Yuzu Japanese restaurant 柚子 日本料理店

japanese cake

I always have my radar up for any new (particularly Japanese) restaurant, that opens near us. I noticed a Washington Post article about a Japanese restaurant that opened about 1 month ago (“soft” opening) in our neck-of-the-woods. Judging from the WP article and the restaurant’s website, I decided this was a place we had to try particularly since they have omakase ($80 and up). So one evening we signed up and tried it out.

The restaurant is much larger than you would expect from outside.

We were seated at the counter (Chef’s table) which can accommodate 4 comfortably or 6 extremely good friends. The interior is nicely decorated with framed Japanese washcloths or “tenugui” 手ぬぐい along one wall.  (Washcloths is really an understatement because the Japanese have raised these humble household items to an art form–with nicely done colorful prints and whimsical subjects). The counter appeared to be a very impressive brand new solid slab of walnut wood.

We were greeted by a smiling Chef Yoshihisa “Yoshi” Ota (above). After a few dishes and drinks, we asked how he deiced to open this restaurant. He said, it was a long story that would take days to tell but he gave us the “cliff notes”  (truncated)  version. As a young sushi chef, he worked in Sushi Den in New York. After returning to Japan, he had an exclusive small Japanese restaurant in Ginza for 10 years. When “Kushi” Izakaya  was planning to open in DC he was contacted to be a chef there. Remembering his stint in New York, he wanted to come back to the US to serve “real” Japanese dishes to Americans and took the position as head Chef for Kushi. Fast forward a few more years and another stint at Sushi-ko in Chevy Chase, he realized his dream and opened his own restaurant Yuzu. He wanted a small restaurant where he would serve guests who appreciated and enjoyed real Japanese food. He thought about opening his restaurant in New York but there are so many Japanese restaurants in New York. Besides, he and his family had lived here for several years and developed an attachment to Bethesda. So he decided to open this restaurant here.

When faced with the selection of libations, we had to realize the hard fact that in Montgomery county, where this restaurant is located, the county controls the sale of alcohol. This makes it very challenging to stock good sake/liquors since the restaurateur has to go through the county liquor stores/board with all its rules and regulations rather than just purchasing through any wholesalers as is done in DC for example. Although Yuzu obtained the liquor license almost 1 month ago, Yoshi was disappointed that things were coming in very slowly and their sake list was rather small. We chose “Haiku” 俳句 which used to be our house sake. Slightly yeasty but still a rather agreeable sake.

Our course started with sunomono 酢の物 with “midorizu” 緑酢 (meaning “green vinegar” which is a vinegar dressing with grated Japanese cucumber) dressed thinly sliced conch and crab. Conch can be often too chewy but this was very nicely prepared. Next was flounder ヒラメ thinly sliced “Usuzukuri” 薄造り(below left). Other dishes included a simmered dish or “Nimono” 煮物 with homemade “Ganmodoki”  雁擬き with bamboo shoot and pork belly, vegetables dressed in tofu-sesame dressing or “shira-ae” 白和え (below right). All nicely done.

Although the order is not exact, another dish of deep fried “Kasago” カサゴ or scorpion fish in a broth with mushrooms (below) was also very nice.

At this point, we were really enjoying the dinner and I stopped taking pictures (I am not as dedicated as other food bloggers). We had a small sweet vinegar picked vegetables as a “hashi yasume” 箸休め meaning “to rest the chop sticks”. This was very refreshing; not too vinegary and not too sweet.

After this, we went into a “sushi” course. All were good especially the fatty salmon “aburi” 炙り. Anago アナゴ was also memorable with a nice sweet and tangy sauce. Marinated “tuna” or “zuke” and regular “tuna” were served one after the other for comparison. Sea scallop was fresh. It tasted sweet and buttery. Shime-saba しめ鯖 was also excellent. Ama-ebi (done half-and-half with wasabi and yuzu koshou) was also good. I may have missed few more items. Chef Yoshi served us rolls of tuna (or salmon, I am not sure) and Japanese pickled daikon “takuwan” 沢庵 as “shime” 〆 or “ending” item for the sushi course with a very nice and hot miso soup with red snapper (meat and jaw bone in it) in  a good briny broth.

In terms of special seasonings, Chef used a real fresh “wasabi daikon” rhizome from Japan grated on the traditional shark-skin grater adding a nice fresh wasabi taste to the dishes. As for the name sake, a large fresh yellow yuzu, again from Japan, and yuzu-koshou 柚子胡椒 were used effectively in sushi and other dishes.

As a desert, “mizu youkan” 水羊羹 with, we think, a maple syrup-based sauce, which is a nice American twist for this traditional summer-time Japanese sweet. At this point, we were quite full.

This post was not meant as a review of the restaurant but rather our first impression of Yuzu. The restaurant is still in a “preview” or “soft” opening phase. Yoshi told us that he would like to do the “Grand” opening soon. As a result, the restaurant and staff were still “ironing out some of the kinks.” For example, the front door kept locking and wait staff continually had to rush to let in customers who were vainly pulling on the door to get in (not good for business if the customers are locked out). Early in the evening when the restaurant was rather empty, everything went OK but as the tables started filling up, we could see that things got a bit frantic especially for the chef who prepared sushi and sashimi orders for the tables as well as taking care of us at the counter. His attention was drawn in so many different directions .

The omakase course was quite good. The sashimi was fresh and the chef did many different treatments to extract the best out of them but nothing was unexpected or spectacular.  We understand the chef had to balance the quality and cost. We were a bit concerned that the restaurant seemed too large for the present contingent of wait staff and, particularly, for one chef, no matter how talented, to pay attention to all the details. We sincerely hope this restaurant will succeed. We look forward to seeing a few sous chefs, and an expanded sake list on our next visit. We will be back.

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