This is a continuation of the Sushi Taro thread now Sushi Taro has reopened. You can read the first review by MrGenius in the link below.
Below is my review.
Sushi Taro opened on the 23rd. We called on the first day to reserve for this weekend. We had a small debate as we worried that Sushi Taro would turn into likes of Sushi Ko and others, as another fancy sushi place with high prices, catering to business dinners and people with money who care mostly for the fancy decor fitting for the "class." We feared Sushi Taro would lose the authentic Japanese character in the name of free enterprise (beside seeing the only Izakaya in DC disappear). But as regulars, we had to check it out.
Parking arrangement was same. Except now it's free.
We entered the new clean looking stairs, with only a pot of beautiful orchids on top to attract our attention (and no one waiting.) When we turned the corner, I was surprised to see a spacious reception area with no one crammed at the desk (relief). The owner and hostess greeted us warmly, as they showed us the bar area immediately to the right where the bathroom used to be (fancy.). With new age? "calm" music overhead, we walked down the spacious hall with booths on the left, and a few tables on the right (see new website). I was drawn by the beautiful white chandelier hanging (see new website) at the main dinning space at the end of the hall. The main dinning space has 2 sets of table for 6 in the center and 5 small tables on the side. It has a wonderful tall ceiling, with support beams painted black very reminiscent of Japanese shrines and old building.
We were seated with a drink menu, a Kaiseki menu and a small dish menu. I didn't look at the drink menu (probably the same extensive selection). The Kaiseki menu (could have been condensed into one paragraph), features classic Kaiseki (for two only) $75 pp, Sushi Kaiseki $75pp and Sashimi Kaiseki $65pp. The small dish menu features limited selection of Japanese dishes from the old menu on the left, daily specials like before in the center (special fish flown from Japan) and a la cart sushi on the right. The price is about 20% higher.
They got rid of the semi-American and "touristy" dishes that you can get at any neighborhood pseudo-Japanese shop. Stuff like steak, California & dragon rolls...etc.
We ordered the classic Kaiseki (as I had plenty of their Sashimi Omakase before and expect similar). 5 minutes after the drinks came, the first dish arrived. Saseme seed tofu with Uni and Natto in a light fish broth (I think most of the broths for the Kaiseki dishes were the same). The sesame seed tofu is somewhat gelatinous, smooth in texture, has excellent sesame aroma and flavor. The Uni is FRESH and sweet that even my seafood weary wife loved. They blended well and melted in my mouth, with a little bit of flavor from the fish broth to keep it balanced. Good start, we both gave it a 8-9.
The second dish was two pieces of broiled eel made in-house on a tabletop grill. They were bite sized and unlike the regular eels (that came from China with all the food concern), they didn't taste sweet like candy, and the natural taste of the eel showed through the delicate flavoring. I gave it a 6-7. My wife gave it a 5 as she didn't like eels.
The third dish was Ankimo (monkfish liver) in small pieces, wrapped in soft cabbage in fish broth. The rich taste of the Ankimo balanced well with the cooked cabbage, with moisture from the broth. The portion was small enough not to get sick of all the ankimo (like the bowl they gave in the old menu). They went well, and made a convert of my anti-ankimo wife. We both gave it an 8-9 and would probably order it separately in the future.
The fourth dish was shabu shabu with two individual charcoal stoves, metal bowls with fish broth. You were given three pieces of snapper, two pieces of bamboo shoots and thick flat seaweed. I made the mistake of not waiting for the broth to heat up. But the fish was sweet, and the rest of the soup was excellent. The broth had good delicate flavor. We both gave it a 7-8.
The fifth dish was the sashimi on a bowl of ice and bamboo leaves. There were three pieces of chu-toro, two pieces of snappers and two shrimps. For a guy who is past his toro eating phase (min 10 pounds) and actually sick of anymore toro, the toro I got was the BEST toro I have ever eaten. A third of the toro slice was not fatty, and the other part was quite fatty. It (truly) melted in your mouth like butter, with a balance of fat and fish flavor. No connective tissue. My wife liked the shrimps. The snappers are standard for Sushi Taro. The most beautiful of their new ware is their soy sauce bottle. Beautiful subtle crackling glass pattern.
