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Café to Café



Continuing Seattle's sushi tradition

By Ronald Holden

To understand sushi in Seattle, you have to start with a broad overview.

Edomae sushi-what we think of as "regular" sushi-originated as fast food. Edo, now known as Tokyo, was a bustling place in the early 19th century, where a new middle class was running businesses around the fish market. The Edo people were like New Yorkers, known for their busy lifestyle and lack of patience. Many fast food businesses became successful. Edo style cuisine, "edomae," may not have been the first to combine those two Japanese staples, fish, and rice, but it became known as saltier and sweeter compared to other cuisines in Japan.

Wataru sushi sampling coutesy of Wataru

When Anthony Bourdain's journey, as host of "Parts Unknown," took him back to Tokyo a few years ago, he called on his friend Naomichi Yasuda, who runs a modest but world-famous sushi parlor in the Minato district. Yasuda once owned a highly rated restaurant in New York but gave it up and returned to Japan to start over. He is also a karate expert, who approaches a stack of cinder blocks with a level of intensity worthy of a chess Grand Master.

It's all mental, the best athletes will tell you. No happy-go-lucky, catch-as-catch-can clowning around on the pitcher's mound, the batter's box, or the sushi pitch. Point being, for the sushi chef, it's a matter of concentration. Sure, the sushi chef is pleasant, but it's all about the sushi. And the rice. Yasuda says the rice is 90 percent of the experience.

The dean of sushi in Seattle, we bow our heads in reverence, is Shiro Kashiba, who learned his trade at the elbow of Japan's legendary Jiro ("Jiro Dreams of Sushi") Ono, now 91 and still at work in Tokyo's Ginza district.

Shiro-san's vibrant contribution to Seattle's dining scene began in 1961 with The Maneki (the city's first sushi bar), Nikko (which he sold to Westin Hotels), Hana on Broadway, Shiro's in Belltown, and, most recently, Kashiba Sushi in the Pike Place Market. Along the way, for five years, he had a disciple named Kotaro Kumita (photo by Ronald Holden), who returned to Seattle (after stints in Japan) and ended up in Laurelhurst, in a space vacated by a Garlic Jim's pizza parlor. Spare and elegant, most of it handcrafted by Kumita himself, it seats two dozen diners at tables and exactly six lucky people at the right-angled sushi bar. The name Wataru means "from elsewhere."

So, we are seated at the sushi counter at Wataru, in Laurelhurst. Across the courtyard is Edouardo Jordan's Salare, admiringly described in a previous Seattle DINING! review. There is no "cold case" to separate diners from the chef himself; he keeps his provisions in a couple of wooden boxes, periodically removing what he needs. Six guests, six perfectly proportioned slices at a time. The rice, the rice, the rice: it's at least as important, the specialists will tell you, as the fish. Maybe more important. And Kumita's fingers never stop reaching into the rice basket, rolling and shaping a little ball, swiping it with a finger-tip of wasabi, brushing it with a stroke of ponzu, topping it with a bit of fish. And what fish!

The usual suspects are presented, of course: tuna, snapper, salmon. Skipjack, cod, amber jack. Scallop, eel, bream, bass. Geoduck, Alaskan crab, Dungeness crab, Alaska herring. From start to finish, two dozen items arrive from Kumita's hand across the counter. A couple of plates from the kitchen as well: a perfect oyster at the very start, for example. The meal takes just over two hours; you are never rushed, you never feel hungry or ignored. The seats at the counter are spaced just far enough apart that you don't feel obliged to make contact beyond "Mammy" with your neighbor, but not so distant that the "Mmmmm" can't become a more extended conversation.

So what do 24 pieces of raw fish taste like? Aren't they all the same? If you believe that, go eat your poke bowl, friend. If you're reading restaurant reviews, you know there's a difference between turkey and duck, chuck and veal, lamb and rabbit. It doesn't all taste like chicken, thank goodness.

Sitting at the counter does not oblige you to participate in the omikase experience, but it would be a shame to miss it. Not since Shiro-san have I felt so completely enveloped in a meal. Two dozen bites? Hah!

Kotaro at his counter, by Ronald Holden

Not to pour cold water on Wataru, but a guest does need to understand that omikase is not one of these "all-inclusive, all-you-can-eat" tourist extravaganzas. The chef is calling the shots, and dinner is essentially priced à la carte. Your bill, at the end of the night, will specify the name and price of each morsel. The total, the other night, came to $95, exclusive of drinks. Not for every day, to be sure, but a celebration of local seafood well worth celebrating.

July 2017

Ronald Holden's latest book, "Forking Seattle," is a critical guide to local food and drink.


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