Love for Food + Virginia

Sushi Zen

Sushi is a big deal to me. When I was a little munchkin, still small enough to need a car seat, my dad used to take me to lunch at a local Japanese Restaurant. He would hoist me up to sit with him at the sushi bar and he recalls with a laugh that all you could see from the other side of the bar were little hands and chopsticks reaching up to grab a roll. On my tenth birthday, I arrived at the same sushi restaurant, entered a private tatami room and was greeted by five of my best friends jumping out from under the sunken space below the table yelling "Surprise!!".

I've had a lot of sushi over the years since then. During college, I frequented a cheap but reliably good itsy-bitsy restaurant on Newbury Street in Boston called Shino Express. According to reports on Yelp, it's been renamed Snappy Sushi. In Phoenix, I was very impressed with Hana not only for their sushi but their pickled items and perfectly grilled steak. If you're in Arizona and you want a quality, and from what I can tell quite authentic Japanese meal, you must go to Hana. I'm still on their email newsletter, through which they announce news like what fresh catch has just come in. Although it's a chain, Kabuki in Tempe, AZ has an awesome happy hour and a fun atmosphere. In Old Town Scottsdale, urban and cheeky Stingray Sushi has some creative and unique fusion dishes... incorporating elements of Latin cuisine like jalapeno and cilantro.

Last year, I made it to sushi Mecca – Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. It was more than a meal, it was a full-sensory experience. Quite intimidating too. I've included a snippet from my travel journal describing the meal at the end of this post.

I wasn't planning on writing about sushi yet, but I picked up some for takeout from Sushi-Zen, in Arlington this afternoon on a whim. When I got home I realized I couldn't just photograph those pretty rolls and sashimi in their plastic to-go container. I needed to properly display them for a photo shoot. It took samurai-like will not take a bite until I'd snapped a good shot.

The sushi at Sushi-Zen is fresh and above average, but not other-worldly. If you go there, I'd recommend trying their Vegetable Sukiyaki (a large pot filled with a sweet and salty fragrant broth filled with tofu, bean thread noodles, and assorted vegetables (my favorite of which is Kabocha, a japanese pumpkin). Regretfully, I did not have sukiyaki in Japan, where it is typically cooked at your table. Someday I will do a post specifically on sukiyaki. Sushi-Zen offers a lot on its menu besides sushi, such as Donburi, Soba, Udon and Rice Balls. Some parts of the dinner menu are pricey - but their portions are generous and the service is very friendly.

Today I ordered the Sushi Special Combo from the Lunch Box section of Sushi-Zen's menu. It included three pieces of sushi (tuna, salmon and red snapper), three pieces of sashimi (I actually got four – two tuna, two red snapper) and three pieces each of California Roll (with Tobiko (fish roe) substituted for cucumber which is a good replacement in my opinion), Tuna and Salmon rolls. The tuna and salmon (my favorite) were buttery and fresh. I wasn't too fond of the Red Snapper... a little tough. The fish portions were very large. It also came with miso soup and vegetables which tasted like they'd been cooked in a sukiyaki broth (Mirin, sugar and soy sauce). All of that for $13.07 after tax. You can see from my photo that it's a large meal.

*Another must try spot here in the DC area is Kotobuki. The fish is always fresh and the atmosphere is unpretentious. The only downside is limited seating in a small space which creates a long wait on most nights - but the retro-"is that a typo?"-pricing will surely cheer you up once you get a seat.

_______________________________________________Excerpt from my travel journal from a 2008 trip to Tokyo, Japan:

"We were able to get in line for lunch at one of the dozen fresh-as-you-can-get sushi restaurants. Some lines were several hours long. We found a place where we waited outside for only 45 minutes. The lines are so long for each restaurant because of high demand but also because each restaurant is only about 8ft by 14ft. Big enough for a sushi bar and seats for roughly 12 customers. It was so tight that when I sat down I had to put my legs to the side because there wasn't enough room for them between my stool, the bar and space for the waiter to squeeze by behind me. It was the most intimidating meal I've ever had. The chef was about three feet in front of me, with a stern expression that meant I better like and finish the masterpiece he'd prepared because anything less would be dishonorable. Fortunately it was delicious! But an enormous portion which I could not finish. I tried, but I contemplated the consequence - not being able to keep it down and having to leave the sushi bar running. Every delectable piece of Nigiri was buttery, perfectly fresh, beautifully vibrant and expertly presented! Sushi heaven! We didn't take any photos inside but I did snap a shot of the menu board ( I had selection C, Brian had D)."

Arizona, Arlington, cucumber, DC, Food for Conversation, Japan, Japanese, Kotobuki, Phoenix, Pumpkin, Rice, sashimi, sukiyaki, sushi, Sushi-Zen, Tempe, Tokyo, Tsukiji, and more:

Sushi Zen + Virginia