As I continue to lament the lack of high-quality Chinese food in Seattle, two new Asian-inspired restaurants recently opened in the “hip” and “happening” places known as South Lake Union and Bellevue Square. I was recently invited to both Kigo Kitchen (Seattle) and Kaisho (Bellevue), and am here to share initial impressions. The two restaurants present a study in contrasts.
Kigo Kitchen feels like a cafeteria on the Amazon campus, whereas Kaisho feels more grown-up and sophisticated. Kigo has counter service and an open kitchen, whereas Kaisho strives for attentive service and has a closed kitchen. Kigo uses paper bowls and disposable chopsticks, whereas Kaisho has elegant plateware and utensils. Kigo is “Asian meets Western,” whereas Kaisho is “where Japanese tradition and technique intersect with American inventiveness and genuine hospitality.” (There’s a lot of lingo in their mission statement, and I can’t help but wonder whether Japanese hospitality would be a better goal.) Kigo is simple, whereas Kaisho is complex. Kigo is relatively inexpensive, whereas Kaisho is relatively expensive. And while you can get Yo-Ho beer at Kigo, Kaisho serves cocktails and champagne sake.
I’m confused about Kaisho’s name and claim to be a Japanese fusion restaurant. While there’s a general Asian feel to the décor, the Japaneseness feels forced in places like the menu, which is divided into sections with Japanese names (“Amai” makes sense for sweets, but “Umami” doesn’t fit for “large plates”) and sells wine by the “aji” (taste) and “botoru” (bottle). Situated in the old Boom Noodle location (and under same ownership), Kaisho touts leader Jeffrey Lunak as the “former protégé of ‘Iron Chef’ Morimoto,” but I don’t get a sense that he’s really involved in the kitchen. On site is chef de cuisine Kalen Schramke (former resident of Hawaii and recently at Rover’s), who uses French technique in so many of the dishes.
Very few of those dishes are Japanese. In the Umami section, the two fish dishes (broiled steelhead and grilled daurade with calamari) come with Japanese ingredients like braised daikon, edamame tofu puree, and miso sesame puree, but the other plates are a bao burger with kimchi (Chinese/Korean), Hong Kong style pork shank with crispy noodles, and Thai red curry noodle soup. Meanwhile, in the Wakemae (somewhat archaic for “things built to share”) section, while the garlic steak has miso-creamed kale and garlic soy, the other dishes are a whole fried fish, Kaisho noodles, and Thai fried chicken with kimchi waffles—all with Asian flavors, but not Japanese.
I sampled a lot of Kaisho’s food. Perhaps best was the Thai-style grilled skewer with pork belly (bravo for being fatty), octopus (bravo for being chewy), and calamari (bravo for serving tentacles), though it’s quite costly at $15. Thai chicken and waffles (with kimchi powder in the waffles) were playful, as it was fun to mix and match the coconut butter, five spice maple syrup, and spicy sauce, but I wanted the chicken and waffles to both be more crispy. The bao burger (with braised pork belly) was an interesting concept but unwieldy to eat, with the Wagyu beef overcooked. The smoked brisket in the gyoza had excellent flavor, but the spicy dipping sauce overpowered the kimchi inside the dumpling. The whole fried fish was perfectly cooked but underseasoned (as were the two vegetables I tried)—though the charred lemon and spicy ginger sauce helped make up for any deficiency of flavor. Interesting food, but there were some balance and execution issues which will hopefully get ironed out.
In contrast to Kaisho, Kigo Kitchen has a limited menu. Aside from some chips, there are noodle and rice bowls. It’s a Mongolian grill-like concept, in which you pick your ingredients or select one of the predetermined “chef’s choice” bowls. For the base, the yakisoba noodles are a slightly mushy choice, and while some like the “healthier” brown rice (or even Asian greens to eliminate carbs), I recommend white rice. Proteins are roasted chicken (my favorite), spiced pork, pepper steak, baked tofu, and edamame—and then you can add all or part of the Kigo mix of vegetables: Nappa cabbage, bell peppers, carrots, snow peas, celery, and onions.
Sauce choices are Kigo-Yaki (“Seattle-style—a little sweet”), garlic lemongrass (which I believe would go well with rice noodles, if Kigo had them), peanut hoison, coconut curry, pineapple tamarind, and chili citrus (“kickin’ with orange, ginger, and soy”). As a heat-seeker, I customized a bowl and chose the chili citrus sauce with beef and all the veggies over white rice. (To add more spice, I then asked for Kigo’s tasty “fire sauce,” made with wasabi and roasted chilis.) My partner selected the chef’s choice Kigo Classic, which is Kigo-Yaki with chicken on white rice (with all the vegetables).
