Another year...Definitely older, perhaps wiser and relocated to a big-girl apartment with my boyfriend. After a big year of change, beginnning the next with dinner at the best Japanese place in the area. You get what you pay for in the quest for the best sushi. If you're value-conscious, try out Sushi Taro at lunchtime for a lunch bento ($12+), Sushi Mori ($15), Sushi Jo ($25), Sushi Tokujo ($35) and Sashimi Tokujo ($40). If you're celebrating another year of awesomeness or feeling flush, dinnertime offers both the kaiseki menus and ala carte options.
We started with a few small plates, searching the menu for items not normally offered at Japanese places in DC. My blurry snap does not do justice to the Hotaru Ika (蛍烏賊), "firefly squid", found in the Western Pacific Ocean from spring to summer. The squid are simmered in umami (うま味) to a perfect texture that is toothsome but not chewy. うま味 is a mysterious fifth taste described as "pleasant savory taste". There was a hint of dashi and dipped in the soy sauce this was a good start to our experience.
Next was the Kurobuta Misozuke Kushiyaki ($9.50)
Skewers of bite-sized pieces of miso-marinated fatty Kurobuta (黒豚) and onion are grilled. Kurobuta means "black pig" in Japanese and refers to a type of Berkshire pork prized for their fat and flavor. With a spritz of lemon, these were salty, porky savory bites.
Gyu-Tan Sumi-Yaki ($11).
Charcoal-grilled cow tongue. Gyutan (牛タン) originated in Sendai City in the Tohoku region in 1948. Thin slices of tongue are grilled and dipped in either salt (called tanshio タン塩) or tare sauce (垂れ). My boyfriend's mother's family is from the Tohoku area and he really enjoys gyutan, which became popular at yakiniku restaurants in Japan. This rendition had slightly thicker slices and was delicious.
Tokujo Sashimi ($50+) and Tokujo Sushi ($45)
There are a lot of interesting cold and warm small plates (definitely would like to try the fresh tofu) and noodle dishes, but the real reason to visit Sushi Taro is the variety of fresh fish. The fish is sourced from the famed Tsukiji market in Tokyo. The variety of fresh fish changes with the seasons and ordering an assortment of the chef's choice was the best introduction to the new Sushi Taro. The maguro maki was standard, but the nigiri selection was wonderful. The otoro (fatty tuna) was so soft, the ikura was juicy with a fresh and clean taste, and the uni was so creamy...truly the best I've ever eaten.
The sashimi selection is served in a bowl of ice topped with bamboo leaves. The small dish contained a lump of ankimo (monkfish liver) that was as rich in flavor as a piece of foie gras or pate. The minor service complaint was the lack of informing us about the different types of fish. From the recent facebook post I would guess this includes mackerel tataki (lightly seared), amaebi (sweet shrimp), tuna, king salmon, otoro (fatty tuna), ankimo, with four mysterious other selections.
Standard Sake Tasting ($22) and Business Class Sake Tasting ($30).
The Standard set is nice, mostly including junmai sakes, while the Business Class option offered higher quality junmai daiginjo and nigori (cloudy) sakes. They thoughtfully place a paper with the different types and names in the bottom of the box. An accompanying list of the sushi and sashimi fish would have been a nice touch as well.
I'll admit it. I was extremely saddened when the old Sushi Taro concept was changed in 2007 from the bustling and super popular izakaya into a more refined and higher end Japanese restaurant. I was hesitant to try the new and improved version for quite a while, despite laudatory comments from Japanese friends and coworkers about the quality of the sushi and sashimi. The higher price point deterred me, and bottles of sake priced at $280 and $350 do stop the heart at first glance.
However, if you love Japanese food (but no spicy tuna, Alaska or volcano rolls), and are interested in trying a more authentic experience, Sushi Taro shows off an amazing cuisine with every bite. Service could be better and the 70-seat venue does not have that "escape into another world" quality of Makoto with the women dressed in kimono. However, they have extensive lists of sho-chu and sake, and really remarkable sushi and sashimi.
One surprising improvement was the parking validation. The underground parking lot on right-hand side of P Street between 17th and 16th Streets gives you a parking ticket that the restaurant will place a stamp on for free parking.