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"Omakase Counter" has been recognized as Best Japanese Cuisine in the U.S. in 2016.

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Ranked at 36th


2009 Fall Dining Guide

By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, Oct. 18, 2009

When Nobu Yamazaki temporarily closed his busy second-story restaurant in Dupont Circle last December to re-envision the place, he spun the makeover this way: "I want to be out there changing the direction of Japanese cooking in this city." Done. There's not a finer source for sushi in Washington nor a more alluring setting in which to admire it. The narrow, honey-colored main dining room is where you'll find very good sesame seed "tofu," greaseless tempura, maybe miso-sweetened beef tongue in addition to terrific raw fish. But to experience the restaurant at its most thrilling, you'll want to upgrade to the hand-crafted white oak counter in the rear and order the chef's tasting menu, which starts at $100 a head. The many details explain the lofty tab: gorgeous pottery, wasabi grated before your eyes, a private cooking show starring Yamazaki and chef de cuisine Masa Kitayama. Seasonal treats (baby squid in spring) and rare fish such as flute punctuate a leisurely feast that might also fit in live scallops as well as mackerel pounded into a sensational tartar with ginger, salty plum and shiso. Patrons of the original Sushi Taro gripe about the new high prices, and I get occasional reports about hostile reservation takers, but the upside to any visit here is a graduate education in good living.


Revamped and Revelatory

Sushi Taro has transformed itself into the city's finest Japanese restaurant

Washington Post
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, June 14, 2009

A funny thing happened after Sushi Taro shrank in size, raised its prices and began offering a more extravagant way to eat raw fish this spring. Almost overnight, what for 23 years had been a popular neighborhood spot became one of the most fascinating restaurants in Washington.

Not everyone is happy with the changes, and I can understand the consternation. Top-quality sushi priced for worker bees isn't that common, critics argue, so why, especially in these grim economic times, should the haves among us have all the fun?

Nobu Yamazaki, who took over the Dupont Circle restaurant from his father six years ago, sees the evolution differently. The changes the chef made after he closed the business for three months just before Christmas are part of a grand design to elevate Japanese cuisine in the city.

"Chicken teriyaki and spicy tuna roll are not exactly authentic Japanese food," says Yamazaki, 39. He wants his revamped restaurant "to be a little different" from the competition.

In reality, the new Sushi Taro, which employs 10 cooks, has entered a league of its own.

Remember the lines that used to form on the stairway to the second-floor dining room and the hour-long waits for a table? Now that Sushi Taro accepts reservations, both are gone. So the reception you tend to get at the top of the carpeted climb is calm and cordial, and once you're seated, the table is yours for what feels like the night. I enjoyed the airy interior of the old place, which included a sushi bar that practically ran the width of the room. But the new design's honey-colored wood and booths dressed in orange fabric place you smack in Japan. The original restaurant could squeeze in 120 customers; the narrower reincarnation can host a mere 70. A new sense of serenity prevails.

There are several ways to experience the restaurant. Unfortunately, they're introduced to you via an unwieldy menu and a server who rushes through too many of the details. The options include dishes a la carte; a 10-course Kaiseki dinner for a minimum of two diners ($75 each); a multi-course spread showcasing either sashimi or sushi ($65 and $75, respectively); and omakase, or "chef's choice," designed with your tastes and the chef's latest shopping trip in mind. That last strategy is the most exclusive, since it starts at $100 a person and takes place in the rear of the restaurant, at a counter with only six seats.

Omakase is also an extraordinary education.

From the second you sit down, you know this will be no ordinary meal. One signal is a big bowl of ice decorated with live scallops and scampi from New Zealand. Another clue is the sight of one of two chefs shaving a long piece of Japanese horseradish into a thimble-size pile of pale green wasabi. Plum wine -- clear, slightly thicker than water and subtly potent -- is poured into a small etched-crystal glass, a liquid amuse bouche that is the first of many pleasures.

What resembles panna cotta is set down before each lucky customer. The ivory custard, called sesame seed "tofu," is made fresh daily, Yamazaki says, from sesame seeds that are roasted, turned into a paste with the addition of water and starch from a mountain root vegetable, and allowed to congeal slightly. The result is smooth and faintly nutty, enriched with a dab of briny sea urchin roe on top and circled with a broth of kelp and bonito flakes.

