Monday, March 14, 2011

Lunch at Kushi

Now that my sister and I live in different states and live busy lives, it is hard for us to see each other often.  We text, email, and call each other and often as we can, but it's not the same as actually spending time together.  Thus when I came home for the week—and by home I mean to the house I grew up in, in Maryland—we planned to have a nice lunch out together.  She had read an article about a new restaurant in DC called Kushi, and shortly after that article, a coupon for $25 on Groupon came out that was worth $50 at Kushi.  So it was decided: to Kushi we would go.

On Saturday I stopped by her place in Virginia to pick her up, and then we drove to DC.  We managed to find street parking pretty easily and then walked a short distance to the restaurant.  For a Saturday at 12:30pm, it wasn't very crowded.  The restaurant itself was fairly spacious, brightly lit with natural light from the large windows, and the tables were arranged around an open grill/work area where you could see rolls being made and meats being grilled.  It wasn't exactly an open kitchen, since there was a closed kitchen area in the back, but it was nice to see some of the "cooking" action.

We decided to order the pork belly lunch set, buta kukuni ($8), which is served with miso soup and pickled vegetables, and the 3 piece skewer lunch set, which is served with 2 pieces of nigri, a California roll, miso soup, and pickled vegetables ($18).  We also ordered a special roll for ($7).

The miso soup was good, nothing amazing, and the pickled vegetables—daikon, cucumber, and carrot—didn’t taste so much pickled as brined.  Average.

The braised pork belly, which was served with a bowl of rice, was good.  The meat was tender, soft, and flavorful.  The braising liquid was very good and mildly sweet with the typical dark, caramelized flavor of good braises.  After the pork belly was gone, we ended up mixing the remaining liquid with the rice to make sure we got all of it.  It wasn't a wow dish, but it was good; a solid 7.5 out of 10.

For the 3 piece skewer set, we were allowed to pick from a long list of options.  We decided to try, from left to right, crispy chicken skin (kawa), duck sausage, and black angus strip loin and eringi.  We ate the strip loin first.  This skewer was very average.  The meat was not well seasoned, and though it was perfectly cooked and moist, it just didn't have the flavor punch that I was expecting nor did it have any smoky flavor to it, which was disappointing, because why else do you grill meat?  The eringi mushroom was odd; we actually didn't realize it was mushrom at first.  With the spicy salt combination, it was better, but still not amazing.  We gave it a 5 out of 10.
The duck sausage was a nice improvement.  It was smooth, flavorful, and tasty without being fatty.  I like the full meatiness of it and the distinct flavor it carried of "game" meat.  We gave this a solid 7.5 or 8 out of 10.
The crispy chicken skin definitely lived up to its name.  The skin actually surprised me with it's crispiness; it was very different from the "crispy" that you get from baking a chicken.  For a relatively small piece, it had surprising textural differences.  While the outside was pleasantly crispy, the piece was also chewy, but in a very good way.  My sister commented on the fact that she was surprised that it didn't taste stringy, leathery, or fatty.  We both agreed that if we hadn't been told, we wouldn't have been able to tell that it was chicken skin.  My sister, who is very much a white meat girl (she actually enjoys eating chicken breasts, which is something I do not understand), enjoyed this even though she is not a fan of the skin on chicken normally, so that was quite a feat that Kushi accomplished there. An 8.5 out of 10.

(Note: These skewers don't have to be ordered in "set," but we chose to do so because it was cheaper.  For example, the duck sausage alone would have been $6, the strip loin would have been $8, and the chicken skin would have been $4)

Along with the 3 piece lunch set was two pieces of nigri and a roll.  No choice was offered, but I happily accepted the tuna and whitefish nigri and the California roll with real lump crab meat.  The fish was fresh and flavorful; I don't normally like nigri, but this was good.  The California roll was also well executed, and it was nice to actually eat one that has real crab meat in it, rather than the imitation stuff.  A 7.5 out of 10.  Good, but nothing mind-blowing.

We had read reviews about a live uni roll and we asked our waiter if they had it (certain rolls are "limited" or not always available) and when he returned to answer our question, he gave us the list of all of the restaurant's special rolls of the day.  My sister and I got hooked on the idea of the wasabi scallop roll and so we decided to order that one.  We were glad we did.  It was very good.  The orange balls you see on the outside of the roll were actually flaky and crunchy, like puffed rice, and the scallop itself was sweet and a little spicy and absolutely delicious.  A 9.5 out of 10.  We actually didn't know the price of this roll until after we'd eaten it, when we asked the waiter (since it was a special, it wasn't on the menu); we assumed that it would be at least $12, given the fact that it was a special roll and we were eating in DC, but it was actually only $7.  Unbelievable!

Once we saw the dessert menu, my sister and I knew that we want to order basically all of it.  Plus, given how little the actual lunch had cost, we still needed to spend about $20 on dessert.  We looked carefully over the selection of sorbets and gelatos and decided on which five we would order and then, to prevent the frozen desserts from melting, agreed to order them in 3 rounds.  This meant, however, that we had to do dessert pairings.  Which flavors would go well together?  What did we want to start with and end with?  It was serious business, and I took out my pen so we could work it out on paper.

