Get out and respect the food
- Published: June 7, 2010
I love Tom’s Market as an everyday last minute stop where I know I can find such items as brined grape leaves, fresh mozzarella and tomatillos. But sometimes you have to, dare I say it, leave the village to get, for instance, sumac for Persian kabob, zatar for Lebanese flat bread, or umeboshi plum pickle for Japanese tea. And while you’re out, you may be exposed to the very worst of food that the labs can peddle, as well as the very best of tastes that unpretentious chefs can offer out of their small dining rooms. Navigating this treacherous divide is so worth it.
One way to leave the village is by train. But to go east, we always go west first, by car, to Elkhart, Ind. to catch the Capitol Limited to D.C. While the porters no longer don their Pullman caps, the train maintains romance in its formality, especially in the dining car. You don’t just show up to eat but rather you are called to dine, and seated with one or two fellow travellers. As you order and share stories with your new mates you are treated to an ever changing view from the pastoral hills of Pennsylvania to the river rapids of West Virginia just as the sun throws a golden haze over the valley.
And that’s where the romance stops. If you maintain a deep focus on the conversation, which is where the real intrigue should be anyway, you can just get through the T. Marzetti’s light Italian dressing, grade C meat and frozen vegetables. Don’t order dessert. On the following day you slide through breakfast and lunch the same way, and by the time you reach the end of the line, you’re at the end of your rope and ravenously hungry for a meal with live enzymes at a stationary location.
The star we hit on was Kaz Sushi Bistro, a restaurant I found on the Post’s sophisticated search site. The restaurant is easily missed from the wide I Street it’s on and the maroon catwalk canopy to the Curry Palace that obscures it to the west. Inside, up a few steps and around the corner is a crowded dining room with spare art on white walls lit from cans around the perimeter of the room. The tables are tight and engender a gay, everyman atmosphere with the neighbors, not unlike the cordiality of the dining car.
At a glance, the menu has the traditional offerings of a Japanese restaurant, the dumpling and seaweed starters, the raw fish section, noodles and rice bowls. But the descriptions reveal a chef that is aware of textures, colors and seasons, and a sous chef crew that likes to have fun in the kitchen.
The small dishes come in a parade of porcelain ware, big enough to cradle the portions and small enough to chauffeur your chopsticks to your mouth. Florettes of house-smoked Norwegian fatty mackerel come curled up on a bright bed of Japanese cucumber, wakame and a smoky vinaigrette, where the bone white and chrome of the fish contrasts with the pale green salad and red pepper flecks. I swear the caramelized brussel sprouts were not the same vegetable as those bulbous hunks that typically taste like mealy broccoli stems and are either so overcooked they weep or so underdone they’re a choking hazard. The softshell crab roll with jalapeno-ponzu sauce was fried to a delicate crisp with its baby claws jutting out of the rice like the roof of the Sydney Opera House, and who would have thought to use julienned jicama to showcase jet black hijiki as a side salad?
I don’t mean to idolize the food. Food is meant to be eaten, like a train is meant for travel. The spareness of Kaz’s dining room and the restrained size of the menu spoke to that form-follows-function approach and provided an austere backdrop for the energy of the crowd. But there is a certain level of respect due the craftsperson, which in turn raises awareness of the dining experience.
In the 2008 Japanese film Departures, a wise mortician is meditating over a meal of two tiny stuffed blowfish in a rooftop greenhouse. Just before sucking out what I believe are salty juicy roe, he says, (I’m paraphrasing), “People eat the dead. To live you have to eat. So when you eat, eat very well. Sometimes, I eat so well, I hate myself.” I love that acknowledgement that to enjoy your food is to respect the sacrifice that was made to feed you.
It’s fitting too that Kaz’a chef, Kazuhiro Okochi from Nagoya completed his formal training in sushi and fugu (blowfish) preparation before coming to D.C. to develop what he calls “freestyle Japanese cuisine,” that reflects the Zen spirit of “refined simplicity.”
That meal sustained me for the rest of the week in Philadelphia, and while I did suffer another meal on the tracks back to Ohio (during which I must have eaten so poorly I loved myself), I have been reminded of the value of taking time to compose my food thoughtfully and truly enjoy the sacrifices that were made to feed me. And while Yellow Springs doesn’t have the variety of the city, I am greatly comforted by the fact that at many of the restaurants we support here, I can eat a meal and so hate myself.