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Makoto, Chef Yoshiaki Itoh's Traditional Japanese Omakase and Sushi on MacArthur Blvd. in Palisades - Closed Dec 29, 2018


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[posted on eGullet 2003-2004]

I have been to Makoto a dozen times-or-so over the years, and shaped by the crusty shell that has gathered around it, my opinion has become less critical, more accepting - think of the elegant decay that defines Venice which has literally been sinking for centuries.

I still want to judge Makoto neck-to-neck with the finest restaurants, but that is simply not fair. The chef's menu, as always, has 1-2 compelling courses, a thing-or-two that shouldn't have been included, and the rest falling within the genre of interesting but not-quite-there. But yo, homeys, it's $45 for about ten courses! And if you order the tenderloin (and I urge you to despite your natural inclination to get the fish as the main course), you'll have a decadent, satisfying four-gulp portion of steak that is easily worth $10 by itself. Their small fatty pork dish is as good as anyones in Washington. The cold, unfiltered sake, though expensive at about $12 for a small carafe, is one of the city's great unknown treasures. The persimmon with a tofu paste is beautifully presented, but ultimately bland: but it's persimmon! - where else in the city will you get that as a savory course? You get a good scallop, a good shrimp, a couple mushrooms, all thrown into a miniature teppanyaki thing and overcooked right before your eyes. The small inital courses are always more interesting than the inevitable grilled-protein/soba/shaved-grape-ice which is the triad finishing the meal. Their sushi/sashimi has, in the past, been as-good-or-better than anyones in Washington, although my recent visit was perhaps the result of El-Nino: the fish was okay, but not world-class like it has been before.

It needs to be repeated that the 10-course chef's menu is $45.

Where does Makoto fall short? It dicks you on the incidentals, and I don't mean maybe. The supplements to the Tsukuri (raw fish) course are a rip-off. Avoid them and get what comes with the tasting menu (trust me on this). Thirsty? Ask for some water and you'll be told that they only serve "bottled water," but what they plop down in front of you is this El Cheapo soft-plastic half-liter Pennsylvania-Turnpike "spring water" that is so insulting that you'd prefer to have DC tap water in its stead. Your incidentals will easily and quickly double the course of your meal if you're not careful. The cold, unfiltered sake is worth the price, but other than that, try to avoid the bottled water, steer clear of the fish supplements, and don't order anything extra. Several years ago, I'd feel like a cheapskate advising you to do this, but things are different now: restaurants are not turning over two seatings each night on every table. You won't be hurting them at all if you go in and stick to the basic chef's menu with a beer and some tea, at least not during the week.

This is my summary: Get the tasting menu. Order the tenderloin (not the salmon, or orange roughy, etc.) as the main course. Don't stress about the sobas, which other than the fermented bean curd, are virtually interchangeable though you'll never go wrong with the mushrooms or the yams. Do not order any extra sushi or sashimi. The last time I did this I paid dearly for extra fatty tuna, fatty yellowtail, spanish mackeral, uni, and egg, and quite frankly the only thing worth getting out of the bunch was the egg (yet the single greatest piece of sashimi I've ever tried was the fatty yellowtail on a previous visit.) Stay away from the bottled water. Be careful on your ever-increasing cold-unfiltered sake tab, which can quickly rise because it's so good. If you do this, you'll walk out of Makoto thinking to yourself, gee, how did they pull that off at that price? The answer: the chef's menu should be priced a bit higher than it is. Go see for yourselves, as this remains one of the great fine-dining options in Washington if approached with caution. "Fine-dining" is relative, but this place at least goes through the motions and makes an attempt, even if it sometimes falls short.

Cheers,
Rocks

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Makoto is still a bargain at $49 for the dinner (no drinks, I only had hot tea). One or two interesting dishes and the rest are solid. Another update to Don's post is that Perrier is now offered in addition to the generic bottled water.

NOT recommended if you are going to a Japanese restaurant only for sushi or sashimi. They do not detract from the other courses but it is not a strength of the restaurant. You do get fresh wasabi on the side with the sashimi. FWIW, the size of the pieces and the lack of wasabi in which to drown the sushi are appropriate for the Japanese.

