KAZ Sushi Bistro: It’s About Time

My earliest memories of eating Japanese food are trips to Benihana with my family.  I marveled at how the chefs managed to skewer meat with a sword-like knife and fling it onto a plate without inflicting injury on themselves or the diners.  I loved all the magic tricks they performed. My favorite was the one where they execute a series of quick chops and transform grains of rice into the shape of Mickey Mouse ears. 

While I was feasting on Hibachi chicken rice at Benihana with my kids in the 1990’s, Chef Kaz Okochi was turning the tables on sushi. He had come to Washington, DC to work at SushiKo after meeting the restaurant’s original owner at culinary school in Osaka, Japan. Okochi was surprised by the cookie-cutter approach to sushi here, and the across-the-board offerings of tempura and teriyaki at Japanese restaurants. He set out to infuse creativity and non-traditional ingredients into Japanese food, and his ideas took hold.

Okochi applied his skills and his growing knowledge to opening his own restaurant, KAZ Sushi Bistro at 19th and I Streets, NW in 1999.  The DC mainstay, known for its its modern twists on Japanese food, is currently celebrating its 20-year anniversary. This is no small feat in DC’s competitive and evolving restaurant environment.

When KAZ Sushi Bistro opened, my own culinary interests as a diner -beyond Benihana- included barbecue ribs, chicken wings, and Chinese food. An obsession for Indian, Thai, and Mexican cuisines followed. An affinity for Japanese food was much slower to take root, and it’s only recently that my fascination has fully been fueled. 

As I finally take advantage of an opportunity to dine at KAZ Sushi Bistro, I can’t help but feel regret at having lost out on experiencing Okachi’s journey as a chef.  How many times could I have lingered at the sushi bar to witness Okochi perform his own brand of magic with nigiri and blowfish- an art in which he is specially trained?  How can I hold my head high as one of DC’s “food-obsessed” diners when I’ve never had the pleasure of digging into the chef’s celebrated Sea Bass Napoleon, which has served as a signature dish for the entire lifespan of the restaurant?

Kaz Sushi Bistro Sea Bass Napoleon
KAZ Sushi Bistro Sea Bass Napoleon

Enough of the self-recrimination.  I need to make up for lost time as best I can. Fortunately, Chef Okochi still presides over his restaurant, where you can find him almost daily.  And while he is not always wielding a knife or blowtorch, his talent is still on full display.

My recent dinner at Kaz Sushi Bistro features a selection of dishes that propels my palate into overdrive.  My dining companions and I delve into kampachi yellowtail crudo embraced by beets and dots of pink peppercorns. 

Kaz Sushi Bistro kampachi
KAZ Sushi Bistro kampachi

Then we eagerly poke our chopsticks into bright tuna poke with almonds, shiso, and roasted onion sauce.

Kaz Sushi Bistro poke
KAZ Sushi Bistro poke

As we enjoy our food, Chef Okochi is regaling us with tales of sake. He is a certified sake adviser, and even brews his own blends. As Okochi explains various flavor profiles and brewing methods related to sake, I think back to my early impressions of he spirit, dating back to the days when most sake was served hot. I wasn’t a fan. Okochi was instrumental in introducing cold sake to DC restaurants, which required convincing wholesalers in California to ship it here. Today sake tastings at Kaz Sushi Bistro come in many forms and you can choose to imbibe in sakes that range from fragrant, to light and smooth, to full body.

Chef Kaz Okochi
Chef Kaz Okochi

The sake spell is broken when a server presents us a plate of perfectly grilled octopus paired with grilled avocado. This is followed by tempura monkfish, delicately fried yet utterly crisp.

Kaz Sushi Bistro octopus
KAZ Sushi Bistro octopus

Asian style short ribs topped with wisps of crispy potatoes is not necessarily where I expect this Japanese meal to go. But there it is, a wow plate of tender meat with a sauce that is tangy and sweet. I’ve exceeded my capacity to consume another bite of food, but find myself unable to resist the seductive powers of this dish. Just one more bite, I tell myself, as I dive in for more.

KAZ Sushi Bistro short rib
KAZ Sushi Bistro short rib

Ah, the naked beauty of nigiri. It’s a welcome sight, an exclamation point on the short ribs.

Kaz Sushi Bistro nigiri
KAZ Sushi Bistro nigiri

We regretfully decline dessert but then relent as green tea crepes with ginger ice cream, black sesame panna cotta, and miso caramel ice cream with sake marshmallow appear before us, begging to be the sweet ending to our meal.

KAZ Sushi Bistro green tea crepes with ginger ice cream

KAZ Sushi Bistro green tea crepes with ginger ice cream

Okuchi says he is ready to begin passing the torch to others. To this end, he has brought in two sushi chefs from Michelin ranked restaurants in Japan to work with him.

“When I first came to the U.S. it took me a few years to learn.  So, they are still learning, but I’m letting them try new things.”  The chef muses that he is now prepared to stay in his comfort zone, while his team experiments.
“Now people want more ‘authentic’ food,” which he admits is a difficult word.  But at the same time diners are more adventurous.  “Sea urchin, squid, and octopus are the hottest ingredients….  things change.”

Despite his intention to slow down, there’s clearly more to come from Chef Kaz Okuchi. And luckily that means there’s plenty of time left for me to enjoy what he’s cooking up.

KAZ Sushi Bistro, 1915 I Street, NW, Washington, DC 20006

Been There, Eaten That was a guest of KAZ Sushi Bistro.

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