Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2008

At Hinata Sushi Carryout, less is more

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Brian Lewis⁄The Gazette
Hinata Sushi Carryout and Grocery features a special of the day. Pictured is a three-piece Negiri Sushi (tuna, flounder and salmon), a six-piece lettuce roll, a three-piece tuna roll and a three-piece avocado roll.
Hinata SushiCarryout

4947 St. Elmo Ave., Bethesda

301-656-1009

Hours: Tues.–Sat. 11 a.m.-7 p.m., Sunday noon-7 p.m. Closed Mondays.

Sushi Rolls: $3.50-$5, Nigiri Sushi $2-$3 per piece

Credit cards: All major cards

The preponderance of Japanese clientele, a master sushi maker who is also the owner and a sushi bar that seats no more than six people are three signs of a great sushi bar. Such is the case at tiny Hinata Sushi Carryout.

Most of its sushi business is phoned in and picked up to go. But the minimalist yet gracious ambience of the four-seat sushi bar provides motivation to dine in. It is tucked away behind neatly stocked and colorful aisles of noodles, teas, seasonings, candy and snacks, along with some beautiful ceramic teacups and plates, and of course, huge sacks of imported short grain rice.

A meal of sushi is not about filling up on raw fish or indulging in lavish service. Rather, it is a modest fulfillment of the senses and intellect as well as the appetite. Sushi is a performance art, and part of the satisfaction is watching it being made — the precise stroke of the knife, the hand crafting of each bite, the deft interpretation of the traditional elements of taste, texture and presentation and the gracious hospitality. With fewer mouthfuls of food, sushi nourishes the soul as well as the body.

To start, Hinata’s green tea, brewed with roasted brown rice, is refreshing and invigorating in a decaffeinated kind of way. The miso soup is made to order from fresh fish stock, high-grade miso, diced cubes of firm tofu, a little seaweed and slivers of spring onions. Occasionally, seasonal specialties like matsutake mushrooms, a choice piece of Aji (fresh mackerel) or the foie gras of sushi: monkfish liver enhance the offerings.

Otherwise, the menu does not stray. It’s the quality and attention to detail that sets Hinata’s sushi apart from the rest.

The elements of sushi are fairly simple. However, Hinata’s nigiri sushi is much more than a slice of fish wadded onto a clump of rice. The unagi (smoked freshwater eel) is brushed with teriyaki and sprinkled with sesame seeds. Anyone can do it, but no one does it like Hinata. It is pillowy, fragrant and warm. The sea urchin is firm, fresh and briny sitting atop the rice with a little fan of herb and a dot of wasabi. The fatty part of the flounder is splayed out over the rice like lace.

Gunkan maki is an oval clump of sushi rice that has a strip of nori wrapped around its perimeter to form a vessel filled with firm salty salmon roe that never taste fishy. Each piece is appealing to the eye as well as structurally sound. It holds together so that when turned over and dipped in the soy sauce, fish side down, it does not fall apart. It’s almost a shame to eat such sushi with the cheap carryout style chopsticks provided.

The most sublime bite of my most recent meal was the shrimp tempura roll with lettuce. Slightly crunchy and still warm from the cooking, the shrimp tempura is bound with crisp lettuce into a makisushi roll. Whether filled with vegetables or fish, all the maki rolls are tight and neatly sliced. The warm salmon skin temaki cone comes with just the right attachment of meat, but needs a spike of cucumber. The Chirashi platter, a masterful array of sliced fish presented with garnishes of seaweed salad, pickled burdock root and herbs, is for people in a bit of a hurry. Sushi takes more time to enjoy.

While the service is very informal, the hospitality is genuine. Regulars are greeted with a cheerful ‘‘Ko ni chi wah!” The adventurous cook is tempted by all the exotic packages and ingredients. There is no better selection of conveniently packaged noodle-based meals that require only a cup of boiling water to prepare. All the tools and ingredients necessary to make great sushi are available for sale, including premium Japanese forged knives.

It is easy to spend the same money on twice the amount of food at another restaurant and walk away half as satisfied. The seating is cramped, the chopsticks are disposable and the wait can be long if the phone is ringing off the hook, but the sushi is sublime. I walk away from a meal at Hinata refreshed and ready to work, whereas I need a nap after most other restaurant meals.