The expense of one of these feasts is supported by the staff's experience (Yamazaki trained in Japan for three years) and terrific ingredients, some of them purchased in Tokyo's famed Tsukiji market and incorporated into the cooking just a day later. "We got bluefin tuna from Florida today," says Yamazaki, who holds up a chunk of pinkish-red fish said to come from the jaw of the tuna. "This is special," he adds as he sets the prize on a grill behind him. Moments later, the fish is removed from the coals and arranged in a bowl with grated radish, garlic chips and fruity ponzu. The salad makes the taste buds salute. One spring night, I got in on some of the last of the season's baby squid. It was the size of your pinkie finger, incredibly tender, and it tasted as if it had just been plucked from the ocean. The chef served the treat on a nest of a steamed green vegetable called seri that reminded me of celery.

The thrill of dining at Sushi Taro is the unexpectedness. Just before we eat one course, we're shown a rare fish called flute, whose narrow body and O-shaped mouth make it look like the musical instrument of the same name. A few plates later, Yamazaki tells us it's time to choose our sushi by uncovering three black lacquer boxes, each containing an assortment of six or so different raw fish, among the seductions white salmon, butterfish, silver-skinned wild red snapper and that prized flute. He does this with the flair of a seasoned jeweler showing off gems, which these glistening pieces are.

As at Jos? Andres's intimate Minibar or Roberto Donna's much-missed Lab oratorio del Galileo, part of what you're paying for here is a private cooking show. Patrons aren't required to interact with the chefs, but they'd be foolish not to. Yamazaki is a quietly enthusiastic and entertaining guide.

For one course, he shows off one of those live scallops before he bands the dewy morsel in nori. "Touch it," he beckons. (We do, and the scallop constricts.) Later, he deftly chops mackerel into a pink paste using what must be one of the sharpest knives in town. "This is the way the fishermen do it on board a ship," he says, adding some mint like shiso, fresh ginger and salty plum to the moist mound. I want to be a Japanese fisherman, I think to myself as I take a bite of one of the finest tartars I've ever tasted.

If you're a timid eater, you might not like every dish. We're instructed to eat a small fried fish whole, and I do so without hesitation. The body of the fish (ayu, or Japanese trout) leaves a bitter aftertaste. "The fish eat only vegetables," explains the chef. Yet for the most part, the food here is subtle and delicate.

The parade of dishes calls for our full attention. But between courses at the sushi bar, I find myself admiring the little forest of bamboo behind the kitchen's picture window and the lulling Japanese music that plays in the background. This is a restaurant that revels in fine points. The pottery is beautiful. Should you request sake, a tray with a choice of six cups is proffered. No one here will tell you not to make the mistake of drowning your sushi or sashimi in soy sauce. No one needs to, because those raw fish selections are accompanied by a small box containing a shallow bowl of soy sauce and a little brush with which to "paint" the fish and protect its flavor.

Flawless? Not yet. In the main dining room, an order of chicken strips cooked at the table atop a coal-fueled stone grill is all about the show; the chicken itself is bland. Shrimp sushi is one-note eating, too. And good luck phoning for a reservation. (Does anyone ever answer a call, friends and I wonder?) Sushi Taro's wine list appears to have been designed by someone who would rather you drink sake or beer, while its dessert card includes a not-very-Japanese chocolate cake bought from a nearby bakery.

You don't have to park at the sushi counter for the chance to discover what makes Sushi Taro stand out from the crowd. A number of the dishes served as part of the omakase can be ordered a la carte or sampled from one of the tasting menus at the tiny front bar or in the main dining room. Some of my favorite memories from there include the aforementioned sesame seed "tofu"; greaseless tempura (perhaps clinging to fresh bamboo shoots); and slices of fatty, miso-sweetened beef tongue that should be mandatory eating for offal fans and might even convert naysayers. Rich and thin, the tongue is partnered with a rainbow of pickles that are so tangy and tasty, you'll find yourself popping them into your mouth as if they were nuts. As at the sushi bar, meals conclude with jewel-like fruit embedded in a cool cube of gelatin. Not much bigger than a domino, the artful bite ends the evening on a refreshing high.

No matter where you land at Sushi Taro, you will probably spend at least $60 to eat dinner. That's a lot of money. But have you checked flights to Tokyo lately?

Open: lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Closed Sunday. All major credit cards. Metro: Dupont Circle. Free validated garage parking at dinner. No smoking. Prices: Lunch entrees $12 to $35; dinner appetizers $8 to $20, five-course dinner $65, 10-course tasting menu $75.

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