OK, let’s start with the elephant in the room – your name is Lou.
Lou. Sushi. It’s not often we see those words lined up side by side on a big sign.
But Louis Valente, the Italian American who loves making sushi so much that he thinks it may have something to do with reincarnation, is committed to tradition, is a stickler for precision, has put in his time learning at the feet of his mentors, and is ready to rock midtown with sushi of the highest order.
That’s the business plan, and Valente is committed to making it happen.
He’s humble. He’s hungry. And he’s gifted. Just ask the legion of followers who have been watching social media with interest as Valente was making the transition from sushi chef at Zen Sushi on 15th Street to owner/sushi chef at Lou’s Sushi on P Street.
Clearly, Valente has cachet and star potential. How much does he love and respect the craft? He was moved to tears watching “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.”
When we walked into Lou’s Sushi for a first visit, we were blinded – not by the aura that is Lou, but by the setting sun. On the to-do list: Order blinds for large west-facing window at front of building. Order mirrors for bathrooms.
But also on that list: Keep doing what you’re doing with the food. The sushi here is seriously good, has plenty of personality and is rife with creative touches while adhering to sushi traditions.
Valente’s sushi obsession dates to 1993, when he was in his early 20s and visited his first sushi joint in Los Angeles. He was mesmerized. The ambiance. The focus of the chefs. The way they moved. The beauty of the food.
“I knew I wanted to make it my career,” he told me during a phone conversation. At 23, he got a job washing dishes at a sushi restaurant in Malibu, but there were no non-Asians working in sushi back then. Then he got a lucky break – one of the sushi chefs broke his leg skiing. Valente had been watching and studying, and he got his chance. He spent two years working under his mentor, Go Kawano.
“To be honest, I think I might have been Japanese in another life,” he said with a laugh. “I took to it right away. I learned fast.”
When he moved to the Bay Area to attend the California Culinary Academy, he couldn’t get a job as a sushi chef, even though he had written references in Japanese.
“I got laughed out of every restaurant,” he said.
Valente’s perseverance is our reward. He opened his place Oct. 1.
One of the signature sushi rolls here is surely going to be the Mt. Fuji, which is a visual treat to be certain – a roll with spicy tuna and asparagus enveloped by rice and topped with salmon and avocado. Valente stands each piece straight up in a circle and tops them with snow crab and finally, the big flourish, a plethora of tempura flakes that may remind you of snow.
The “Daniel, My Brother” reminded us of a Vietnamese spring roll, complete with salmon, asparagus and cucumber, and topped with shiso, striped bass and sriracha. This is a dynamic, intensely flavored and herbaceous roll that may overwhelm timid palates. We washed it down with one of two varieties of sake we shared that night.
Don’t overlook the seafood nachos, which are a spicy rendition of the chef’s choice seafood served over smashed avocado on triangles of crisply fried wontons. It’s a fun, delicious appetizer. The vegetable tempura, often made with haste at many a sushi joint, was uncommonly good here. The vegetables included broccoli, yam, zucchini, green bell pepper and carrot.
We arrived for an early weeknight dinner to find we had the place to ourselves, but as our meal progressed, the dining room filled to near-capacity. The vibe was low-key and non-club-like, meaning it’s easy to get serious about the food while still enjoying a laid-back neighborhood atmosphere.
Valente has a hand in every dish that arrives at the table. It’s a personal sushi place and, with his humble demeanor and respect for tradition, he’s an easy guy to like.