Join the Sushi (Sake) Club

I find it difficult to define what makes good sushi. These days, it seems that unoriginal sushi restaurants are all over the place. And most of them do their unoriginal sushi pretty well, using high quality, fresh fish – an absolute must with even the lowest rung sushi. And I do not give originality credits for a roll where they stick two or three types of fish together with a few sauces and suddenly jack the price up to $10-15 per roll. That's just highway robbery. For that kind of money I could order the tuna and salmon rolls myself for $4 apiece, dismantle them and make the darn “superman” roll myself. For what I obviously lack in manners, I make up for in common sense – that's sucker pricing right there.

So with all of my sushi idiosyncrasies (many of which remain unmentioned), how do I possibly grade a sushi joint? It's simple really. I look for three things: the classic/unoriginal sushi done exceptionally well, faux originality for a good price (under $10 a roll), or real originality. Sushi is one of my absolute favorite cuisines to eat, and I have tried many many sushi restaurants, so at least I can uphold my opinions.

While I would now like to list the aforementioned sushi idiosyncrasies, I find it would be more industrious to tell you about an actual sushi restaurant in DC – Sake Club – that we ventured to with my Mom and Dad. This modern Japanese warrior decor sushi house is located right across the street from the Woodley Park Metro near Connecticut and 24th St NW.

Sake had some big elevation in the middle of each table, like a serving level above the eating level, but I found it was more for show than anything and really just sort of got in the way. I also thought the four menus – regular, sushi, happy hour and sake – were a bit cumbersome, although their happy hour drink and sushi specials until 7PM were pretty decent (maki roll combo or nigiri combo for $7, cheap house martinis and sakes and half price Japanese beer).

I found the overall menu to be extensive and classy, but not too original. The vegetarian sushi was impressive, with a number of maki and nigiri options. I had personally never seen veggie nigiri (like spinach or avocado in this case) or a fully vegetarian sushi dinner, and Julia was pretty excited to try out a few of them. I thought the more classic maki and nigiri were pretty reasonably priced, while some of the less classic maki (like dragon, caterpillar, rainbow, fiesta and vampire) were outrageously high. Plus, while they all seemed well-conceived, I had seen all of them before in one way or another and was unwilling to pay $12 for one. I saw very little on the menu that was original, so why don’t they just stick to the classics altogether and just ignore the (highly profitable?) nicknamed rolls? Or come up with something I’ve never seen before, and then maybe I’d pay $12 or $15 for one. This is not a plague on Sake Club; it is a plague on many sushi restaurants. I just was not expecting it from a place of this caliber and reputation.

Needless to say, I can quickly divorce myself from an underwhelming OR overpriced sushi menu if the sushi I order is excellent. And thankfully for Sake Club, what I did order was excellent. I ordered the classics (in my book) to see if they could do them well. I ordered nigiris – Tuna, Salmon, Flounder, Cooked Shrimp – and makis – Spicy Tuna and Shrimp Tempura. About as basic as I can dream up. This really is my test plate at any sushi place: tests the fish quality and freshness and size/quality of the chef’s sashimi cut in the nigiri, and displays quality of flavors and cleanliness in doing the bigger maki rolls. I especially like ordering a shrimp tempura roll because they can be one of the most luxurious tasting bites of food you will ever have when done well, and a clunky, awkward, bland mess when done poorly. A good litmus test to see how they handle something like that.

So let me reiterate, Sake Club passed these tests with flying colors. The fish was so fresh and cut so well that the nigiri had a butter-like consistency. They were big enough to really enjoy, but not too thick or garish. I loved that the maki were done “inside-out” (rice on the outside) with toasted black sesame seeds crusting the rice. It is little things like that, which make me appreciate a sushi roll. The spicy tuna was one of the spicier ones I have ever tasted, but it was extremely flavorful, had no mayonnaise and was not a big gloppy mess like so many often are. And the tempura roll was as luxurious as desired as well. It probably could have used a little sauce to bring out the flavors (maybe they forgot it) but it was so well-crafted and balanced in crispiness and succulence, I really couldn’t have been much more pleased.

So yes, the menu didn’t excite me, but as you can see, I am just as happy being a sushi simpleton. And yes, there were a few things that weren’t perfect like Julia’s (frozen?!) spinach nigiri being bland and there being no side salad for less than $7. But, if you asked me to go back for a sushi meal at Sake Club, I would remember how delicious the most important part of the meal was, and quickly say “yes!”

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