Look elsewhere if you’re seeking outrageously complicated sushi rolls that assault tradition with ingredients like cream cheese, foie gras, and fried chicken. Every time someone orders a roll with these whacked ingredients, a Hello Kitty loses her bow. What you’ll find here are the 10 best Japanese restaurants in DC that could actually be right at home on streets Japan, ranked in order of excellence.
10. Sushi Express
The vibe: Cafeteria-chic
Step into Sushi Express, tucked into a K St office building, and you’re instantly transported to the kind of place where you’d pick up a bento box before boarding a bullet train in Japan. Sure, it’s lit like a doctor’s office, and Styrofoam replaces fine china, but the value can’t be overstated. Also, take comfort knowing that Chef Yoshifumi Yasuoka’s been at this for 30 years, and he’ll remember your order after one visit.
Best bet: Something off of their $7.50 "combinations" menu, which lets you marry two dishes, plus rice and salad. Think assorted tempura plus a sushi roll. Don’t miss the mini-fridge filled with mochi desserts. Pro tip: cash only!
The vibe: Cozy and quick
This seems to be where Japanophiles hang out to test their Japanese language skills on waitstaff. Fortunately, these folks also know good food when they see it. The simple menu covers several tiers of the Japanese food pyramid: sushi, ramen, and donburi. The new restaurant is so small, you might be asked to share a table if you're solo, and you better believe it’s with one of those Japanophiles.
Best bet: A $15 lunchtime bento box with soup, salad, sashimi, fried fish with tonkatsu sauce, rice, and a compartment of some kind of Japanese comfort food that tastes like someone’s Grandma made it.
The vibe: Inviting; approachable; Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
This Hill haunt is most worthy of being your go-to once a week kind of place because they do take-out and are generally willing to please. Nigiri and maki are the focus, with a handful of appetizers from the kitchen.
Best bet: The sushi omakase-tasting is the closest you can get to having a Jiro-like experience for a price tag that astounds at $50. Chef/owner Minoru Ogawa feeds you piece-by-piece from behind the sushi bar until you tap out. It’s available at the sushi bar only, so call for reservations.
The vibe: Sleek; revived; varied.
When Zentan’s scored Chef Yo Matsuzaki from San Francisco, it was a win for DC, because he brings both inventive Japanese bar bites and comfort food to the table. The drink program has upped its game too -- including two Japanese whisky flights.
Best bet: Not even your dad on his best day can grill like Matsuzaki. That’s why you’re ordering every single one of his yakitori skewers hot off the robata grill. The ones starring bacon are especially memorable (duh!). Note too that Zentan offers intimate omakase dinners on Thursday nights by reservation only, and you get some face time with the chef.
The vibe: Trendy; interpretive; buzzed.
The space is one of the sexiest in the city, so settle in while asking yourself, "Am I cool enough to be in here?" Yes. You are. All of the dishes are designed to pair well with booze, which is a good thing since the drink program has depth in all departments (but especially sake, shochu, and whisky).
Best bet: Whatever you order to eat will be interesting, like these fried octopus balls commonly eaten as street food in Osaka, or the savory "hambagu" steak. Don’t forget about the ramen shop downstairs, nor the fact that Daikaya serves brunch.
The vibe: Elegant; refined; business lunch.
The Downtown address means suits will surround you as you work your way through the menu from one of DC’s fathers of Japanese cuisine -- Kaz Okochi. The dining room just got a new design and it’s eye-catching.
Best bet: A selection of Kaz’s speciality nigiri that doesn’t stop at soy sauce and wasabi when it comes to sushi accelerators. The Nagoya native adorns slices of raw fish with herb miso, sweet kombu, and chili-daikon.
Chevy Chase, MD
The vibe: Established; slightly suburban (kids may drum chopsticks); innovative. Sushiko’s been slicing raw fish since the '70s, but that doesn’t mean the restaurant is without new tricks. In fact, its full of them, like this cherry-wood-smoked Tasmanian ocean trout tartare dotted with goat cheese.
Best bet: The $90 chef’s tasting menu served at the sushi bar. You’re wondering if it’s worth the cost of a one-month gym member? Indeed. The nine courses alternate between goodies from the kitchen and treasures from the sushi bar. Your front-and-center seat means you can watch chefs envelop tongues of uni with dashi gelée.
The vibe: Serious; tranquil; bossy in the best possible way.
Get past the rules designed to make Americans behave better during the meal (silenced cell phones, slippers, business-casual duds) and put your lunch or dinner in the hands of the chef. An omakase (chef’s choice) tasting menu is the only option. The parade of courses will take you through raw things, grilled things, fried things, and beyond. Expect to be told how to eat each bite and take heed.
Best bet: Request counter seating so you can watch the chefs at work. Also be sure to visit Kotobuki upstairs. Their à la carte sushi menu is gentler on the budget.
2. Izakaya Seki
U Street Corridor
The vibe: Neighborhood hang; convivial; family business.
Japanese pubs like Izakaya Seki line most alleys in Japan, each serving snacks deemed to go well with brain-freeze inducing pints of beer or carafes of sake. If neither of these tickle your imbibing-preferences, the father-daughter run restaurant has a steep collection of Japanese whisky (yes, no "e").
