Why Seattle’s Chinese and Japanese Restaurants Give Me the Blues

momiji_roll_1000_3859I remember the first time I saw a blueberry bagel. “That’s a Christian bagel,” my dad bemoaned, adding, “Or a stale doughnut.” We both believed a bagel should be simple—either plain, seeded, or maybe onion. Me…I’m a sesame man.

And I’m a New York Jew, or at least was born that way. As such, I love Chinese food. (There’s the old joke that you always see Jewish people in Chinese restaurants, but never Chinese people in bagel shops.) Growing up, I enjoyed crab rangoon, shrimp with lobster sauce, sweet-and-sour pork, and egg foo young, though I soon learned that most people in China wouldn’t recognize some of what we call Chinese food.

While Chinese restaurants in Seattle are better and more “authentic” than in most other parts of the country, I’m disenchanted with the Chinese food scene here. And after meeting my Japanese partner in Tokyo and spending considerable time there, I’m similarly critical of much of the Japanese food in Seattle. I’m sure my criticism would likely extend to all the Asian cuisines if I traveled to the respective countries. (Actually, I’ve been to several.) After all, I’m the type of guy who scoffs at Seattle’s bagels and pizza, saying they’re better back in New York.

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And, yes, I’m the guy who answers the “Where’s the best dim sum in Seattle?” question with the obnoxious reply of “100-something miles to the north, in Richmond.” It’s where they do Cantonese food right. And Hunanese. And Shanghainese. (I can point you to several places preparing xiao long bao, a.k.a. soup dumplings, far superior to what’s available locally. Just compare the tell-tale droop of soup in the dumplings of the homey Long’s Noodle House in Vancouver, above left, versus what you get at the sleek Din Tai Fung in Bellevue, above right.) We do have some decent Sichuanese and Taiwanese restaurants, but they’re better across the border. The same for sushi, and ramen, and izakaya fare—all are better in Vancouver.

So why are Seattle’s Chinese and Japanese restaurants giving me the blues?

Much as I disdain blueberries in bagels as being inauthentic and dumbing down the cuisine, I don’t want blueberries in my sushi. At Momiji in Capitol Hill, there’s a tropical paradise roll (pictured, top of the article) described as “mango, strawberry, tobiko, cucumber & avocado topped with tuna, salmon & spicy blueberry sauce.” It’s…frightening. Given Momiji’s use of cream cheese in other rolls, I’m surprised it’s not in this one; sadly, as with a bad bagel, I can picture blueberried starch topped with cream cheese and salmon.

Momiji’s regular menu reveals forty different rolls. Turning to my food-writing colleagues, Seattle Weekly’s Hanna Raskin describes the rolls as a mayo-fest (in addition to being filled with fruit, sometimes they’re fried, or fiery from jalapenos), while The Stranger’s Bethany Jean Clement calls Momiji a “sushi circus,” adding, “If a clown went out for sushi…these rolls are what the clown would order.”

Rolls simply aren’t authentic. They’re now the new cupcake, with the quality of the base (the block of rice) ignored and the tops increasingly sparkly with swirls and sweets and sprinkles. No wonder Yelpers celebrate this sushi as “the best” and “freakin delicious,” setting the quality bar quite low.

This is not to pick exclusively on Momiji. Wasabi Bistro and Umi Sake House in Belltown, Shiku and Moshi Moshi in Ballard, and Japonessa downtown are similar—all enclaves of cocktail-clutching hipsters. (Note the recent outcry when Bastille lured bartender Erik Carlson away from Moshi Moshi.)

momiji_garden1_1000w_0155What saddens me is Momiji’s unrealized potential. A lot of money went into the restaurant, and it shows. Lights, furniture, and overall feel are beautiful. You imagine you’ve escaped to Kyoto once you get beyond the bar area and see the zen garden in the courtyard. I want to place a chair out there to relax and eat a kaiseki meal. Momiji’s been promising an actual coursed kaiseki menu, but that’s yet to surface. I’m pessimistic it will ever happen, though I hope they prove me wrong.

But even if they do it, I fear it won’t be the true kaiseki experience. Instead of experiencing zen and peacefully contemplating the colors, textures, and flavors of the food, diners will be distracted by the chatter of noisy neighbors drinking crazy cocktails and filling up on crazy rolls.

