When it comes to sushi in Washington, there are a few names that everyone knows for quality, selection and all-around positive dining experiences.  Sushi-Ko, Kaz Sushi Bistro, and Sushi Taro all come to mind immediately, and it’s a pretty safe bet that you’re going to find something on each of their menus to satisfy you.

But if you’re looking for good sushi on Capitol Hill, your options are far more limited.  While the Kabuki Sushi counter in Union Station offers decent handmade rolls at hard to beat prices, the atmosphere of the food court leaves quite a bit to be desired.  Kyoto Sushi, near the Union Pub where D Street intersects with Massachusetts Avenue in Northeast, is a reliable source of traditional nigiri and maki, but there’s not a lot of imagination on their menu…and they don’t exactly keep the most convenient hours.

Thank goodness for the wonders of the Internets!  Back when I was researching Makoto for Elizabeth’s celebratory dinner, I found one or two passing references to a little place called Momoyama.  From what I could tell, Momoyama was a little hole-in-the-wall sushi place that was all but unknown to most sushi-lovers in the District (a recent search of Don Rockwell, Chowhound, and a few other gathering places for foodies confirmed this when they came up empty).  I filed it away, resolved to check it out at some indeterminate later date.

The time finally came on a recent Thursday evening, when we found ourselves craving sushi but unwilling to wait the 20+ minutes that we were quoted at Sticky Rice.  We headed home and were resigned to a sushi-free evening until I remembered the little sushi place that was supposedly hiding out near My Brother’s Place behind the massive 101 Constitution Avenue.

What we found after the jump.

As it turns out, the few voices singing the praises of Momoyama were right on the money.  Despite the post-kickball crowds at My Brother’s Place and Hamilton’s, I was able to find a parking spot on the strange little curve of road that is 2nd Street, NW.  I stepped into Momoyama and was immediately taken with the place.  A traditional wooden sushi bar forms the entire back wall of the restaurant, the walls are decorated with what seem to be pages from an illustrated book that talks about the history, traditions and health benefits of a sushi-based diet.  Each table has a carafe of regular soy sauce and one of the low-sodium variety, and the foyer offers a sheaf of carry-out menus, a la carte sushi order forms, and business cards touting catering.

With seating for only 14 people at tables, 5 at a counter along the front wall and 3 at the sushi bar, it’s a good thing this place is as under-the-radar as it is.  When I walked in, there was only one couple in the place and they had just placed their order.  I sat down at the bar to take a look over the menu and pick out some rolls for a to-go order, and I was immediately greeted by a server who offered me free sake – a perk that can be enjoyed every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night.  I had arrived too late to take advantage of the standard $1/piece sushi happy hour that runs from 3:30 to 6 PM, but I was happy to partake of the cold sake and free bowl of salted edamame that saw me through the wait for my order.

Full disclosure: I can’t say a word about anything on the menu beyond the sushi, because I rarely make it past the rolls in a place that has a sushi chef on site.  But what I can say is this – the varieties I brought back to Elizabeth were head and shoulders above any other sushi we had ever eaten at home.  The Boston Roll, which features tuna, red snapper, avocado, asparagus and roe, was a great combination of flavors that we had never seen put together before.  The Momoyama Roll, which blends tuna, salmon, avocado and scallions, managed to highlight both fish with being overly fishy or confusing.  Every roll we had was well-wrapped and had just enough rice to avoid weighing it down.

To get the full Momoyama experience, we went back to eat in the restaurant.  It was good, but the star of this show is definitely the fish…everything else takes a back seat to the flavor and quality of the sushi.  The service was attentive and friendly – considering the fact that we were the only people in the place for the first 20 minutes of our visit, anything less would have been really disappointing.  The miso soup, unfortunately, was nothing to write home about – a broth that perfectly captured the sweet-savory-salty spirit of umami, but completely devoid of tofu, scallions or greens of any kind.  Once again, we found ourselves impressed by the creative rolls that populate the a la carte menu – a Lobster Roll that features little bites of lobster in a tangy mayonnaise, an Iguana Roll that manages to combine shrimp, avocado, asparagus and shiitake mushrooms without coming across as dense or boring.

Now that we’ve gone two-for-two in our Momoyama experiences, we’re comfortable recommending it as a great place to enjoy quality sushi on Capitol Hill – especially if you live nearby and can call in an order for pickup.  The prices are more in line with your average sushi restaurant than your standard take-out joint, so be prepared to spend between $5 and $10 on any roll you buy.  Nigiri sushi is also competitively priced, and you should be sure to check out the daily specials to find deals on meals, combos, and even unique fish that are fresh in (bluefin tuna, sea urchin and fatty tuna were available when we last visited).  Lunch specials and entrees check in at less than $10 each, and there are several boxed combo options for those who don’t have their favorite choices already committed to memory.

So check out this hidden gem on the Hill – just leave some room for us!

231 Second Street, NW
Washington, DC  20001
(202) 737-0397

Momoyama on Urbanspoon