Numerous thanks to all those who helped in my quest to search for a nice sushi dinner in Seattle. After much deliberation and recommendations, followed by my own research for days, earlier today I called ahead for a reservation at the bar at Kisaku (before I got on the plane at San Francisco airport) and arrived at the location after self navigating in rush hour traffic, and managed to get through :-)
Kisaku's location is very interesting, as it was mere moments from the lake, and surrounded by houses (which seemed a little out of place for this Bay Area visitor), but on the street where it was on were other businesses.
Kisaku has an upscale, westernized decor, and does not look much like a traditional sushi bar. However, my meal can be described as a mix of tradition using the freshest seafood imagineable (the local offerings were out of this world), combined with world class service, reasonable prices (compared to SF Bay Area), basically an amazing experience overall.
I had actually made contact with the owner through the restaurant's website, and asked him briefly about the menu and restaurant. As I sat down at the bar and told him who I was, he seemed very happy to see that I came all the way to dine there. I proceeded with "omakase shimasu" and let him decide, though I told him I didn't want ika, tako, and cooked ebi, and directed himi towards a course of sashimi, nigiri, and makimono.
The dinner lasted a good 1.5+ hours and I enjoyed every moment of it. I had a fantastic conversation with the owner (Ryu-san), and I really did maximize my dining experience by letting him know that I eat like a nihon-jin (Japanese), and told him to hold nothing back :-) He was only too happy to oblige, seeing that the people around me were ordering spider rolls and spicy tuna.
I even quizzed him on availability of some really special offerings, to which he reacted with some shock, surprise, amazement....how did this out of towner guy know so much about what he had? (Google and blogs!) He seemed a bit scared at the thought, but nonetheless was grateful that I had done enough research to add further to the experience.
I started with an appetizer (free I assume for those eating at the bar). It was a soy sauce, sake, and sugar marinated fish. I should have asked what it was, but it was the softest piece of cooked/marinated fish I ever had. The meat was soft and the skin with the layer of fat underneath was the best part. My guess was it was either hamachi or black cod (gindara).
Sashimi is always served in the beginning, and I really appreciated the sampler Ryu-san created, which represented pretty much a good spectrum of his excellent offerings.
- 2 pc tai (snapper). This was not like the tai I've had before. Perhaps it was cut in a square shape, good chunky piece. It was meaty and great.
-2 pc maguro. Two small but chunky strips of red akami maguro.
-4 pc aji. Maybe it was the way Ryu-san cut it, but it didn't taste like aji at all, more like shima-aji which is a way more expensive fish. Nice hearty thick (but small enough) slices. Served with very finely cut scallions, which showcased Ryu-san's classical knife skills.
- 2 pc mirugai. Oh my goodness...I've had "imported" pacific nw giant clam/geoduck, but to have it in the region where it is sourced directly, and possibly to get something this fresh, is mindblowing. I am so glad I concentrated on, and requested to try some local offerings for sushi neta. This was a winner, as it had the elements of mild clam crispi-ness with a nice bouncy texture to it.
- 2 pc copper river salmon. I was worried this would not be offered when I arrived, but luckily he still had a fresh slab inside the counter. I really miss having this, as the only place in the SF Bay Area I know of that has it, only has it for 2 weeks and he charges quite a bit for it (plus subsequent offerings past those 2 weeks in the year are kept in his freezer for the next few months). Maybe to you locals, CRS is no big deal, but to this out of towner, this definitely was a highlight, if not the highlight, of the visit. Nice red flesh, and insanely fresh.
Nigiri offerings...I basically had one piece of each in the omakase (let the chef decide) unless otherwise stated. I lost count of the order in which there were served. Ryu-san did observe the progression of light flavors to heavier in the omakase, which I really appreciated. Some comments on them:
sayori (halfbeak)- a very generous piece of sushi neta, which complemented well with his vinegared sushi rice (sumeshi). The sumeshi was also some of the best I've had, which virtually went well with practically everything he had (maybe that's an overstatement...but I really couldn't find any fault with 99% of the offerings)
hirame (halibut) - soft, sweet, and tender piece. Some of the best halibut I ever had. It almost tasted like a kelp marination but I wasn't sure (konbu jime).
marinated albacore (bincho zuke) - Ryu-san was amazed when I told him "I hear you have binch zuke", and luckily he still had some left. When asked "why albacore", he said it was a very different idea, versus using the traditional blue fin akami, or something light like ika. This was the first time I had this style with this type of fish. A true surprise. Perhaps this was a slightly older batch, as the fish seemed a wee bit dry but did have the marination seap all the way through for extra flavor. A superb effort nonetheless and pleasing.
mackeral (saba) - A mark of a true sushi chef's skills can be tested with hikarimono marination, and saba is a good one. I did not ask for this, but it was served a little later in the meal. Ryu-san said this came from Norway, which most SF Bay Area restaurants do as well. However his marination was dead perfect. The lemony kelp layer on top of the sushi neta gave the fish a needed tarty flavor. On top of all that, it was moist, oily enough but not overpowering oily yet retains a bit of meaty texture. At this point my expectations were way past beyond what I had set.
anago - I saw this on a blog picture, but it did not look that nice. However in person it was a shiny and really delicious looking piece. Missing was the usual tare (anago sauce that the traditional receipe calls for, lightly brushed on top), and I saw Ryu-san add some salt. This was one of the best anago and anago preps I ever had, easily surpassing a lot of Bay Area restaurants. I immediately picked up on the use of yuzu-goshou (a Japanese lemon salt/pepper seasoning)
The meat of the anago literally melted in my mouth. When anago is bad, it can be terrible (dry, salty etc). Very hard to find good anago anywhere. But this place goes the extra mile and uses a different light seasoning trick to bring out the natural flavor of the eel (neo-traditional).