The sixth dish was a large plate consisting of pieces of tiny flavored cubes of bamboo shoots which were excellently flavored and tasted like magic (8-9), two tiny skewers of tamago with shrimp (plain 3), two small slices of chicken meatloaf (could use more flavor 4), a piece of sashimi with interesting nori over it ( standard 5), two tiny cooked squid – best most tender squid we’ve both had with thousands of squid under our belt– (9), 6 tiny grilled “minnows” (6-7), and a whole 8 inch grilled fish which we loved, but I fear many western diners wouldn’t know how to negotiate the spines (7-8)
The seventh, was a cold dish of two pieces of medium duck breast (excellent soft, tender 7), a piece of pumpkin (sweet 7 ), a piece of Taro (plain 4), a piece of Japanese ?jello which was excellent and probably the most spicy of the whole course (8-9) and large octopus tentacles, which were good (7) We thought the temperature should be hotter…for the cold dish but everyone has their preferences.
The eighth was clam steamed rice, with cold cooked napa/carrot and other vegetables in broth on the side. We were a bit disappointed as the clam rice was compacted into the bowl, it was cold, and the clam had some sand and tiny remnants of shell (3). It had a light flavor which a higher temperature could have brought it out. The veggies were decent in broth (5).
After the courses, our dessert was hot tea with tea flavored custard in a cute glass bottle. The custard/crème brulee was excellent with a caramel bottom. The cream flavor was intense, the texture and the thickness was just right, mixed with a hint of tea flavor. I noticed the caramel bottom at the end, and it was a good finish. We’d both give it a 9.
Overall, the entire meal was very authentic. My wife says it felt like you were eating in Japan. The service was good, with each dish paced and presented in a very timely manner. The hostess returns and asks how each dish was, shortly after serving each of them. The place was full, but it didn’t feel crowded or noisy. The kitchen may need to quiet down, however.
We walked out of there averaging 100 per person with tip and taxes.
Sushi Taro made a big stride towards likes of Komi in terms of food. I think they could refine their Kaiseki to include a “main dish,” shore up the weak spots in their courses, train their waitstaff to readily introduce what the dishes are in a professional manner, and perhaps appoint a lookout waitstaff to immediately spot diners in need while their waitstaff is busy serving others to make this a top level place. But so far, they've done an excellent transformation.
Midway into the meal, we realized that the make-over is the owner’s will to excel in his class of food, going from Japanese bar food to a level of much more refined Japanese cooking. It’s like an artist that gives up mass producing mediocre pieces meant for the market and income, to now focusing on very few quality pieces that he or she really excels in. In the process, customers who demand the value bargain may be left out for customers who demand a more Japanese and refined fare. It’s like if a popular Chinese takeout place were to forgo the P.F. Chang’s model of serving popularized American foods, and go straight for the authentic 5 star level. You'll wind up with angry old customers who demand return of two for one dollar eggrolls, 5 dollar chop suey lunch specials and all-you-can-eat buffet fare. One can easily get their 8 dollar dragon roll, and 5 dollar California roll at any neighborhood me-too shops. But to find a place that truely excel in their food in DC, is tougher.
In conclusion, I am glad that instead of turning into an American place like Sushi Ko and others, Sushi Taro strive to excel in their art of authentic Japanese dining. Excellence in food is what good diners appreciate right? The food so far is on par or better than Makoto, with similar value (as Taro’s dishes often contain multiple items). The experience however, is entirely different, as it is relaxed and very enjoyable. Kind of reminds me of going to a good resort like Pamilla or Four Seasons on the big island. To find a truly Japanese place, that gives up an already successful business model, at the risk of tremendous financial failure in these economic times, to strive to excel in the quality and authenticity of their food, is inspiring. I will continue to be a regular at Sushi Taro.
I do look forward to what other diners have to say (besides that it's not bargain basement anymore).