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Makoto is still a bargain at $49 for the dinner (no drinks, I only had hot tea). One or two interesting dishes and the rest are solid. Another update to Don's post is that Perrier is now offered in addition to the generic bottled water.

NOT recommended if you are going to a Japanese restaurant only for sushi or sashimi. They do not detract from the other courses but it is not a strength of the restaurant. You do get fresh wasabi on the side with the sashimi. FWIW, the size of the pieces and the lack of wasabi in which to drown the sushi are appropriate for the Japanese.

The one dish I didn't understand there was the course with the hibachi and some woody, tough mushrooms to grill. Could someone explain that?

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Do you mean a hibachi (charcoal brazier) was brought to the table to cook the mushrooms (shiitake?) or were they cooked on a hot stone?

Gary,

We were sitting at the counter in front of Ito-san. They placed a small hibachi between us with a plate of raw mushrooms and a cup of ponzu. The mushrooms were a golden color and very woody.

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[A] small hibachi [was placed] between us with a plate of raw mushrooms and a cup of ponzu. The mushrooms were a golden color and very woody.

Perhaps matsutake mushroom? Sorry, but I could not find a site that had both a good photograph (some of them can be quite large with a fleshy interior and a woody exterior) and a description of their place in Japanese cuisine. It is described as a fall delicacy collected in pine (=matsu) forests and sometimes grilled.

Edit: I forgot to mention that mushrooms (shiitake, matsutake, etc.) are good sources of umami (the link has a nice outline of washoku).

Edited by Gary Tanigawa
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Perhaps matsutake mushroom? Sorry, but I could not find a site that had both a good photograph (some of them can be quite large with a fleshy interior and a woody exterior) and a description of their place in Japanese cuisine. It is described as a fall delicacy collected in pine (=matsu) forests and sometimes grilled.

Edit: I forgot to mention that mushrooms (shiitake, matsutake, etc.) are good sources of umami (the link has a nice outline of washoku).

Gary,

Have you met my friend (and Don's) Daisuke Utagawa yet? He owns Sushi-Ko. Don't get him started on umami and red Burgundy!

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We jsut returned from an evening at Makoto. Spent upwards of $200 for dinner for 2 (plus tip!). We ate a lot of very expensive and very good if absolutely tiny servings of sushi. Was it worth it?

From a strictly food point of view, I am not sure. I think that I could do better at Tako or Kaz, where Kay and I have more than once spent $150 or more on dinner. But eating at Tako has all the ceremony and charm of eating at, well, a commercial Japanese restaurant with much better food. Kaz never seems to me to be fun.

Makoto was very pampering if a little heavy handed on the sales manship of the staff (Vantage water, $12 masu of Otokayama, nothing more intersting like Onikoroshi, Suishin, Bishones or some of the more new wave cold sake available. Again, Tako destroys them on sake service, and their sashimi is better. But Tako is not traditional and Makoto is.

In all, given my exhaustion, my tiredness from having to be on stage nightly and a businessman all day long, Makoto was just what I needed. I needeed a place where the dinner was served on beautiful china. I needed a place where the staff wanted to make sure I know how to eat Ramen noodle even if I do and have been doing so happily for years. I needed cold sake out of a masu with coarse salt, even if they didn't fill the masu at my place.

I come from LA. I used to live 2 freeway exits from Little Tokyo. I was a regular customre at numerous restaurants where I was the only non Japanese regular customer. I am used to havinig my choi8ce of places that pamper like Makoto does. And with the exception of Sibucho, whose food still astounds even 5 years after my last meal there, I have never paid these kinds of prices for this kind of food.

Will I go back? Yes. When I need to be pampered. WOuld i rather spend the same money in LA at Shibucho or Omino Sushi? Yes!!! Would I rather spend the same at Esca or Lupa? Yes. But all those pampering experiences take a lot of travel and money just to get there. Makot is less than 30 minutes away from my house. In all, I am glad it is.

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We went to Makato two years ago for my husband's birthday. He loves sushi and had wanted to go for some time. It was a "dark and stormy night," we were considering placing our first bid on a house in the then (still?) overheated DC real estate market, and I had a nasty cough that signaled a possible case of bronchitis. Still, Makato fit the bill.

