Okay, first things first: do you have any idea how tough it was not to make a “Domo arrigato” pun on robatayaki or to rhyme “Kushi” and “sushi” in the title?  Anyone who knows me knows that this is either an indication that I’m growing as a person or a case of me being paralyzed by too many options.  I’m guessing the latter.

In any event, I’ve been looking forward to writing about Kushi since I found myself near the Convention Center at lunchtime a few weeks ago.  The restaurant bills itself as an izakaya, a “sit-down sake shop.”  In practical terms, it’s a full-service Japanese restaurant that offers sushi, grilled and skewered entrees and an impressive beverage menu.

That diversity allows for a wide range of experiences depending on what you’re in the mood for.  Looking for a few tender, savory skewers or charcoal grilled items to tame your appetite?  Pull up a stool at the first counter, where you can watch them prepared and cooked before your eyes.  Eager for some a la carte sushi?  There’s a second counter at the back of the shop for that.  And there’s table seating throughout the space if you want a little of both and some more besides.

I walked in by myself for lunch, and I was invited to grab a seat at the sushi counter.  Sushi sounded good (and looked better), but a quick read through the lunchtime menu convinced me to try a trio of skewers.  The combination of price and selection was just too tempting to resist.

After the jump, a rundown on the robatayaki and the details on Kushi’s newest omakase offerings.

The lunch options at Kushi offer some excellent ways to explore the restaurant’s menu without breaking the bank.  Donburi rice bowls are available for $8-$10, and the deal includes miso soup and a side of Japanese pickled vegetables (chips with a light and sweet vinegar flavor instead of a briny bite).  Sushi can be a bit more expensive, but the chef’s selections are likely to focus on the best and freshest items at his disposal.

For me, the skewer selection was just too much to resist.  A $12 meal earned me the right to select any three skewers (four if I wanted to go the vegetarian route) with soup, pickled veggies and steamed rice.  And they weren’t skimping on flavors, either, with offerings like Berkshire pork belly and moulard duck sausage.  I ordered one of each without hesitation and added in an intriguing third choice: chicken breast chunks with marinated cod roe.  An iced green tea would wash it all down nicely.

I wasn’t disappointed, and I could have easily understood paying quite a bit more for everything I got.  The miso was subtle, with that light and savory flavor that’s overwhelmed by salty broth in too many sushi joints.  The rice was sufficiently sticky to allow me to pick up clumps with my chopsticks.  And the pickled vegetables provided a nice contrast to the rich flavors of my skewers, serving as acceptable palate cleansers as I swapped from pork to chicken to duck.  Among my skewers, I was most impressed by the pork belly, though I found myself lingering over each bite of the sausage as I tried to identify as many spices as possible (I gave up after about six or eight).

On my next visit, I will definitely request a seat at the robata grill.  I’m eager to see the chefs in action as they bring pork belly to that beautiful balance point where it’s crispy on the outside and all but melting on the inside.  I want to know what those deep, flavorful spices are that they mix into the duck sausage.  And I want to keep an eye on the chicken, as mine came out a bit dry (a condition that was exacerbated by the saltiness of the roe on top).  More than anything, I want to get a better look at how it all comes together.  I saw a water bath that suggested sous vide preparations as well as the obvious charcoal grill – and that’s a combination I want to explore further.

As luck would have it, I can snag a seat at the grill and take part in another great option that Kushi has recently rolled out: omakase dinners.  For a full nine courses, you place your dining experience in the hands of your chef.  At Kushi, the nine dishes will change every three weeks (necessitating a quick return visit if you fall in love with whatever you eat the first time.  Currently, they include items like fatty tuna with scallion and pickled daikon radish, fire-roasted baby conch with shiso butter and a sweet potato bean cake with roasted hot tea.

The omakase experience is only available for dinner at the sushi bar and the robata grill (to facilitate face-to-face interaction with the chef) Wednesday through Saturday.  It costs $60 per person, though a $40 per person seven-course version is also offered.  Sake pairings run $30 with the nine-course menu and $20 with the seven-course menu.

If you’ve tried some of their other options – rice bowls, sushi, etc. – let us know what you think.  Did I make the smart call ordering the grilled skewers?  Is Kushi sushi the way to go?  I’m eager to get back to Kushi to experience some more of their expansive menu – I suspect there’s plenty more goodness where this lunch came from.

Kushi Izakaya & Sushi
465 K Street, NW
Washington, DC
Kushi Izakaya & Sushi on Urbanspoon