Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2007

Sushi Damo brings NYC éclat to Rockville

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Sushi Damo

36G Maryland Ave., Rockville

301-340-8010, fax 301-340-8040

Cuisine: Innovative Japanese

Hours: Mon.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m., Sat. noon-3 p.m., Sun.-Thurs. 5-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat. 5-11 p.m.

Dinner entrees: $12-$29

All major credit cards


Three-month-old Sushi Damo is the stunning sibling of a mid-Manhattan restaurant. In replicating their family’s concept, Karyl and Ki Chong wanted a vibrant location with a city feeling, so they chose Rockville Town Square.

‘‘With people working here, shopping here and living here, there’s energy,” Chong asserts.

Her husband Ki, an ex-architect, designed the 96-seat Zen-like space that combines natural and manmade elements. Beyond a wood and glass threshold with sunken stones, a shimmer screen of metal beads simulates rain. Green reed-embedded panels set off white slab walls. Birch saplings simulate a forest against a torrid rising sun. Red glass lights accent the metallic glass tiles of the curved bar. Wooden trellises suspended from the ceiling echo the folding screens and the walnut hand-scraped floor. Red glass candles light up black wooden tables.

‘‘Ki loves imagining what people like to see, what stimulates the appetite,” she says. Voted ‘‘Most Romantic” on a local Web site, ‘‘it’s a great date spot.”

With 20 years experience doing traditional cooking, Japanese-born executive chef Takashi Okamura was their first hire. Formerly top man at the small, respected Makoto for a decade, ‘‘Okamura-san wanted a little more creative freedom,” Karyl Chong says. ‘‘He’s like family now.”

Rockville’s menu, a little more traditional than New York’s, reprises three-quarters of the same dishes. The chef has certain preferences. Only one in 10 Japanese restaurants offer mackerel grilled with sea salt.

‘‘That’s very much Okamura-san inspired,” she says.

So are the delicate, delicious tuna tartare, grilled duck in honey-sake sauce and medium-rare filet mignon with Damo sake sauce. Not many restaurants would offer the very traditional, more expensive red miso soup found here or use real, not processed, seaweed in the seaweed salad.

‘‘Once you’ve eaten the real thing, you can’t go back to the others,” she observes.

‘‘Our ultimate goal is to change the standard of sushi here, raising the bar,” Karyl Chong says, noting that she finds it ‘‘very inspiring” to hear Okamura-san training his chefs. He tells them ‘‘You need to imagine you are making this for the one person you love. It really does make a difference. Sushi comes from here,” indicating his heart.

With such an attitude, it is no wonder that the rolls are ‘‘very, very special,” she says. These include 11 classic sushi rolls or hand rolls, four Damo creations, 10 chef’s special rolls and four recited rolls.

The eponymous Rockville roll, the most popular recited special, is a clear winner with crunchy, rice cracker-coated shrimp tempura and cucumber inside, Maryland blue crab with red, green, black and orange tobiko outside and a creamy wasabi sauce. Other recited rolls are the Tokyo Rose (spicy salmon and cucumber topped with scallion, spicy tuna and miso paste); the Blue Ocean (spicy salmon, cucumber and scallion inside, topped with lobster salad) and the Rising Sun (sun-dried tomato and smoked salmon inside with poached flounder, sun-dried tomatoes and sweet sauce on top). Not surprisingly, the number one-seller on the menu is the Sakura, or cherry blossom, again shrimp tempura with cucumber, but topped with spicy tuna and two types of tobiko. The top of the line sashimi plate is a pristine, austere selection.

‘‘Now that the weather is getting cooler, we’ll be promoting donburi (piping hot bowls of rice, chicken, egg and vegetable available at lunch) and hot sake.

‘‘Food makes people happy, especially on a glum day like this,” she says, eyeing two men sitting at a window table enjoying large steaming bowls of noodle soup.

Lunch specials include Bento boxes ($10.50-$13.50) and a children’s menu features Japanese chicken fingers and make your own roll from nori, rice and cucumber.

In addition to mochi with green tea, red bean or ginger ice cream, desserts made in-house include a light inspired green tea tiramisu, two kinds of cheesecake and a warm chocolate souffle.

Red and white wines are available by the bottle, along with four house wines by the glass. Sushi Damo serves sake-based drinks like the yin yang saketini and mango saketini.

Last but not least: Book at least two days ahead to put yourself into Chef Okamura’s hands for the Omakase. Meaning to entrust or protect, this chef’s choice multi-course tasting menu ranges from $59 to $89.