At first glance, the Kentlands restaurant Kenaki Sushi Counter looks like just another neighborhood fast-casual. A place you’d hit for lunch if you worked nearby or to grab takeout on the way home. But brother-and-sister owners Ken and Aki Ballogdajan are running something far better: an affordable, high-quality Japanese restaurant that’s as desirable for a generous bento box during the day as it is for a hanger steak with yuzu-tinted béarnaise at dinner. It looks unassuming, but it’s a boost for the Gaithersburg dining scene.
Ken, the chef, honed his skills at DC’s pan-Asian Raku and Rakuya (plus threw in a stint at Volt), while Aki, the general manager, recently career-changed out of the software industry. The family-run-eatery world was not unfamiliar, though—both their parents and grandparents were restaurateurs in Frederick and DC.
Ken’s sushi takes up a good bit of the menu, and his nontraditional maki can be terrific little creations. Many might sound a little too done-up (and some, such as the Donkey Kong roll with eel, cream cheese, and plantains, are). But the Green Monster roll—filled with shrimp tempura and marinated shiitakes and topped with a bouffant of bonito flakes—hits nearly every pleasure center. Meanwhile, the Black Magic roll, with its forbidden rice, spicy tuna, and pickled jalapeño, bears a whiff of truffle. If you’d asked me before if truffled sushi inspired much confidence, I’d have given you a hard no. Here, it actually works. I don’t think I’ve found a better spicy tuna roll in the area. (This one is charged with spicy mayo, Sriracha, and jalapeño.)
By day, you order at the counter and wait for a server to deliver your food to a table. At night, the place shifts to a table-service operation and offers more of Ballogdajan’s small plates and main courses. Shu mai filled with shrimp and kurobuta pork are finished with a spoonful of chili oil. (Pulverized almonds give it the right amount of crunch.) Nuggets of chicken karaage marinated in soy, ginger, and garlic are the kind of fried snack you wish every bar would serve. Even the dubious-sounding tuna-tataki pizza is worth sampling.
You might not think of a sushi chef frying leeks or grilling pizza dough or whisking béarnaise for that (very good) hanger steak. But it’s those from-scratch details that make Kenaki a place you should seek out, not just fall back on.
Kenaki Sushi Counter. 706 Center Point Way, Gaithersburg; 240-224-7189. Open Monday through Saturday for lunch and dinner. Moderate.
This article appears in the April 2019 issue of Washingtonian.