In Lexington, as in many parts of the country, the number of Japanese restaurants has grown over the years, particularly sushi stops. But quantity doesn't necessarily mean quality, and in the case of Tomo, one of the city's most popular Japanese eateries, there still seems to be room for improvement.
While it routinely shows up in the Herald-Leader's Readers' Choice Awards as the best place in town to eat sushi and has a large cadre of worshipful fans, Tomo seems to have an equal number of detractors who are put off by what they consider high prices and small portions. So, what's the real skinny?
Let's start with the excellent location in the heart of Chevy Chase. Ample parking and flexible hours make Tomo a great choice for those in search of a sushi fix.
The atmosphere is cool with a Capital C. Uber contemporary, the décor features lots of pale wood and delicate pendant lights — very relaxing and Zen-like.
With such painstaking attention to detail, it was all the more surprising that the night I was there, the music was straight out of 1960s American Bandstand: Neil Sedaka's Happy Birthday, Sweet Sixteen and Paul Anka's Puppy Love. Not exactly mood-setting. I didn't expect arias from Puccini's Madame Butterfly, but oldies — really?
As for service, I've been here when it was merely adequate — not really great, but not bad enough to complain about. On my most recent visit, however, our server was great, greeting us with a friendly smile, explaining the sushi choices and offering her own suggestions, and getting back to us in timely fashion with drinks and food.
The bottom line here is that the quality of service — like that of any other restaurant — can be chalked up to how busy and well-staffed the restaurant is when you're dining.
While service can be sketchy depending on circumstances, the food should never be, and herein lies one of my complaints.
I've tried the edamame appetizer ($3.50) twice, with varying results. The first time the soy bean pods were perfectly steamed with a delicate dash of salt; the second time, they tasted, for want of a better word, stale.
Also, in the appetizer category, I loved the spicy half soft-shell crab ($6.95), but was less fond of the okonomiyaki ($7.50), a Japanese savory pancake filled with cabbage, green onions, shrimp and octopus, and topped with a smoky sauce that resembles steak sauce more than soy sauce.
As proof that there is no one-flavor-fits-all category for dishes, I thought the okonomiyaki had too much going on, while my dining companion loved it.
On another recent visit, my friend and I ordered different main courses and shared. She had the Asparagus Beef Maki ($18.95) and I had the Tekka Don ($21), a dish often described as Japanese comfort food — rice accompanied by thinly sliced raw tuna sashimi. Both were delicious; the latter the result of extremely fine quality tuna.
Of course, most people come to Tomo for the sushi, and the menu is more than adequate. From the traditional California Roll to the less traditional Dragon Roll (California Roll plus eel) to a specialty of the house, the Godzilla (Salmon, Cream Cheese, Sriracha, cooked rather than raw), the ingredients are as fresh as it is possible to find in a land-locked location like Lexington.
Now for the down side. A frequent criticism of Tomo is that the portions are too small. While I think most local restaurants tend to err on the opposite end of that spectrum, I am inclined to agree. An appetizer the size of an amuse bouche and an entrée the size of an appetizer are somewhat off-putting, especially at Tomo's prices, which is the other oft remarked criticism (dinner entries range from $18 to $32.)
Tomo's wine list is small, but you may wish to sample the sakes anyway (the warm pineapple flavored sake was my favorite).
Finally, sitting at the bar and watching the sushi chefs do their thing is a way to get both a free show to go with your meal and an assortment of new friends.