Kushibar is a relatively new (opened in September 2008) Belltown restaurant and bar that aspires to serve Japanese street food. I admire Kushibar’s owner, Steven Han, for trying to add something new to the Seattle food scene. The main bone I have to pick is with the yakitori. One of my favorite places to eat in the Los Angeles area is the Shin Sen Gumi Yakitori Restaurant in Gardena for delicious Hakata-style yakitori. Although Seattle has some restaurants that serve yakitori, it hasn’t had an authentic Japanese yakitori bar like Shin Sen Gumi -- a noisy, raucous place with shouted greetings by, and shouted exchanges between, the chefs and wait staff, a not-so-quiet background of Japanese pop music, and an energy level that is 15 on a scale of 1 to 10. So I was excited when I heard that Kushibar was modeled after a traditional yakitori bar and prepared yakitori in the traditional Japanese manner. By “traditional manner” I mean a long, narrow grill filled with Japanese white Bincho-tan charcoal made from Ubame oak, with the intensity of the heat controlled by hand-fanning. Alas, despite the use of Bincho-tan charcoal, the yakitori at Kushibar isn’t good. Chicken livers were overcooked and mushy. Chicken gizzards and beef tongue were likewise overcooked. Dark-meat chicken was over-sauced and mediocre at best. The chicken hearts were the best of the yakitori I sampled, but were surprisingly flavorless, a far cry from the chicken hearts at Shin Sen Gumi. The best dishes I had at Kushibar were the buta kimchi, a spicy tofu and pork stir fry, gyu tataki, barely seared beef with vinegar and ginger, and a scaled-down version of the classic Japanese winter dish, oden. In the middle of the ranking were a kimchi nabe with udon noodles served in a cast-iron pot and okonomiyaki, sort of a Japanese pizza. All in all, the dishes at Kushibar ranged from “good” (the buta kimchee, gyu tataki, and the oden), to “okay” (the kimchee nabe and the okonomiyaki), to “bad” (the yakitori). None of the dishes rocked my world. Will it ever be possible to get first-rate yakitori in Seattle?
I give Kushibar high marks for a menu that offers many traditional Japanese dishes that are not widely available elsewhere in Seattle, like oden, kimchi nabe, and okonomiyaki. I have had better versions at non-Seattle Japanese restaurants, but I suppose half a loaf is better than none. The yakitori, however, was a huge disappointment. It has occurred to me that at Shin Sen Gumi and at other authentically Japanese restaurants, like Wa Dining Okan in San Diego, the overwhelming majority of the patrons are Japanese, with just a few non-Japanese customers thrown in the mix. At all of the Japanese restaurants I’ve been to in Seattle so far, the mix is just the opposite – predominantly non-Japanese customers. So perhaps the difference in the “authenticity” of both the ambience and the food of these non-Seattle restaurants and the Seattle restaurants merely reflects the differences in the desires and comfort levels between predominantly Japanese and predominantly non-Japanese clienteles. Demand controls supply.