Izakayas are the great new import from Japan, and they’re sprouting up around Seattle. So which is the best izakaya? Well, that depends on what your definition of “iz” is. Formed from i (to remain) and sakaya (sake shop), an izakaya is a drinking establishment serving substantial small plates generally meant for sharing. In Japan, I’ve seen izakayas range from rustic, elbow room-less rooms offering traditional food like grilled meat and sashimi (no rice, as that’s redundant with rice-brewed sake), to contemporary, club-like spaces with expanded menu items like sushi, noodles, and even western/fusion food. I’m looking for a place to unwind after work with friends or colleagues, where we can sip some sake and leisurely order dishes that will ultimately make for a delicious meal and evening. Sound invited a number of restaurants to impress my dining companion (who happens to be Japanese) and me with an ideal izakaya experience; three accepted the challenge.
Our first stop is Kaname, an izakaya and shochu bar actually in Seattle’s original Japantown. It’s a family business, and restaurants run in this family; owner Todd Kuniyuki proudly shows us a fabulous old photo of Tad’s Café (now the New Orleans Café, in Pioneer Square), run by his great-grandfather who named it after his son Tadeshi, who at 96 is cleaning up Kaname’s bar area a bit before settling down to his evening meal. “I’ll have what he’s having,” my mind says.
The kaki fry is simply outstanding. Perfectly fried, these plump, panko-battered oysters are huge, each penetrating bite resulting in a juicy, oceany explosion. We can’t stop eating them—and same for the garlic gobo fry, fried wafers of garlicky gobo chips that I’d choose over fried potatoes in a healthy heartbeat. Also enjoyable is the shishamo, a small fish grilled and eaten whole (head and all), filled with thousands of tiny little eggs that give great texture. The saba shioyaki (grilled mackerel) gives a wonderful waft of oily goodness upon arrival; it’s tasty, but makes me miss Takohachi (Kaname’s predecessor—the beloved restaurant with memorably sticky floors), which perfected the dish, served with to-die-for yakimeshi (their bacon-enhanced fried rice).
The much-acclaimed ramen disappoints me. The most authentic noodles in town, but a tonkotsu broth should be fatty, like liquid bacon. This is bland. Same for the California roll. Stick to the grilled, fried and broiled food, and you’ll see why many Japanese (and Japanese food-loving) people come to this cozy, countryside-feeling restaurant.
Bites is proclaimed a place for Asian tapas and wild sushi. Fusion, for sure, but with some traditional Japanese favorites. Smack in its center is a circular bar—half alcohol, half sushi. The problem on this and other non-event (it’s right near the stadiums) nights: nobody is at the bar, or anywhere in the restaurant. No buzz.
And not really buzzworthy. On the positive side, the gyoza are refreshing – homemade and pan-fried, with pieces of Fuji apple providing contrast in taste and texture to the usual pork and vegetable filling. Beef korokke and ginger pork are also satisfying, but the gyu negi (beef wrapped around green onion, substituting for the more expensive but more delicious negi) suffers from a cloyingly sweet teriyaki sauce. And the grilled mackerel, suspicious from the start with an off-putting fishy smell, lacks consistency in cooking. We ask to sample the kaki fry and a couple of specific pieces of sushi, but they’re not available.
Nothing on the menu is particularly risk-taking, and nothing has any wow factor. The sushi we sample is just ma-ma (so-so), and the fantasy prawns (sautéed in creamy spiced sauce) won’t recur in any of my future fantasies. Still, Bites provides a few dishes (like the anything-but-authentic spicy tuna bruschetta, which is actually a fried sushi roll) that might make it a safe place for some people to test the waters for something new. But you won’t find Asians walking down here from the International District. Ultimately, we might instead recommend you walk a few steps to the I.D. for bites that are more bold and exotic.
As reported previously, Bites is now closed.
UMI SAKE HOUSE – Winner
I am admittedly ambivalent about going to Umi Sake House, which I hear is a “roll place.” Traditional izakayas don’t serve sushi, let alone rolls, yet here’s a place serving fifty of ’em, with names like Samurai Spirit, Sassy Sara and Spicy Sunset. (Someone’s stretching the sanity of alliteration as much as I do.) A couple of crazy rolls come to the table, looking like Disneyland on a dish. I look around, and nearly everyone is eating them. Then I look again, and notice there’s nary a foreigner to be found. This is Belltown, baby, and chef Billy Beach (alas, the alluded-to alliterator?) says that while he wishes customers chose more traditional stuff, he needs to give the people what they want. Playing along with the premise, we enjoy a trio of goodies: toro dango, pumpkin patch, and ahi tuna poke—tempting us with textures and tastes of Japan (think tobiko, yuzu, shiso, ponzu, fried mochi, and more). Same with the king crab tower, featuring luscious layers of pillowy crab in swirled sauces, resulting in kaleidoscopic colors.
Anyone would appreciate these artistic creations, but I want something simpler with my sake. The sushi plate arrives and we can’t stop eating the ginger—crispy, snappy, and maybe the best I’ve ever had. Generous pieces of nigiri; the kampachi is the biggest piece of fish I’ve ever stuffed in my face. (You shouldn’t dip the rice in the soy sauce, but no worries; with so much fish, I can barely find the rice.) We’re loving the toro, the uni, the salmon… but we’re still devouring the ginger, and now marveling at the freshly grated wasabi as well.
Am I not a discerning diner? Actually, I think the finest dishes are simple preparations made from just a few great ingredients. We sense this in the miso soup (we detect a delicious dashi), which offers promise of quality cooked food from the kitchen. Go against the grain and try the more traditional, like agedashi tofu, yakitori, ika shoga, chawan mushi, and the cute shishamo. Billy Beach will be glad. And we’ll be glad to return to this sleek and sophisticated spot that, while not a true izakaya, is a most appealing place to linger over some sake and shared plates—both traditional and contemporary.