The single word that I would use to describe Makato is "transporting." Like others have noted, it is a very serene atmosphere and really does make one feel like she has left DC. From the simple decor, the shoes at the door (I believe they give you slippers), it really is an experience. It is tiny and the guests sit on boxes (I think you store your belongings in the box).

I have to concur in part with Dean's assessment. It isn't a lot of food (we did the fixed-price $50 meal), but what we got was awesome (in terms of freshness, flavor, preparation). I have to admit that I left a bit hungry even after the muti-course meal, and I am not a big-time eater by any stretch of the imagination.

Nonetheless, I thought it was a unique experience, definitely worth doing if you are a fan of Japanese cuisine and are looking for something different and special.

(We ended up not bidding on the house and I did develop a full-blown case of bronchitis....)

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Knowing it's always a favorite on list, my wife took me out to Makoto for my birthday on Saturday. They've done a bit of remodeling since I was there last, with new granite stone leading to a new entryway with vestibule. I think they've also put in new tables. The space isn't any larger, but it seems a bit more airy. The lighting was a bit too bright for my taste.

We each had the omikase menu with optional tzukuri of mixed sashimi. Our first course was a lightly fried morsel of eggplant topped with hot and spicy miso sauce, a very fine starter. The rest of the fish dishes were mostly sashimi, nigiri, or other raw items. Makoto's presentation was delightful as always, but I’m afraid a number of the fish selections (fatty tuna, yellowtail, rockfish, sweet shrimp) had the somewhat mealy texture of fish that had been on ice too long. I know that Makoto can do much better. I was glad to see one of my favorites: softshell crab fried in rice cracker panade and served with salted wasabi and chili powder. The grilled tenderloin served in a mushroom broth was also a succulent and flavorful contrast to the raw items.

I ordered nato as a garnish for the miso soup with buckwheat noodles, which prompted our server to ask if I had tried this before. I lied and said yes, and began to wonder if this was really a good idea. But when it arrived it was far less pungent than I had thought, somewhat like finely diced brie or camembert floating around in my soup. I suspect this was a slightly "dumbed-down" version of the stinky, gooey original. But overall this dish was excellent.

I always love going to Makoto, partly for the atmosphere and the feeling of escaping the usual restaurant routine in DC. But sometimes I wish they could uphold their high level of cuisine a bit more consistently.

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Natto has a range of pungency depending on the the brand and presentation. In soup it is normally not as pungent or stringy as when not presented with a broth. That being said, the ranges of natto are similar to that of stinky cheese. Some have a wonderful bouquet and while others are more mild. Usually the stringier the natto the more intense the ordor and flavor.

Natto in miso with soba is one of my favorite presenations, and impossible to find in this area. As far as I know Makoto may be the only place to experience it this way.

How much is omakase there these days?

Thanks for the natto 101. The 8-10 course omikase is still $49; we added the tzukuri sashimi for $20 per.

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One of my co-workers just had a bad experience at Makoto, and I told her that she should have dined upstairs at Kotobuki instead. She claims that they are the same ownership, but I've heard differently.

Any answers?

(By the way, she has lived in Japan, she has dined at some of Japan's finest restaurants in Tokyo and Himeji, and she speaks Japanese very well, so for her to have a bad experience at a Japanese restaurant here says quite a lot.)

Please note: I'm not trying to slam Makoto here. My one and only dining experience there was very nice. I have recommended it to friends, and the Makoto thread here on this board seems perfectly complementary. However, I think that Kotobuki is more fun :)

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Years after Don's original post, it seems we had much the same as the fall seasonal menu he described. The price is now up to $60. still a stunning bargain for what it is. We, too, felt that the persimmon and tofu dish was a "miss." The persimmon was under-ripe and the tofu just didn't work with it.

The ingredients stunner was the fatty tuna, which was melting in our mouths. The spouse ordered it as his "supplement" to the sashimi dish. It was really a replacement as he didn't get the regular tuna and other two fish (white tuna and flounder, I believe) that I got. He's such a good sport that he shared his fatty tuna in exchange for pieces of my other sashimi. The fresh mackerel piece we got with the sushi course was also amazingly good, and the first time I've had fresh mackerel since Dad sliced it for us on the deep-sea fishing boat off the coast of LA back in the late 70's. Every other sushi presentation of mackerel has marinated it first.