Best bet: Find your (rice) balls and order something you’ve never heard of or can’t pronounce, like a fried-fish-and-veggie fritter called "kakiage" (pictured), grilled hamachi kama, or fresh sea urchin (for which they’ll scrape out of the spines right in front of you).
1. Sushi Taro
The vibe: Efficient; perfectionist; authentic.
Don’t expect to get coddled by staff at this sushi authority that is a go-to for Japanese Embassy staffers and diplomats. It specializes in kaiseki, super-seasonal and artistic tasting menus with origins in Buddhist temple food. ST claims the top spot because it serves the best rice in the city. (Rice is so fundamental to Japanese cuisine that the word for rice is also the word for meal.)
Best bet: Save the fancy stuff for a special occasion and hone in on happy hour. From 5:30-7pm in the bar area, all sushi is half-price. So are draft beers and sake. You can escape a little tipsy and full of raw fish for about $30 per person.
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1. Sushi Express1990 K St NW, Washington
2. Kintaro1039 33rd St NW, Washington
3. Sushi Capitol325 Pennsylvania Ave SE, Washington
4. Zentan1155 14th St NW, Washington
5. Daikaya705 6th St NW, Washington
6. Kaz Sushi Bistro1915 I St NW, Washington
7. Sushiko5455 Wisconsin Ave, Chevy Chase
8. Makoto Restaurant4822 MacArthur Blvd NW, Washington
9. Izakaya Seki1117 V St NW, Washington
10. Sushi Taro1503 17th St NW, Washington
Step into Sushi Express, tucked into a K St office building, and you’re instantly transported to the kind of place where you’d pick up a bento box before boarding a bullet train in Japan. Chef Yoshifumi Yasuoka’s been at this for 30 years, and he’ll remember your order after one visit.
Consider Kintaro you escape from the throngs of tourists that fill Georgetown. Another plus: the prices here are some of the most affordable in town. Cheap eats on this tiny restaurant's simple menu span several tiers of the Japanese food pyramid: sushi, ramen, and donburi. A crowd-pleaser is the Chirashi sushi, a beautifully plated treasure trove of sashimi on a bed of rice, served with a soup and salad.
This tiny D.C. restaurant is serving sushi for purists. Resistant to ingredient-heavy inventive house rolls, or chicken yakatori appetizers, this place is notorious for plating up some remarkably tasty raw seafood, where the chef's minimal (but brilliant) technique is overshadowed only by the exceptional quality of the ingredients themselves. The sleek, waterfront eatery offers a full menu of things like fatty cuts of bluefin belly, or San Diego bay live urchins, and the nigiri-style sushi is largely uncomplicated -- potent fish, brushed with a fine layer of sweet house nikiri sauce. The chef serves tuna and salmon flights, allowing guests a little taste of all the tastiest cuts, and an unrivaled omakase-tasting menu, only available at the bar-- it's just about the closest you can get to a Jiro-like dining experience anywhere for 50$.
From a Hong Kong-raised Iron Chef-contender who's built his rep on a slew of Toronto fooderies, Zentan's a sleek, slate-tiled, cross-Asian dining hall ornamented with finished black tables and hanging, razor-like pallets of faux-candles.
Don’t let the wait for this Chinatown ramen shop deter you: it’s more than worth it for the chewy noodles imported from Japan and the chicken, pork, and beef Chintan stock that’s cooked over 16 hours for extra richness. An unsuspecting standout among the Sapporo-style ramen on offer is the vegan version topped with Brussels sprouts, snow peas, carrots, and braised shiitake mushrooms. As if the ramen didn’t already, Daikaya’s wooden accents, dangling lightbulbs, and blue- and yellow-striped walls will have you feeling warm and cozy.
Downtown's Kaz has been slinging sushi rolls to DC's political elites since 1999 -- no surprise, given its walking distance from The White House. Its minimally decorated space is great for dates because most of its tables seat two directly across from one another, making for top-notch one-on-one time. The food ain't bad either (ok, that's a serious understatement): modern takes on Japanese sushi rolls with snapper, yellowtail, and the like are matched with plates of steaming hot steaks and vegetables.
Sushiko’s been slicing raw fish since the '70s, but that doesn’t mean the restaurant is without new tricks like cherry-wood-smoked Tasmanian ocean trout tartare dotted with goat cheese. And the $90 chef’s tasting menu, served at the sushi bar, alternates between the kitchen and the sushi bar for nine whole courses. The front-and-center seat gives tasters a prime spot to watch chefs envelop tongues of uni with dashi gelée.
Makoto is Serious, tranquil, and bossy in the best possible way. Get past the rules designed to make Americans behave better during the meal (silenced cell phones, slippers, business-casual duds) and put your lunch or dinner in the hands of the chef. An omakase (chef’s choice) tasting menu is the only option. The parade of courses will take you through raw things, grilled things, fried things, and beyond. Expect to be told how to eat each bite and take heed.
Izakaya Seki is authentic Japanese grub that goes way beyond sushi and sashimi. In this two story eatery, you can watch the chef prepare dishes like beef tongue with yuzu miso and serve it right to you at the bar or head to the upstairs and sample all of the 25 sakes.