Early on in my introduction to Washington’s sushi scene, a friend suggested I check out Sushi Taro.  It offered a little bit of everything: a la carte sushi and a dinner menu available at a sushi bar, table seating, or semi-private rooms with low tables and tatami mats for a more formal experience.  The fish was among the freshest I had tasted at that point, which helped me branch out beyond my comfort zone and try some new items like uni (sea urchin) and hokkigai (surf clam).

When I heard that they were closing their doors to renovate and focus on more of a high-end dining experience toward the end of 2008, my knee-jerk reaction was one of dismay.  How could they ruin such a good thing?  I was convinced that I had eaten my last meal at Sushi Taro.

And for a while, that was the case.  I was pouting, plain and simple.  If they wanted to change up and go for a more formal atmosphere, they could do it without me (of course they could and did).

Thankfully, my wife is far more practical when it comes to these kinds of things.  She pointed out the very positive experience we had at Makoto and suggested we apply an OpenTable gift check to make the meal a bit less of a splurge.  So we made a reservation for a Saturday night and prepared to see what Sushi Taro had become.

Our experience after the jump.Approaching Taro from the north, we walked past neighbor Komi and I was reminded that our favorite restaurant in the city had undergone a similar transformation to great success.  It put me in a more receptive frame of mind as we walked up the staircase next to the CVS loading dock.  As soon as that door shuts behind you, you’re in a separate world.

Remembering the duration of our last kaiseki-style meal, we had made a relatively early reservation.  We were greeted at the top of the stairs and immediately shown to our table, walking past a small cocktail bar that was already full when we arrived.  Our table was along a narrow dining room, set against the windows.  On the other side of the room were tall booths framed in light wood and decorated with warm fabric.  It certainly felt like a setting for an upscale dining experience.

We were handed our menus and we immediately turned to the insert describing that day’s tasting menus.  In addition to the traditional kaiseki tasting menu, which is offered for $80 per person, Sushi Taro offers a tasting menu that focuses more heavily on sushi for $75 per person as well as an upgrade to a “surf & turf” kaiseki that includes wagyu beef and lobster for $100 per person.  We opted for one traditional kaiseki and one sushi tasting menu to experience a broader range of dishes.

One thing that has not changed at Sushi Taro is the focus on that which is freshest.  The kaiseki menu changes almost daily, with the chefs often adding in dishes that highlight fish and vegetables they acquired that day.  Needless to say, that makes it impossible for us to give you any real idea of what you can expect when you visit, but I’ll try to touch on some of our favorites from our meal.

The first dish that Elizabeth received in the kaiseki tasting is one that seems to be a regular on the menu – a sesame “tofu” that is made in-house daily.  It had the silky consistency of tofu but a rich, savory flavor.  Served in a light broth, it was a great way to wake up the palate.

We enjoyed several dishes that made use of the fresh sardines that were in season when we dined, and we found ourselves raving over a landscape presentation that incorporated pork belly, fish and a combination of seared and pickled vegetables.  By the time the noodle hot pot arrived at the tail-end of the kaiseki meal, we were more than satisfied and frankly surprised by the amount of food we had been served.

The sushi tasting menu was a treat for me, interspersing hot dishes with several opportunities to select cuts of fish from their basic a la carte menu as well as their seasonal list.  Three-line grunt and sweet live shrimp were both new to me, and I was pleased to taste one of the lightest pieces of amberjack I’ve ever had.  The fatty tuna belly was simultaneously rich and meaty, a reminder of what the cut can be when sourced well.

Throughout our meal we found ourselves stopping to appreciate both the preparation and the presentation of our dishes.  Artful compositions drew attention to the precise cuts of fish and the ingredients that made up larger plates.  And it seemed like every course was served in a unique vessel – shells, hammered metal bowls, lacquered boxes.

Sushi Taro isn’t cheap (not that it ever was), but after our meal I’ve come to appreciate the changes that led to the elevated price tag.  This isn’t just a neighborhood sushi joint anymore – it’s a Japanese restaurant whose dining experience is on par with many of the best in the city.  I’m sorry I waited so long to check out Komi’s worthy “new” neighbor.



Sushi Taro
1503 17th St., NW
Washington, DC
Sushi Taro on Urbanspoon