The 11th day of August is an auspicious day that is well-embedded in my memory. It is not a national holiday, a birthday, or an independence day – it is my parents’ wedding anniversary. Every year, I am duly reminded of this date by my parents who will drop hints when I get a call from them a week or a few days before the day itself. My parents view this date with the utmost importance, and the same expectation is expected from their children. Forgetting to call and wish them on the 11th would warrant a slight chiding or an email stating, “You forgot Daddy’s (or Mummy’s) wedding anniversary”, depending who was the sender dropping the not-so-subtle reprimand.
To celebrate the occasion, my parents would take the family out for dinner, and their favorite place to mark the occasion was usually an elegant Japanese restaurant in a top notch hotel. Growing up in Malaysia, Japanese cuisine was served primarily at high-end Japanese restaurants, and a visit to one was usually an elegant and fascinating dining experience, which at the same time exposed me to this rather exotic far-eastern cuisine at an early age. These were the days before the proliferation of Sushi bars and Teppanyaki grills, which later became abundant and fashionable in major cities. To reflect the special event that we were celebrating and to match the refined and exquisite ambience surrounding us diners, my siblings and I would dress up in our finest outfits - this was definitely no ordinary everyday dining experience.
With Sushi bars abound and Japanese restaurants everywhere these days, this type of cuisine is very accessible and has become well-appreciated by many. My early experiences with Japanese food in Washington DC can be characterized and range from expensive but well-cooked food to inexpensive but rather inferior quality. With a great number of these restaurants these days, competition has raised the bar, and as customers, we have started to expect more.
Maruko Japanese Restaurant has been located on a long strip dotted with some good restaurants (blog on Bangkok 54) in the neighborhood of Arlington, VA, for as long as I can recall passing down that road. In its earlier days, it went by the name Matuba, but I suspect that a new ownership brought about the name change. The realization of its new sign was as subtle and seamless as in the change of management, and the cooking has not suffered many bumps, if hardly at all, during this transition.
Usually, I would forgo ordering appetizers here since I know that the main course is rather substantial for me, especially at this age of a slowing metabolism and trying to lose some weight from all this food blogging field work. But I was feeling rather famished on one visit, and I decided to order an appetizer that was not my usual fare. The Squid Salad was abound with strips of squid, sitting on a lettuce salad, and topped with a daikon radish, ginger, and miso salad dressing. The strips of squid took me by surprise with their sweetness paired by their tenderness in each bite I took. The dressing was the perfect accompaniment in this seafood salad with its slight sweetness and muted ginger-bite. An order of Gyozas or pot stickers was tasty and good, but nothing different from what you could expect from a good restaurant.
One of my favorite fare here is The Teriyaki Chicken and Sushi Combination, a mixture of the hot and cold, the raw seafood and cooked chicken. The thigh meat comes with its skin slightly charred from the grill, and it is slathered with a lightly sweetened sauce. The other half of the order is a plateful of sushi (tuna, salmon, yellow tail and eel) and pieces of California roll. The dish represents the best of both worlds in terms of textures and flavors, and it is quite hearty and satisfying on these levels. A bowl of well-made miso soup as an opener is filled with slippery seaweed (wakame) and spongy bits of tofu, which whets one’s appetite for what is to come. For less than $13, this combination is a great deal and a winner.
During the summer, I tend to order the large Sushi/Sashimi Combo that consists of pieces of Sushi made with Tuna, Salmon, Eel, Yellow Tail, Shrimp, and Squid, pieces of California Roll, and purses of Salmon Roe and Sea Urchin. The dish is a feast for the eye and for one’s hungry stomach, and seafood freshness is notable here for the most part (the piece of squid was a bit too slimy for me but still edible – perhaps a textural issue for me). The sushi rice is cooked and shaped perfectly that they do not fall apart in the chopsticks, and it complements the seafood pieces mild ocean sweetness. The Salmon Roe and Sea Urchin purses are bursting with a slight brininess that reflects their freshness and rich unctousness. This dish is definitely a raw fish delight. A friend’s order of Grilled Sea Eel (Unagi Donburi) looked great with large pieces of fish covered with a light sweet sauce sitting on a bed of rice. However, my friend was slightly disappointed by that day’s meal as he claimed that he had had a better dinner there with that dish.
During my meal, our friendly waitress urged me to take a couple of photos of dishes coming from the Sushi Bar that looked delectable and irresistible. One was a Spicy Tuna Roll that was not your typical version; this restaurant makes it with soya bean skin which I have never seen before. The other dish was a Tempura and Crab Roll topped with flourescent red and green flying fish roe. Even though they were not our orders, the visuals were so tempting for me to perhaps order them on the next visit and definitely when the weather gets warm enough.
Maruko serves the customer delicious and fresh Japanese cuisine at a very reasonable price. In time and with various restaurant visits, I have developed a sense of trust and dependability on its cooking and the freshness of its seafood, much like having one hairstylist that you would allow to have free rein with. It is definitely one restaurant worth returning to time and time again, like the one my parents would take us to yearly for many years. This place is surely Oishi, or good eats.