The presentation on the syruped chestnut was precious; it was encased in a shrimp and fish paste and studded with little noodles, then fried so it resembled a chestnut peering out of its prickly outer shell.

I preferred my salted grilled salmon to his grilled tenderloin, but both were very good dishes.

It isn't cheap, but Makoto is a bargain for what it delivers. I'd happily dine three times at Makoto rather than once at the Inn at Little Washington.

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I got a reservation at Makoto tomorrow night. I am kind of nervous that I might not enjoy it since this place seems formal and possibly stuffy. Anyone being here lately?

I love Makoto, and would certainly not describe it as formal or stuffy. But it is a bit cramped. The seating is on low stools and the capacity of the place must be no more than 25 or so. Still, I always enjoy my meals there. Have fun!

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I got a reservation at Makoto tomorrow night. I am kind of nervous that I might not enjoy it since this place seems formal and possibly stuffy. Anyone being here lately?

Do wear your best socks (slipper time!).

And I look forward to hearing how you fared. I'm on the fence about taking a friend there in a few weeks. I have not been there in well over a year.

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I enjoyed the entire experience. The servers were very friendly, and not at all authoritarian or cold, although they were very obsessive with the placement of the marble tablet and eating utensils. My husband was jokingly moving the marble table placement and said "lets see if they notice that we moved it by 1 cm". The space was clean, cozy, and definitely showed signs of wear.

course 1-conch and mushroom soup

course 2-marinated mussels and fried eggplant with sesame sauce

course 3-sashimi consisted of snapper, mackerel, and tuna

course 4-fried mackerel in a seaweed broth

course 5-persimmon with tofu sauce, spicy salmon with steamed snow peas, and avocado with spicy miso sauce

course 6-shrimp, scallop, and beef cooked at the table and served with ponzu and grated radish.

course 7-nigiri consisted of tuna, yellowtail, and mackerel.

course 8-choice of steak, salmon, yellowtail, orange roughy, or chilean sea bass

course 9-soba

course 10-granita

The standout for me was the steak cooked with mushroom medley and a butter cognac (or some other type of alcohol) sauce. The yellowtail nigiri and all the sashimi were superb. I wouldn't say that everything was so unique that I couldn't have made some of them at home, but I did enjoy most of the courses. However, number 5 and 9 were alot weaker compare to the other courses. The soba was bland. The flavor in course 5 just didn't complement each other with the spicy salmon being too salty, the persimmon was only partially ripe, and the miso sauce overpowered everything else.

Wine and Sake were ridiculously expensive, so we ordered some beer instead. There was no tap water, but the green hot tea was free and they kept our cup full most of the time. I don't recommend anyone wear sweaters or suits. Slacks and a collar shirt was sufficiently dressy for this place. Twenty some people+12 recess lights+small room+proximity to the kitchen+space heater=one hot room (as in you wouldn't feel cold in tank top and shorts, so you definitely don't want to wear your usual winter clothing).

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We enjoyed the kaiseki menu at Makoto last night. It was our third or forth visit, but our first for the early summer season. The ten courses included:

Mussels in a rich dashi-based broth

Fried shitake mushrooms stuffed with fish cake, rolled in crushed rice crackers and served with two dry dips, one a red pepper mix (sansho?) and the other a mix of green tea powder and flaked salt

A steamed seafood course with scallop and shrimp, with an umeboshi dipping sauce

Vegetable course of avocado slices in a spicy mayo and flash-fried Japanese eggplant with miso dressing and garlic chive buds

Sashimi course with Spanish mackerel, tuna, and a third fish (flounder, perhaps), with freshly grated wasabi

Tempura softshell over seaweed and steamed snow peas, in a sweet yuzu sauce

Sushi course with tuna, yellow tail, and (we think) striped bass

"main course" of grilled salmon (other choices were beef, orange roughy, or yellowtail)

Soba in broth with a choice of toppings (I went for seaweed, the spouse had the wild vegetables)

Grape granita with grand marnier

The two standouts for us were the shitake mushroom and the grilled salmon. The texture contrast of the shitakes was excellent. The salmon was salt-grilled with and presented skin side up. This is a very simple dish, and it was just perfect, with the salt and grilling enhancing the flavor and texture of the salmon. The sushi in the sushi course look nothing like the large slabs of thick fish on flavorless rice that we find so often in this region. These were small, delicate pinky-sized (my hands are tiny) pieces supported by warm, properly vinegary rice. The skin of the Spanish mackerel had been seared so it didn't have that lovely shimmery color, but the flavor of the fish was excellent and makes you wonder why everyone else marinates mackerel in vinegar.

