Carla Meyer

Dining review: Sushi is crafted with expertise and grace at Lou’s

Stepping inside Lou’s Sushi, this small but bustling neighborhood joint in midtown, it isn’t hard to understand what draws people here and turns them into fans. Humble, charismatic and talented, Lou Valente has committed the better part of his adult life to learning the craft of making sushi.

This isn’t some whim, and he’s no flash in the pan.

Valente has done it the right way, unhurried and with respect for tradition. Just as they do in Japan, he has devoted many years to building his repertoire.

This June, he will have been immersed in the world of sushi for 20 years. All that know-how and dedication may account for why Valente’s rice, an often under-appreciated component of good sushi, is some of the finest you may ever eat, and why his fish is always so superbly fresh, nuanced and clean on the palate.

Procuring and then handling the seafood properly once it’s delivered is one of the X-factors that separates great sushi from so many pretenders.

Then there’s that amazing rice. Valente uses a strain called Koshihikari, which he refers to as some of the most expensive rice available. The textural quality and expressive flavor of this rice just might amaze you.

The chef spares no expense on this ingredient, and it makes a significant difference, even if most diners don’t stop to appreciate exactly why.

Mesmerized by all the nuances of sushi since the first time he tried it in his early 20s, Valente apprenticed in a Malibu restaurant under a sushi master named Go Kawano, starting as a dishwasher at 23.

While attending California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, he continued to work and learn about sushi, struggling at first to find a job because guys named Lou Valente just weren’t doing sushi back then.

The more he learned about handling the seafood, preparing the rice, learning the intricate knife skills and developing a sense of balance to his food, the more convinced Valente became that he must have been Japanese in a previous life.

Now, after settling into midtown, Valente, 45, and Lou’s Sushi have begun to flourish, often playing to packed houses at dinner and building up lunch business.

Lou’s is an appealing, intimate place to eat, with a great neighborhood feel about it – it’s in a more residential section of midtown on P Street several blocks from most of the bars and eateries.

Whether you order from the menu or hand the reins to Valente and dine omakase style, you’re bound to find the experience to be satisfying, entertaining and inspiring.

During recent visits, we tried both ways of eating and found the quality of the food and the overall experience to be consistently impressive.

Omakase allows Valente to orchestrate the experience – he’ll size up what’s best that day, what kind of time frame and price point you’re thinking of, and then start creating beautiful food in progressive fashion, starting with leaner cuts of fish like halibut or striped bass, then moving from there to, say, scallops and on to richer, oilier fish like yellowtail, salmon and maybe albacore toro.

To enjoy omakase, however, you must be willing to surrender control and not be the least bit picky. It’s the chef’s world; we just live in it. If you have any dislikes, let the chef know up front. Otherwise, be prepared to be comforted, inspired and entertained by his food.

On two occasions, Valente served at the outset the most pristine scallops you could imagine, plump and ivory colored, with a tenderness and subtle flavor that whetted our appetites for what was to come. This dish set the tone for the great visual, flavorful and textural experience sushi can be.

During another occasion, Valente started us off much differently, with a chilled spinach salad with ample sesame dressing that emphasized the tenderness of the sautéed greenery and the rich, nutty seeds.

One of my omakase experiences for two cost $92 and was a bountiful and, at times, brilliant meal, while another, shorter one weeks later for three cost $72. In other words, depending on your time and ambition, Valente has the skill set to be a trusted and entertaining culinary guide.

Lou’s offers a small selection of fine sake at reasonable price and in different styles. I tend to enjoy sweeter sake with leaner fish and a dry sake with salads and fatty fish. You can also try the “Sake Bomb,” a half beer, half sake concoction for $3 ($2 during happy hour).

The chef’s selections are always first-rate, inventive and even surprising. Alabacore tuna belly. Tuna and snow crab wrapped around grilled asparagus. Spicy tuna with smoked bonito flakes. Grilled Japanese eggplant with ponzu and ginger. Fried Brussels sprouts. Grilled asparagus with a creamy garlic dipping sauce.

At the end of one visit, the chef delivered the skeletal remains of a horse mackerel (aka “aji”) that had been dredged in cornstarch and then deep fried to a crisp grayish-brown hue. We squeezed some lemon juice on it and dipped it in salt for a delightful end to our meal. Yes, the tiny bones and remaining skin, when cooked just so, are crisp and satisfying – and they eat like corn chips.

Getting these bones is luck of the draw – for every two orders of aji, there’s one carcass available. So if you want to guarantee trying this very Instagram-able dish, do the math – get two orders of aji.

The menu is the standard way to dine at Lou’s, but it’s anything but ho-hum. It showcases Valente’s commitment to classic sushi, nigiri and sashimi with appropriate amounts of flair, innovation and good humor.

This may be the best way to get a sense if he’s your kind of sushi chef before digging in to a more expansive omakase adventure.

A dish called seafood nachos was our introduction to Lou’s back in October, and we knew right away we were going to like this guy. He understood how to inspire the palate with precise execution and a thoughtful combination of flavors and textures, but he also had a sense of fun and lightness.

This witty little tour de force is meaty, creamy, crunchy and maybe crazy. It includes a spicy seafood of the chef’s choosing served atop smashed avocado on fried wonton triangles. It’s become one of my favorite appetizers in the city, suitable for sharing or hoarding.

On the simpler side, try the tempura. It is fried with care, resulting in a light crispiness enveloping a variety of tender vegetables or shrimp.

The Mount Fuji roll is one of Lou’s great signature dishes, a visual feast of perfectly made rice, spicy tuna and asparagus blanketed by salmon and avocado. Like the nachos, it’s both fun and delicious.

Daniel, My Brother is an overtly herbaceous experience that’s like eating a Vietnamese spring roll, with an array of ingredients including striped bass, salmon, asparagus, cucumber, shiso and, for a touch of that familiar spicy heat, Sriracha.

When you take in the neighborhood feel of the place and the quality of the food, it isn’t hard to understand what draws people here – and what keeps them coming back.