Word of Mouth: Ariake Japanese Restaurant

From Kliman Online’s “Word of Mouth”

A lot of sushi bars close on Mondays, and with good reason: In this area, most have a standing order for raw fish deliveries on Tuesdays and Fridays. (The very best ones, it’s worth pointing out, supplement this shipment with smaller orders the other days.)   

So what does that tell you about a sushi bar that dares to stay open for business on a Monday? Quite possibly, an owner who is enormously confident in the ability of his team of sushi chefs to bring less-than-stellar fish to vivid life for one more day. That, or an owner intent on maximizing profits at the expense of freshness and quality. I’ll err on the side of confidence in the case of Ariake Japanese Restaurant, in Reston. On a recent Monday, the kitchen was out of the uni that was advertised on the sign board out front, as well as oh-toro, the fatty, richly marbled belly meat of the tuna.
Dubious signs, and my wife and I, turning from the waitress who delivered the news, frowned at one another across the table.
“Should we call it quits?” I asked.
No, my wife said, and I knew it was not because she had any great faith in the kitchen: “I’m too hungry.”
The miso was salty, and the shumai looked to have come from a package, but from that point on, we had ourselves a fine little meal. The edamame were tender, a beef tataki brought thin strips of good, fat-striated meat that had been seared and slicked with ponzu sauce, and a seldom-seen appetizer of fresh-made tofu cut into thick slabs and garnished with scallion and bonito flakes hit the spot on a hot, humid night. Sashimi and nigiri were surprisingly good, considering the quite likely three-day lag from delivery date; yellowtail and mackerel, especially. (The tuna was mealy, but then, tuna is mealy everywhere these days; even the excellent Sushi-Ko, which goes to great lengths to procure the meaty, minerally Big Eye, is not immune to mealy tuna.)
It would have been nice to pair a cool glass of sake with the fish, but the restaurant sells sake only by the bottle. Why? Not enough people were ordering by the glass, and a lot of the supply, I was told, went to waste.
Where Ariake excels is its rolls. The spider roll is magnificent, comprising as it does not the usual array of fried soft shell parts but an entire soft shell, good-sized and meaty. The kitchen presents it dramatically, with the jutting claws of one side of the crab poking up from the base of a flat-lying maki roll like a culinary reenactment of “The Awakening.” If not as compelling visually, the spicy scallop roll might be its equal, an ordinary California roll capped with thick, fleshy cubes of chili-slicked scallops.
Sushi is best in those places that contrive to make themselves a respite, and Ariake does. The structure of the building, islanded on a tiny strip of land, puts you in mind of a Bob’s Big Boy, but inside the place is cool and wooded, suggestive of a resort lodge. There’s also a patio outside, laid with stones, and a rock garden. Adding to the spa feel, couples traipse through the dining room in flip flops. Few restaurants in the area are as relaxed and inviting, sushi or otherwise.
I’ll be interested to see how Ariake does when it’s not missing uni and fatty tuna and operating at full strength — in other words, when it’s not Monday.

-August 12, 2008