The only real miss for us was the sauce on the softshells. It was just too sweet. The softshells were fried to perfection and very meaty--over an inch thick at the body. Each person got half a crab. I just wish they'd gone with a sauce that was savory rather than sweet.

As usual, we were seated at the sushi bar; my spouse has long legs and we discovered on our first visit that he doesn't fit at the tables. The service was its usual efficient self, with the waitresses watching your pacing without seeming obtrusive. Our green tea was refilled often, as was my spouse's unfiltered sake.

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Has anyone been lately? We're in the mood for Japanese dining excellence. Having never been we're thinking it might be fun to try to get a reservation for Friday night. Or are we better off with Sushi Taro?

We're at Makoto a few times each year with the most recent maybe 3 or 4 months ago. I'm a big fan but, while it's often compared to Sushi Taro (also a big fan of ST) as being the "other" high-end sushi place, that's not really right. To answer your question directly, you'd be well served with either depending on your mood.

Makoto is a lovely but traditional Japanese restaurant where the "fixed course" menu you'd want to order would only have one or two courses of nigiri. Delicious food in a more rustic, simple environment (you sit on a box in which you can put a bag; and you switch shoes for slippers upon entering). I love most everything I have there. Even the final (usually grape) granite. Most of it is cooked food.

Sushi Taro is more modern, somewhat more expensive and more emphasis on fish. They have some great fixed menus but more of an a la carte menu as well. Plenty of cooked food options too. But probably the best raw fish in town.

Most major cities on the coasts have something like Sushi Taro. That's not at all to diss it--it's a great restaurant. But not all major cities have something like Makoto, which has deservedly been around a pretty long time. I'd imagine pretty likely you'd enjoy it and remember it for awhile especially since you haven't been.

Please let us know whatever you end up doing and how you like it. Enjoy!

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Chef Itoh died on September 3rd.

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This is extremely sad to me. :(

Makoto was the first great Japanese restaurant I ever visited. People don't remember, but Le Lion D'Or and Jean-Louis ruled the roost in the early and mid 1980s; then Obelisk (1987), Red Sage (1991), and Makoto (1992) opened, and things got a lot more diverse and interesting. Makoto was, and always has been, wonderful value for the money, but twenty years ago it was a groundbreaking dining destination in Washington, DC. I remember the first time I ever had a stuffed persimmon there, and thinking to myself, "Gosh this is a cool dish" - I had never seen such a thing.

Rest in peace, Chef Itoh - I will always love your restaurant.

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Chef Itoh died on September 3rd.

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We are very sorry to learn of Chef Itoh's passing.  Makoto is a gem.  On our last visit, the Chef had turned the reins over to one of his sons, but his training had clearly been excellent and the food was as good as ever.  I'm so happy we took Naomi (age 13) there this winter in a long-delayed celebration of her mastery of chopsticks.  

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If I had the skills I would compose a poem in Chef Itoh's honor. Makoto is not just a restaurant, it is a window into Japan and its culinary culture. Despite its small space, Makoto was a broad and open-armed refuge after my first visit to Japan taught me the beauties of its cuisine. I will tell my grandchildren about Makoto, but I intend to enjoy it many times before then. My sympathies to Chef Itoh's family.

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My wife and I are saddened to hear of Chef Itoh's passing.  We've eaten at Makoto over a dozen times, reserving dining there for special occasions, over what I believe to be the last 20 years.  We ate there as recently as this past July and thought that the quality of our experience never diminished in all those years.  We always chose the chef's multi-course menu in order to sample the widest variety of their offerings.  We initially sat at a table but quickly learned that the place to sit was at the bar so that could enjoy the show, watching the chefs prepare the dishes.  All of the chefs behind the bar were always quick to comment when my wife and I would discuss a dish's preparation and identify an ingredient for us that we were at a loss to identify.