Make money on drinks, with food the secondary focus, often dumbed down. Maybe that’s a winning business model, a secret of success overcoming the need for critical acclaim. I fear that if food is an afterthought, there’s a risk it becomes bland, bastardized, or just plain bad.

At the other end of Capitol Hill’s commercial core, Hanna Raskin points out a similar situation at Bako, which she calls a “China doll” where “blandness is a recurring issue.” Seattle Magazine’s Allison Austin Scheff concurs, expressing her disappointment by explaining “there’s potential, but inconsistencies rule.” For her, the food was “midline,” often suffering from a lack of seasoning. But it’s a gorgeous space (see photo below, next to Bako’s Singapore noodles), a place where people afraid of the grittiness of the International District feel comfortable and pay a premium for safe Asian food to accompany their fancy drinks.

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Now I know it’s fruitless to expect people to be as gung ho for authenticity as I am. But I can hope. At the same time, I can try to check my expectations. I’m forewarned that Capitol Hill’s new Regent Bakery and Cafe offers a Hong Kong-style bakery with a mix of Eastern and Westernized pastries and cakes, and meals that are American Chinese. (Think almond chicken, honey-walnut prawns, and fried wontons.) Portion sizes are good, the food tastes fresh, and prices are more affordable than the higher-end places in the area. (Yes, I can even have a cocktail if I don’t want bubble tea.)

And I can accept the fusion focus of a place like Chino’s, the new Mexican slash Chinese joint not far from Regent. The chef is self-taught, and my first bite there, pig-ear salad, made me smile. The preview menu showed promise, teasing Chinese menudo (offal stew with misua noodles) and a “Blood and Guts” concoction of pig blood cake and tripe. Unfortunately, neither materialized. The buzz has shifted to the bartender, and in defense of a Yelp attack on the food, the chef replied, “We are primarily a bar.” Still, I hope that the apparent passion of the chef will someday play out with the appearance of offal dishes.

So, where is the authentic stuff in Seattle? What do I recommend? For Japanese food, I miss the grittiness and goodness of both Koraku and Takohachi, but Tsukushinbo and Maneki remain. With history as home-style restaurants, both temporarily transport me to Japan. Kisaku and Sushi Kappo Tamura are neighborhood places where many Japanese people prefer to eat sushi. They’re my two favorites in town. And in a nod to fusion, I adore Katsu Burger for its fried pork and traditional fixings on a bun.

blueberry_bitten_jadeseafood_640Recommendations for Chinese food are tougher, as my favorites tend to be on the Eastside (Bellevue’s Bamboo Garden is the first place that comes to mind, as I love the unusual dishes on the “Walk on the Wild Side” menu.) For dim sum, I maintain that one must travel north to Richmond for the finest quality. While there are many excellent options, Jade Seafood Restaurant is one of my top picks. The har gow (shrimp dumplings, the bellwether of quality dim sum) are great, the steamed mushroom dumplings are even better, and the baked BBQ pork buns are melt-in-your-mouth delicious. I can never get enough of the pickled ginger with century egg and prawn roll. And you can end your meal with an unconventional dessert: blueberry glutinous balls. Inside the soft skin of these chilled balls are fresh whipped cream and—would you believe?—blueberries.

Far (but not so far) from Seattle, I’ve found an Asian restaurant that gives me some blues I’m happy to have.

Originally published by Seattle Dining. Blueberry glutinous ball photo courtesy of Mijune Pak, Follow Me Foodie.

Momiji on Urbanspoon

Bako on Urbanspoon

The Jade Seafood Restaurant ????????? on Urbanspoon

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2 Responses to “Why Seattle’s Chinese and Japanese Restaurants Give Me the Blues”

  1. Simon
    September 19, 2012 at 12:51 am #

    It seems like Momiji now has a kaiseki menu listed on their website. Have you had a chance to try it?

  2. Jay
    September 19, 2012 at 6:33 am #

    I did notice that a few weeks ago, but thanks for the heads-up. I wasn’t especially drawn to the new menu, as it’s a little more sushi-heavy than a traditional kaiseki offering, but I’d love to hear thoughts if you or others try it.

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