in full bloom at Kushi, a new Japanese gastropub in Mt. Vernon Square’s CityVista development. Kushi’s kitchen encompasses no fewer than seven different presentations served from three open settings, with a raw bar for oysters, a sushi bar for maki rolls and nigiri and a sprawling hive of a main bar that draws a square around the charcoal pit where robata dishes are wood-grilled.
The answer, in the end, is to keep it simple. Diners who go weak-kneed for pork belly can have it three ways, fired in sweet tare glaze or simple salt, or braised at the bottom of a rice cushion for a Southern take on the hand roll. Vegetarians can fill up on succulent Japanese eggplant or a smattering of peppery maitake mushrooms.
Izakaya is a quintessentially Japanese concept, focusing on food that can be paired with swigs of sake and its plum-wine sibling shochu. But the concept is punched up nicely by Executive Chef Darren Lee Norris, a veteran of Ridgewells Catering and New York City’s China Grill.
Tired yakitori chicken gets the boot at Kushi, replaced by heritage-breed birds that are partially cooked in advance, to maintain their moisture, before a finishing trip to the grill. The result is a nub of tender breast, almost devoid of fat, that absorbs the flavors of its wasabi topping to melt on the tongue in a pleasant blaze. For a crispy counterpoint, try a skewer packed with pieces of crackling chicken skin.
All of the chicken and beef is cooked kushiyaki-style, on skinny wooden spears, but the larger portions and thicker cuts of the robata menu offer even more complex palate profiles. The duck thigh may sound over the top, taking a fatty cut from a bird that’s rich to begin with, but the caramelized char enveloping its fall-off-the-bone slivers of meat makes for a new twist on the tastes of French duck confit.
Another asset of Kushi’s wood-grilled meats is their ample portions, enough to make an entrée for a lone customer. The wagyu strip loin is another cut that shines in robata marinade, showing more depth than it does when paired with oyster-style eringi mushroom on skewers.
Even when spices or sauces fade out a bit too early or the promise of a unique pairing fizzles — plain robata asparagus is surprisingly superior to its bacon-wrapped skewered cousin — the quality of Kushi’s sourcing shines through in every dish. The sashimi is divinely thick, with tuna going down like a veritable curtain of mauve velvet and the special yellowtail belly offering fatty silver curves that still bear a welcome twist of salty skin.
Of course, the izakaya tradition calls for stellar spirits to go with the unique cuisine, and Kushi does not disappoint on that score. Japanese beers are ice-cold from the tap, with a few unique rice-based brews on offer, and the sake list is well-stocked with dry and sweet varietals. Only a few are available by the glass, but the bottles tend to run smaller than those for American wines.
Beverage manager Thom Flynn’s strong suit, however, is mixed drinks. Men who reflexively shy away from drink menus dominated by long lists of foreign and fruity ingredients may find themselves drawn to Flynn’s stripped-down, Eastern-influenced cocktail remakes.
His Negroni is refreshing enough to sip poolside, layering grapefruit and shochu atop the usual Italian blend of Campari and vermouth. The Dark Tsunami is a new take on the Dark and Stormy, a savory-sweet harmony of dark-sugar Choya Kokuto rum and plum liqueur with traditional ginger beer.
Oddly enough, while the spirit of Kushi invites a foray into new culinary frontiers, the adventurous eater is not always rewarded. My companion’s first stab at fried tofu held the promise of a crisp-soft marriage of textures, but the bean curd arrived limp and cold; the grilled sticky yam tasted neither sticky nor yam-like, its tang akin to a pickled radish.
But if you’re hankering to try a first bite of squid or nip of eggy dashi custard, don’t be afraid to dive in. Kushi’s price points are low enough to allow some misses amid the hits without running up too high a tab. Servers are knowledgeable and approachable, though often difficult to pin down as they shuttle between tables in the warehouse-like space.
In fact, the best time to try a new taste is dessert, which Kushi brings back to basics via hand-made ice creams and sorbets. The latter are certainly worthy, especially a piquant pineapple peppercorn, but a scoop of ice cream is recommended even for the calorie-conscious.
The black sesame has been rightly compared to Reese’s peanut butter cups for grown-ups, its strong nutty notes balanced by a trail of sugar on the tongue. The green tea ice cream is head and shoulders above the pasty types often served at lower-end teahouses, with a mysteriously rich, mildly salty aftertaste that epitomizes the fifth flavor profile often dubbed umami.
Sipping a sake martini amid Kushi’s chicly clad crowd recalls a night at a trendy dining palace in the pre-recession heyday of Manhattan — but the kitchen’s single-minded focus somehow keeps the experience grounded. Diners rarely leave morsels on the plate, a testament to the capital’s appetite for a pure taste of Tokyo. If variety is the spice of life, then Kushi’s kick is undeniable.
Kushi Izakaya & Sushi
465 K St. N.W.
Hours: Open for lunch Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 12 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner, seven days a week, 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.; late-night dining, Thursday through Saturday, 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. Reservations recommended for non-bar seating during dinner hour.
Prices: Small plates and grill items range from $3 and up; sushi starts at $6.
Ideal Meal: Japanese pickles and kimchee small plates; skewers of okra, pork belly and chicken breast; robata grill plates of eggplant and duck; yellowtail sashimi; black sesame and green tea ice cream.