For our first round, we decided to start with a pear sorbet (right) and a wasabi gelato (left).  I definitely thought the wasabi gelato should go first, since it was a risk, and it needed to go with something more tame and "normal," thus the choice of pear.  We tried the wasabi gelato first, with some reserve and apprehension since we didn't know what to expect, and we were surprised by how it was executed.  It truly was a palate cleanser.  It was sweet, but also boldly spicy.  We didn't think the flavor of the wasabi would be captured quite so, uh, honestly.  It really cleared the sinuses.  While we enjoyed the wasabi gelato and appreciated the bravery and creativity of the kitchen, we couldn't continue eating it for long.  As my sister aptly noted, it was like a shot of tequila: good, strong, but not exactly something you can keep coming back for more of.  We let it sit to the side while we ate our other desserts, and then we discovered something: if we let the gelato melt, the creamy melted liquid was not as spicy as the still-frozen gelato.  The gelato became much more bearable and fun to eat once we discovered this, since we could then handle more of it.
Compared to the intensity of the wasabi and the intensity of the other flavors we later ordered, the pear sorbet was very tame and mild.  It was sweet and it tasted of summer, but it just lacked a little character.  It this sorbet was a person, she would be quiet (the wasabi would have been very overwhelmingly chatty); a 7.5 out of 10.  I told my sister that this ice cream could probably benefit from a little bit of salt, and so...

To join our first two orders of dessert was a sea salt gelato, pictured in the center.  Sound a little strange?  Take the jump.  It was creamy; it was sweet; it was salty with an oomph.  We were wowed.  The gelato had a  lot of character, and it was very well balanced.  For those of you who have had caramel beurre salé ice cream or salted caramel, this was comparable, except, not so buttery.  A 9.5 out of 10.
My sister and I loved the taste of the pear sorbet combined with the sea salt gelato.  That was a marriage made in heaven.  It had all the lovely, soft floral notes from the sorbet and all the oomph of the salt in the gelato, and they complimented each other very well.

For our next round, we ordered a salty plum gelato (left) and a wildflower honey gelato (right).  The salty plum gelato sadly didn't taste very much of salty plum (which in Vietnamese we call xi muoi), and was very very similar to the sea salt gelato from before, except with vague floral notes from the plum.  However, we discovered, once again, that if we let the gelato melt, the flavor changed.  This time, the creamy liquid retained the sea salt taste while the remaining frozen lump tasted much more strongly of xi muoi or preserved plum.  A 7.5 out of 10.
The wildflower honey gelato was so good, I was astounded.  This was a 10 out of 10.  It captured the essence of the honey perfectly, without being too sweet.  This kitchen has mastered the art of balance.  I can't say any more about this because you really have to try it for yourself.  It was delicious.

We had originally planned to stop after the third round of dessert, but then I was very tempted by the sound of the heirloom apple sorbet (right) on the menu, and our waiter told us that it would be a shame if we didn't try the black sesame gelato (left).  So we gave in and ordered them, bringing out total dessert count to 7.
The heirloom apple sorbet was delicious.  It was absolutely spot-on with the flavor of spring apples and it embodied all the sweet, slightly tart, pink, and floral notes that heirloom apples have.  This may be an odd thing to say, but when I told my sister, she agreed with me completely: this sorbet tasted the way candles smell.  It was unreal in how fragrant it was, but it wasn't at all artificial.  Even thinking about it now, I am somewhat boggled by how they managed to capture the essence of the apple so perfectly.  I would order this again.  10 out of 10; I cannot imagine how it could be improved.
I was actually not interested in the black sesame gelato at first.  I'm not crazy about the flavor of sesame, and I don't particularly like sesame paste or anything like that, but to my surprise, I really enjoyed this gelato.  It was cream, smooth, and sweet in a very balanced way.  Because my mind couldn't accept the idea that I would like a sesame ice cream, I couldn't help but think that it vaguely tasted like peanut butter.  But very, very vaguely.  It was very well executed and definitely something to try if you're a little bit adventurous and like "different" flavors for your gelato.  A 9 out of 10 (and I know, I am biased).

After decimating their dessert menu and shocking and amusing our waiter with the number of desserts we ordered, my sister and I left very satisfied.
What was most amazing was that each delicious gelato/sorbet only cost $3.75.  It was unreal.  Two scoops of delicious frozen dessert topped with a piece of candied ginger, served in a nice glass, for less than four dollars?  And this is a place in DC.  It was amazing.  I would come back for this.  Really.  I could come back to Kushi just for the gelato.  I would also recommend this restaurant to anyone looking for a fun and affordable place to go with friends or family.

465 K Street Northwest
Washington, DC 20001
Tel. 202-682-3123
Overall rating for the price: 8.5 out of 10
   **note: They also do take out!


  1. I had fun with your detailed dessert narrative. Maybe even more fun than eating the real things. I am biased, I guess. That was one wonderful writeup. Thanks for taking the trouble.

  2. After reading your review, I will definitely go there, if not for the whole meal, then at least for the gelatos! They seem so interesting and your description is very lively! Keep it up! and keep us entertained! Thanks!