Scallops - so thanks to Bob who posted in the Nishino thread below, I inquired about the hotate no konbu jime (kelp marinated scallops) and Ryu-san told me there was one left. I've had the hirame preparation of this (only at one restaurant in the Bay Area) but not scallops. This worked really well, as the flavors sunk right in.
x2 ama ebi - I didn't realise the pacific northwest had its own supply/population of spot prawn. These were not giant/huge, but were tender and really sweet. I enjoyed them.
x2 uni - Pacific Northwest also had its own population of sea urchin, which I did not realise. Ryu-san told me these are out of season, but I wanted to try to compare, since I've had Canadian, Hokkaido/Japan, Santa Barbara, and Boston uni. These Pacific NW uni were of a darker brown variety (as these were sourced to urchins that fed on brown kelp), a few shades darker than the Hokkaido bafun uni variety. However they were on the bitter side (apparently they are sweeter during wintertime). However this combined with the sumeshi, dash of wasabi on top, plus a little soy sauce, made the whole thing taste really sweet. I had to order an extra one just to have 2 pcs overall in the meal. wonderful!
Chu-toro, otoro - The difference between the two were a bit small. Not super impressed by these, but they were still pretty good.
kohada - The moment this piece was placed on my plate, I said "ahhh kohada" to which Ryu-san replied in delight that it was his favorite (which confirmed the other blog I saw before). This was a little salty and sour, but it was marinated well enough that it was soft and tender. A fantastic effort, considering this is a right bastard of a fish to prepare for hikarimono (a difficult fish to get right in Edomae style sushi).
Ebodai - Turns out this was butterfish. For some reason I thought this was a white fish, but was actually considered a shiny fish variety (hikarimono). Tasted like saba, very interesting texture. I'm glad I got to try it.
pen shell clam - aka tairagai. This one came from Tsukiji in Tokyo (just because I asked). Think of this as a scallop steak, more meaty and more texture and flavor. A great piece.
baby squid - Again thanks to the blogger, whoever you are, that I saw that picture and knew what it was. I asked for it by hotaru ika, and got two pieces in nigiri (not gunkan) form, tied together with a thin nori strip, and brushed a bit of sauce on top that tasted a bit like Japanese plum (ume). Very different sauce topping than in the SF Bay Area which chefs there tend to use a sweet miso paste.
ankimo - this was on the specials board against the wall in the back. I asked for it in gunkan (battleship) form. It wasn't bad, but was not superb. The only item I can say that wasn't super, but I made note of his ponzu sauce which was realllllllllly good.
awabi - I was a little weary when he put down the abalone nigiri, but the fears were put permanently to rest when I bit into it. It wasn't crunchy and tasteless....it was actually half crunchy, half soft, and with the sushi rice really went well together. This exceeded expectations. The girl next to me was a little worried at how it would taste, and unfortunately she left before I could tell her otherwise (and put her fears to rest!)
Tamagoyaki - Well what's the big deal about egg? Some like it, some don't, but I also use this to measure a sushi bar's chef skills. Maybe Ryu-san didn't cook it or maybe he supervised/did. This was a nice piece, with good egg flavor, enough moisture, and flavored nicely. This piece was better than most bay area restaurants but a few notches below my absolute fave place. Great job, I like their version overall.
For the makimono (roll) portion, Ryu-san gave me a very Japanese style handroll, as he asked if I liked fermented soybean (natto) and I said "sure!". The handroll contained some Japanese salted pickle (oshinko), maguro, natto, and together with a super crispy nori, it made for a nice near end of meal closer.
Before the end of the meal, I had to make sure I ate extra pieces of the local offerings (mirugai, copper river salmon, and uni as mentioned before). I cannot stress how enjoyable these really are since I won't likely ever get to have them in this caliber and quality back in California.
I remember reading good reviews of their sorbet, so I asked Ryu-san what flavors he had available. He responded that he had passionfruit, lychee, coconut (i think) and yuzu which really surprised me. I ended up with x2 scoops lychee, and x1 yuzu (and regretted that I should have done x2 yuzu and 1 lychee). I didn't want something heavy, so the sorbet was an excellent choice. The yuzu sorbet was like a fine lime flavor, but different. I joked to the owner that if he added pepper and salt to the sorbet, I would be tasting the flavors of his anago again (with a huge grin while telling him that of course). This contrasted and in a sense complemented the lychee (sweet and a hint of sour/tartness).
I can't remember if I left anything out, but the combination of fantastic atttention by Ryu-san himself, a great conversation (with him and two others sitting next to me), plus the constant refilling of water and changing the soy sauce plates, made this dinner extra pleasant.
I paid the bill which came to $87 (cheaper than one of the top places in SF Bay Area which gets their fish Fed Ex'd from Tsukiji Tokyo), got up and said that I would be remembering this meal for a long time to come.
And I will.