Order placed, the ingredients go back to the wok station for quick cooking. In a matter of minutes, the bowls are read for pick-up. Verdict: Not bad, and certainly better than expected. The portion size is decent for under $9 per bowl, the ingredients seem fresh, and there’s even a default level of spice that I don’t get at many other places.
But is the food at Kigo, or Kaisho, good enough to warrant a return? Is this Asian-inspired food inspiring? For me, the answer is probably “no” to both questions, as it would likely be for any Asian food purist.
So who will go to these places? I believe its Asian-Americans who are more American than Asian, along with Westerners who like the idea of eating Asian food but don’t want a setting or food that’s too foreign or otherwise intimidating. Kigo Kitchen is quick and convenient (with young workers and an energetic vibe), and seems to appeal to Amazon workers who want a quick bowl to bring back to their computers for lunch, or even dinner. As Kaisho opened just last weekend (with lunch service starting today) it’s too soon to know if it will have similar appeal for the nearby Microsoft workers, and how much mall traffic it will catch throughout the day. If you catch me hungry at Bellevue Square, it’s a good bet that I’m heading a few blocks away to Bamboo Garden, where I’ll order off the “walk on the wild side” menu to eat my favorite dish, called The Other Parts of a Pig—with pork intestines, pig blood cubes, tofu chunks, basil, and pickled cabbage in a tangy broth. Now that’s inspiring Asian food!
Getting ready for service at Kigo Kitchen.
Here’s Kigo’s menu.
Order your dish and the worker will assemble your ingredients to be stir-fried.
Pocky in the foreground; wok stations in the background.
Kigo’s homemade chips come with the restaurant’s fire sauce.
Beef bowl with chili citrus sauce ($8.99), along with Yo-Ho Brewery’s Suiyoubi No Neko beer.
And here’s my partner’s Kigo Classic ($8.49), with a Tokyo Black porter.
Kigo Kitchen from the outside.
Kaisho’s wasabi puffed nori rice chips with wasabi creme fraiche dip ($6). The nori is rolled with rice paper, then fried.
Kaisho’s smoked brisket and kimchi gyoza-style dumplings with spicy dragon sauce ($7).
Kaisho’s Thai-style grilled skewer with calamari, octopus, and pork belly, served with a spicy Thai dipping sauce. My favorite dish of the night, though a bit expensive at $15.
I love the idea of this bao burger ($15). But as is typical with a brioche bun, the bread:meat ratio is higher than desired, and the hamburger is tough to eat, since it’s so unwieldy.
These are the Kaisho noodles with stir-fried prawns, smoked salmon, tomato, bok choy, calamansi citrus soy, and ground chicharron ($22). Interesting, but not sure why two noodles (egg and rice vermicelli) are necessary, as they’re texturally similar. Prawns are plump, and the tomato flavor is fairly prominent.
The whole fried fish was daurade, and came with peppercress and radish salad, spicy ginger sauce, and charred lemon ($34). The fish itself is perfectly cooked but underseasoned, so you’ll want to use that sauce.
Here’s a Hong Kong-style pork shank crispy noodle with shitake and king mushrooms, bok choy, and spicy dragon sauce ($23). This dish is tangy, with the strong sauce and earthy mushrooms calling for noodles in every bite.
Grilled bok choy with shaved bonito ($7). The bonito adds rich flavor to the dish.
This roast cauliflower with black garlic bagna cauda and mitsuba gremolata ($9) improved the next day when I hit the leftovers with a light sprinkling of salt.
The Thai fried chicken and kimchi waffles ($19 for a half-portion, shown) was fun and interesting. The coconut butter goes well with the waffles. I added a little spicy sauce to the chicken, but especially loved the maple syrup on both, as it was laced with five spice.
This is Kaisho’s Vietnamese coffee pudding with chocolate crumbles ($7). I liked this dessert, and only wish the espresso flavor was stronger.
Banana upside down cake with walnut brittle, caramel rum sauce, and Bananza ice cream from Cupcake Royale ($9). Fun flavors; I especially like the roasted banana in the ice cream.
The scene inside Kaisho.