Japanese Fare with a Twist in North PotomacJapanese is the new Chinese in surburbia. Moo shu pork may have been king once, but Spider Roll is the morsel of the moment. Japanese restaurants are showing up in the most far-flung shopping plazas. Many put a creative Western spin on sushi and other Japanese standards, while some are reliably authentic.
New Tokyo Japanese Cuisine straddles both camps. Chef Eizi "Jackie" Nakazima went to culinary school in Tokyo and worked at several popular restaurants there before moving to Washington in the late '90s. After a stint at Old Shanghai in Germantown, Nakazima opened his own place last year.
It's a simple storefront with familiar Japanese restaurant decor: shoji screens, paper lanterns, artwork evoking the Orient, and for a bit of fun a couple of faux lobsters and a jaunty, painted wooden fish.
The fun carries over into the culinary arena. Special maki, like the fabulous house roll of shrimp, crabmeat, fish eggs, and avocado, curves on the plate in snaky glory. Hawaiian volcano roll, which features tempura shrimp, arrives in a mound with a lit candle on top. Both get a squirt of the addictive spicy orange mayo, a westernization to be sure but a smashing one. The whimsically named Golden Ocean roll marries an array of seafood with teriyaki--and 24-karat gold leaf.
New combos show up regularly. One night, the Texas Roll juxtaposed grilled slices of New York strip with mango. On several of our visits, the chef also sent out a palate teaser of pickled Japanese cucumber and shrimp with a paste of ginger and orange. Even children have their own roll: sushi rice in the shape of Hello Kitty, modeled on the feline logo adored by little girls the world over.
Japanese patrons come for more serious cuisine. Japanese seafood pot soup is liquid gold in an earthenware teapot, accompanied by a shallow cup and a wedge of lime. The idea is to pour the flavorful broth into the cup, squeeze the lime, and drink, then eat the shrimp, squid, and scallops at the bottom.
The classic Japanese noodle soup udon is a meditative experience here as well. Perfectly cooked noodles flecked with tendrils of nori are heaped on a plate with seafood, vegetables, meat, or chicken on the side. The soup, laden with thin slices of fishcake, Chinese cabbage, and various kinds of seaweed, is served separately, as is a soy-and-scallion dipping sauce for the noodles. It is a meal in parts and an ode to mindful eating.
Sushi fans will want to look for specials of silken fatty tuna, briny sea urchin, and chewy abalone. The luxe lobster wasabi roll made with cooked lobster is a must-try even if sushi is not your thing. On the regular sushi and sashimi menu, red clam and flounder share space with California rolls made with real crab and several memorable crunchy tempura rolls.
For the sushi-shy, New Tokyo's jumbo shrimp tempura, with its spiky katsu-like batter, is the way to go. Oyster and scallop versions are good, too. The kitchen does a deft job with sweet smoked eel over rice, shrimp and pork dumplings, and yaki--grilled tidbits of beef, chicken, squid, and sometimes asparagus. Grazers have their pick of bento boxes and beautifully composed combo platters with an array of sushi, sashimi, or tempura.
This is not the place to indulge a yen for teriyaki, which is cloying and goopy. The Hawaii salad of cream cheese, mango, and shrimp sounds nifty, but it's a bit of a letdown. Though there's a short wine list, this food cries out for Japanese beer or sake.
For a finish, Nakazima sends out a complimentary sweet in keeping with the East-West theme: a bite-size square of red-bean paste with a blob of whipped cream. It's all you need to send you on your way.
Atmosphere: Shoji screens and colorful lanterns set the scene at this sushi restaurant.
Food: Inventive maki rolls plus Japanese classics like tempura and udon, along with sushi and sashimi.
Service: Gracious and helpful.
Price: Lunch specials and sushi are well priced ($5.25 for four pieces of sushi, $9.95 for big maki); dinner main courses, $9.95 to $17.95; maki rolls and sushi are less. Dinner for two: about $50.
Wine list: Not many wines. Only one hot sake and one cold sake; several Japanese beers.
Bottom line: A welcome addition to the neighborhood. The fantasy rolls make it fun.