The Dish: Sushi Gakyu Opens Downtown

by John Arundel

The new restaurant brings rare sake and (even rarer) Japanese blowfish to the District. 

Chef Yoshi Ota. Photo by Tony Powell.

Washington’s elite downtown lunch crowd has a new place to hold court, thanks to Japanese restaurateur Yoshihisa “Yoshi” Ota.

The driving force behind Yuzu in Bethesda and now-closed Kushi Izakaya, Ota has opened his newest creation Sushi Gakyu at 1420 New York Avenue – a stone’s throw from The White House, World Bank and IMF — giving time-pressed international bankers and White House staffers a taste of multiple Japanese styles of fish and rice during lunch or dinner hour.

For his June 27 opening, sponsored by Washington Life magazine, Ota was on hand to guide about 200 VIP guests through sushi tastings and sake pairings – his stock in trade – and shared a taste of the omakase-style meals and sprawling menu of rice wine that he keeps, offered chilled or hot.

Audrey and Fabian LeFevre, Bethany Kazaba, Antonio Alves, David Tafuri, Anastasia Vakula, Matthew Mueller. Photo by Tony Powell.

Ota is a kikisake-shi—a “master of sake” or sake sommelier,” and the sake offerings at the upscale, 67-seat Sushi Gakyu are indeed impressive.

Having worked in sushi restaurants in his native Japan since the age of 18, and having run his own restaurant in Tokyo’s chic Ginza neighborhood, “the idea of Sushi Gakyu is to offer more than just your standard nigiri,” Ota says. “It’s a whole range of traditional and regional Japanese styles of rice and fish that we’re offering.”

This could mean anything from sushi wrapped in bamboo or persimmon leaves, or pressed sushi served in a wooden box, or chirashi (a bowl of rice topped with different types of fish and vegetables).

Kayla Vera, Dana Nebinski. Photo by Tony Powell.

Kayla Vera and Dana Nebinski. Photo by Tony Powell.

Ota is also a pro at making narezushi, an older style of fermented sushi that he says “smells like cheese.”

After moving to Washington 20 years ago, Ota partnered in the opening of Kushi, then Sushi Izakaya, before moving to Sushiko and then opening Yuzu in Bethesda in 2013.

Unlike his previous restaurants, Sushi Gakyu has no fryer or grill, but a formidable list of raw fish offerings and vegetable appetizers. You can order sushi a la carte or call ahead and make a reservation at one of five seats at the bar reserved for omakase dining, priced between $100 to $150 per seating.

Omakase offerings include such items as omakase nigiri ($50), with sashimi plates ranging from $28 to $70. Six-piece rolls run from $4.50 to $15. Also on the menu are starters such as scallop carpaccio and salmon ceviche, a mere warm-up to the $25 box meals, with eel or sashimi topped on a bed of rice.

Photo by Tony Powell

When it’s in season, Ota is one of the few local chefs licensed to prepare fugu, or blowfish ($200 per serving), the poisonous fish seen as an indulgent delicacy in Japan.

Everything about Sushi Gayku feels upscale, from its sleek industrial look to its wood seats, glossy tiling and black paneling. Bethany Kazaba of Neighborhood Retail Group found the location for Ota and then worked with the Japanese chef for nearly two years after securing the lease and necessary permits during the build-out process.

“I truly enjoy helping my clients achieve their goals,” Kazaba says. “Opening successful businesses across a wide variety of industries and enhancing neighborhood concepts is energizing and fuels my work ethic.”

Informal lunch service at Sushi Gakyu begins at 11 am, then the restaurant transitions into a more formal dinner setting as the day progresses, Ota says.

“Sushi is not only nigiri and rolls. Those varieties differ from region to region,” Ota says. “Sushi Gakyu hopes to introduce Washington to a whole new sushi experience.”

View more photos from the opening here. 


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