A Night Out: The National Cherry Blossom Festival’s Grand Sushi and Sake Tasting

Over 300 sushi fans sampled sushi and sake at the National Sushi Society's Grand Tasting. Photograph by E. David Luria.

Hidden on the National Cherry Blossom Festival pamphlet, one event didn’t involve kites, paper cranes, or the Tidal Basin. Last week’s Grand Sushi and Sake Tasting, at the National Geographic Museum at Explorers Hall, was organized by the National Sushi Society. For the ninth year, the sold-out event included an Iron Chef-style battle among 11 sushi chefs—some were local, one came down from New York, and a couple traveled from Charlottesville. These guys (and one gal—it’s a male-dominated field) toyed with sesame leaves—typically a Korean ingredient—foie gras, and cherry-blossom-smoked duck breast.

In the sushi battle, first place went to Hyung Joon Lee of Koi Koi Sushi in Falls Church; Bryan Emperor of Charlottesville’s Ten (which means “heaven” in Japanese) was runner-up. Judges included the Washington Post’s Eve Zibart, Washington City Paper’s Tim Carman, National Geographic Traveler editor Keith Bellows, and two of Washington’s sushi gurus, Kaz Sushi Bistro’s Kaz Okochi and Farrah Olivia chef/owner and former Iron Chef contestant Morou Ouattara. As the judges sampled the entrées—chefs had only one hour to create their batch—the 300 guests listened to sushi expert and former guest chatter Trevor Corson give a history lesson on raw fish. Once a McFastFood type of food in old Tokyo, sushi never appeared in the States until it hit Los Angeles in 1966. And that first sushi “bar” wasn’t hip back then.

Clearly, things have changed. After Corson’s talk, guests inhaled platters of raw eel, tuna, sea urchin, and wasabi (not the real stuff but horseradish powder with green food coloring, as revealed by Corson when an audience member asked about authentic wasabi). After the talk, taiko drummers—and 150 varieties of sake—got diners’ feet tapping. Ranging from dry to sweet, sparkling to flat, the rice-based booze was served along with plum wine, Kirin beer, and Ito En green tea. For the National Sushi Society, this is one of the biggest events of the year, right up there with Sushi Day on November 1.