Plaudits: Washingtonian 2011 #24, Washingtonian 2010 #15, Washington Post 2009 and 2010 Dining Guide
Neighborhood: Dupont Circle
Needing a one-one-one catch-up dinner with Official Friend of DCWD Madison, we headed up toward Dupont in mind to snag a dinner at Hank's Oyster Bar (after months in South Sudan, Madison was desperately craving mussels). But passing Sushi Taro, we decided that high quality raw fish and Japanese cuisine was just as good.
Sushi Taro has the unenviable spot of sitting on top of a CVS. Because of that, it's a restaurant that you would miss every time you walked down the street if you didn't already know it was there. Behind a narrow door by the alley behind the pharmacy is a set of stairs that lead you to the restaurant, which takes up the entire second floor. The restaurant is themed much like you'd expect a Japanese restaurant would be, with touches that recall stereotypical sumo-wrestler wardrobes, with dominant themes of wood, straight lines, and quasi-rice paper and straw shades. The dining area starts with a small bar section in front (where we sat for this meal), followed by two parallel rows (of booths and two-tops respectively) along a corridor leading to a larger section in back. On this night, that part was sectioned off by (what else) a Japanese room divider. Lighting is dim, and the whole feel is very sleek, though the section in the back looks a little more lively than the rest.
Feeling particularly hungry, we skipped the omakase menu in favor of small plates, which seem to dominate the menu at Sushi Taro. First out was our combined choice of toro. After my first encounter with toro, prepared five ways at Sushi-Ko, I've craved fatty tuna in every sushi restaurant since. It's almost to me the ultimate litmus test: can they source the right tuna? Can the present it in a way that brings out new flavors but doesn't hide the brilliance of the ingredient? Can they being innovative while showing restraint? By the metric, the toro was good but not great. They took nothing off the table, but put nothing on it either.
Next were Madison's choices, among them a fried tofu in dashi sauce. I have a not-so-secret love of tofu, and like in very particular ways; if it's a hot preparation I love it fried so that the outside is that wonderful crispy-fleshy combo while the inside melts in your mouth. In this instance, it was a little more fleshy than crispy, but the texture consistency of it was spot on, and the flavoring given to it by the sauce was enjoyable.
Coming at the same time was simmered baby squid in umami. This was probably the disappointment of the night for both of us. This wasn't helped by the fact that it definitely was not what we were expecting. Rather than the calamari or squid textures that we've had, these baby squid came whole and with the simmering had taken on a texture much like eating a softened cherry tomato but with a paste inside. Its room temperature serving also didn't do much for it either.
Last of Madison's initial choice was the tuna tartare with yuzu. This wasn't anything mindblowing, not the least of which because it's not exactly a brilliant change from the norm. But it neither disappointed nor amazed, which in some instances is all you really want out of tuna tartare in the first place. Especially after the squid, it was a degree of welcome normalcy.
The next round were my choices. First, a braised pork belly, served in a small pot with sweetened soy sauce, a peeled radish, and baby bok choy. Growing up Asian, you end up eating pork belly in so many different ways, and the braise/barbecue version is pretty prevalent in the household. That being said, I liked that this version wasn't overwhelming, as braises can often be left unchecked, but allowed the fat flavors to come to the forefront while also playing up strong flavors of soy. Wasn't the best pork belly ever, but definitely a good braised version.
Last for me was my order of charcoal grilled beef tongue, with sesame oil and citrus ponzu sauces. After my mindblowing encounter with beef tongue at Manzo at Eataly, I'd been chasing the beef tongue experience again. This was fine, firmer and chewier than my previous experience, which was disappointing, since the melt-in-your-mouth texture was what I had enjoyed so much. But the preparation paired the tongue and sauces well, and it was a pleasant dish.
Having gone to a sushi restaurant, we decided some amount of sushi was needed, so we ordered a rainbow roll - tuna, salmon, avocado, spicy tuna, and yellowtail all in one aggressive maki roll. I think at this point you can sort of get the idea of where I'm heading with this: it was good sushi, but not great. Fresh ingredients, but nothing beyond the imagination.
Maybe it would have been different with the omakase menu, but for me, it was a lot of good but just nothing amazing, something strange for a so-rated Top 25 restaurant in DC.
Food Rating: *** 1/2 (out of 5)
Date Rating: 3 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code: Casual
Bar Rating: Quiet Drinks
Cost: $$$ (out of 5) ($50-$75 for two)
Pairing: Old idea, new exhibit. Head to the National Geographic building for their new exhibit Race to the End of the Earth, chronicling the journey to the North Pole.