Our thoughts go out to the chef's family in this difficult time and will miss the artistry, flavors and passion that he brought to DC dining.

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Dinner at Makoto last night was a very interesting experience for a number of reasons and the experience stands out in my mind as much as the food.  Overall I felt like we were invited into a lady's house and she was going to serve us dinner but yet we were reminded that we were at a restaurant because when we arrived, a mere 10 minutes before the reservation time, the door was locked and when we called hoping to escape the December chill, we were informed that "the chef is not ready yet." 

Makoto provides an 8 course pre fixe with a couple of upcharge options. One is expanded sushi during that course; I didn't catch the other.  The menu is not online, I didn't snap a picture and it changes daily. I do not know Japanese food and therefore I will do a very poor job of explaining the menu but hope I capture enough to make you want to dine there (order is approximate).  

1:  Selection of 4 items in order we were instructed to eat them: tender, juicy, flavorful, slightly spicy beef tenderloin, 2 types of mushrooms in a delicious sauce ("pick up, bring to your mouth", we were encouraged), a single turnip (baby) in a bland sauce, and 4 blackberries with some mild cream sauce.

2 & 3. One of them contained some type of fatty seared fish with a mild miso sauce and that was amazing and I want more.  The other items were good as well. One was fried duck liver served over a rice cake with a seaweed base.  Another was a choice of sea bass or cod. I had sea bass and it was perfectly well cooked but my companion's cod was a bit blackened.

4.  Sushi.  Great especially since a very special leaf was served with which made the experience elevated.  My flounder flower was fatty. 

5.  Seafood soup:  Two waitresses made it at our table and we were told "let me cook this for you".   At first I didn't really like it but by the end it was amazing. I enjoyed how the soup changed over the 3 serving.  (our hostess kept spooning it into our bowls and I had a little cough so she gave me extra broth with encouragement to eat it all). 

6.  Deep fried monkfish in a nice broth. Compared to the rest, unexciting from enjoyable all the same.

7.  Sashimi:  also amazing.  We were instructed to eat the first without soy sauce because it was already marinated and also informed of the order in which to consume the other 3 pieces. 

8.  Fruit tart with a side of Grand Mariner sherbet.  Sherbet was the perfect ending to this meal. I was full, but not overly.

Notes on service:

I had a little cough and so the waitress (noun doesn't suit) brought warm water for me and kept it warm and filled at my side all night.  Our table ordered 3 sakes and she explained them all to us, choose her favorite and brought that one when we wanted more. We also received tasting cups.

I am allergic to nuts and milk, cream, cheese ect and Makoto doesn't alter the menu for allergies. My allergies were outlined when the reservations were made two weeks in advance and maybe that is why this night there were no nuts on the menu. Although two items contained cream, I was simply informed "that contains cream (or cheese), you might not want to eat it."  

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4.  Sushi.  Great especially since a very special leaf was served with which made the experience elevated.  My flounder flower was fatty. 

Was this leaf fairly large, served with (perhaps) lean tuna, and looked like this?

37.jpg

That would be shiso which has the flavor of something like tarragon, taking some getting acclimated to.

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4.  Sushi.  Great especially since a very special leaf was served with which made the experience elevated.  My flounder flower was fatty. 

Nola, I'm glad we got the leaf unraveled. Now, on to the next thorny issue:

What do you mean when you say, "My flounder flower was fatty?"

I woke up very early, after a rough night of "sleep," or lack thereof, and haven't had any caffeine (yet; that will soon change), and that may be why this clause isn't clicking. Sorry, I would've asked before, but my thoughts were rooted in the leaf - now, I can branch out.

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Not sure how flounder/fluke gets "fatty," though.

RW: Yes, that picture was of a flounder flower like the one I had. It's been quite awhile but maybe what I describe as "fatty" is ...creamy? or smooth? I am not very sushi sophisticated.  I must admit though that I liked using "flounder flower" in my post.    One rarely gets to use that phrase.

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