I’ve been in the Washington, D.C. area for almost six weeks. I’ve passed by without regret innumerable cheap sushi and kitsch Japanese restaurants. I haven’t had a sip of sake since slowly getting sloshed in Narita Airport while waiting for my flight. The thought of eating disappointing Japanese food kept me from even looking at the maki rolls in Whole Foods.

But Saturday morning I woke up jonesing hard. I went to Tyler Cowen’s Ethnic Dining Guide (thanks, Mr. Cowen, for your very informative site) and read this:

Temari: Highly authentic, too authentic some would say.

Yes, yes, yes, yes. I needed the sound of Japanese cooking shows blaring from the TV and the enveloping aroma of dashi, grilled fish, ramen broth, and perhaps—did I dare hope?—an irrashaimase when we walked in the door?

Temari cafe
Photo: Temari Cafe. Sake, ramen, grilled fish, donburi, the works.

So off my husband and I went to Rockville, 45 minutes on the metro and a short cab ride to Temari Cafe, a little slice of Japan in Maryland. That is to say, the sort of place from which one would expect a basic home style meal, not a gourmet place: the Japanese equivalent of a diner. The rice wasn’t top quality (it had a dusty taste). The miso soup was tasty, but not extraordinary. The cold tofu was nowhere near the kind of quality I would expect in Japan. The fish tasted good but was not perfectly grilled. Still, it had a taste of a sake marinade, and I picked and picked at the fish bone to get every morsel off it. The tonkatsu was average. Despite all that, we enjoyed the hell out of our meals. Perhaps when one is jonesing for the real thing, one is a bit forgiving.

It was what we were looking for: honest Japanese grub, not trying to be anything too fancy, too Americanized. Was it transporting? No. It was decent food, not exactly cheap, but decent. None of this is new information if you follow the D.C. food blogs. Temari has been written up and written up again. But it was a little taste of home, home? This American is still confused where she lives.

Black cod set
Photo: Lunch set of grilled black cod with rice, pickles, and miso soup.

Salad and tofu sides
Photo: The black cod set also included salad and hiyadofu (cold tofu with scallions and bonito flakes).

Mr. Cowen is imprecise when he writes, “Here you will encounter the other side of Japanese food.” This isn’t the “other side” at all, it is Japanese food. If you have never lived in Japan, you might not understand that what many people think of when they think of Japanese food—sushi—is not daily fare even in Japan. Sushi is expensive, and even if you serve it at home, the fish must be top grade and is never cheap. Yes, there are inexpensive sushi places in Japan, but the best sushi, the transporting delights, the freshest, most wonderful sushi is a treat, a celebratory meal. Sushi is only one small part of how Japanese people eat fish and seafood.

If you really want to make a Japanese friend smile, don’t invite him or her to a sushi place. Invite your friend home for a perfectly fresh piece of grilled fish (whole or at least a piece on the bone) with a mound of grated daikon, a homemade miso soup, and a bowl of high quality Japanese rice.

Tonkatsu set
Photo: Tonkatsu set (fried pork cutlet, miso soup, rice, pickles). A salad was also included in this set.

After our lunch we walked upstairs to Maruichi Grocery and picked up Japanese staples like kombu and bonito flakes for stock, soy sauce, brown rice vinegar, and sake. It’s a tiny place, but they carry a respectable range of products. I was impressed with some of the sake brands they carry, some junmais and ginjos. I saw some old friends in bottles on the shelves, but at two and three times the price in Japan. (Sigh.) I bought a decent Otokoyama tokubetsu junmai for drinking and cooking. Then, I was delighted to find this:

Uonuma rice
Photo: Uonuma rice from Niigata. Top quality, delicious rice. What I’ve been craving for weeks.

Uonuma rice from Niigata is extraordinary rice. I won’t make it every day, it’s quite expensive. But when I make Japanese food, and I want clean, white, fragrant, glorious rice, this is Japan in a bowl.

Temari Cafe and Maruichi Grocery are located in the same strip mall: 1043 and 1049 Rockville Pike (Talbott Center), a five-minute cab ride from the Rockville metro station.

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