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Wednesday, November 28, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Taste of the Town / Nancy Leson

Japanese restaurants striving for bigger niche

Restaurant openings continue unabated, with Japanese restaurants edging out their counterparts 2-to-1 — or so it seems.

Plagued by construction delays that pushed its April "due date" by months, Chiso (3520 Fremont Ave. N., Seattle, 206-632-3430), a sushi bar and restaurant in the heart of Fremont, is now open for business. The decor is simple and sleek, with cafe tables and a lengthy sushi bar opening onto a gleaming kitchen. Checking out the scene, I made the welcome acquaintance of a sashimi combo ($15.50, lunch), an artful eyeful of raw fish served with miso soup afloat with sweet kabocha squash.

Sushi lovers who get around town may recognize co-owner Taichi Kitamura, Chiso's executive chef and general manager, from his days at I Love Sushi and at Shiro's Sushi, where he studied at the elbow of sushi-master Shiro Kashiba during a three-year tenure. Chiso serves lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday, and dinner 5 to 10 p.m. daily.

Quietly open since July, En Seattle (2429 Second Ave., Seattle, 206-770-0250), the offshoot of a twin in Tokyo, is easy to overlook, in part because of its proximity to several other well-regarded Japanese restaurants.

Shiro's Sushi anchors the opposite corner of the same block-long condo/retail complex and Wasabi Bistro is one block south, offering "Modern Japanese" cuisine, a hip cocktail lounge and handsome sushi bar.

Farther along on Second Avenue is one of my favorite sushi spots, Saito's Japanese Cafe & Bar, where Yutaka Saito crafts an extensive array of pristine seafood and Viljo Basso turns out stylish versions of Japanese country-style favorites in the kitchen.

That said, Belltown's crowded Japanese-restaurant market shouldn't keep Japanese-food fans from sampling the wares at En (pronounced like the letter 'N,' the name's Japanese translation means "destiny"), where the distinctive look involves an open space, high ceilings and minimalist décor — with nary a sushi bar in sight.

At lunch, I happily encountered attentive service and an excellent fillet of wild salmon served with a complimentary salad and deeply flavored miso soup ($9.95). The salmon wore an undercoat of spices and was dressed with a creamy sauce composed of Japanese mayonnaise and hot mustard, flattering the pan-seared fish. I asked for — and received — a dish of Korean chili sauce with miso, a mixture of sweet and heat that jazzed up my steamed rice.

En's Japanese chefs don't shy from using olive oil (which dresses the organic greens and was the cooking medium for my salmon). They prepare, among other prettily presented offerings, shabu-shabu salad, bifuteki (marinated New York steak), stir-fried pork or cod and a variety of appetizers that make good use of vegetables and seafood. Lunch prices range from $4.50 to $12.50, dinner entrees $7.95-$21.95, with imported beer, wine and a multitude of sake choices available. Lunch is served 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday; dinner is served 5:30 to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Another recent entry into the Japanese restaurant realm is Ackka Bell (302 108th Ave. N.E., Bellevue; 425-637-8998), which aspires to bring a certain elegance and a touch of French fusion to the Japanese dining experience.

Ackka Bell's seven chefs are trained in classic Japanese and French culinary traditions and it is with great expectation that I look forward to sampling their eight-course Kaiseki dinner ($70), a feast prefaced by a traditional tea ceremony that takes place in a private room reserved for such occasions.

The standard dinner menu (main courses priced $14 to $25) includes assorted sushi and tempura combinations, a "premier" bento box and entrees such as Wafu beef steak, black cod kasuzuke and orange-marinated duck.

Ackka Bell is open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday and for dinner 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. The restaurant's Pacific Gossip Bar stays open till 11 p.m.

Wealthy food adventurers who've only heard about the Japanese delicacy fugu, can finally pick their poison — er, poisonous blowfish — available for the first time in Washington state at Shiki Japanese Restaurant (4 W. Roy, Seattle; 206-281-1352).

The sale and preparation of this potentially poisonous fish is strictly controlled by the Japanese government, which dispenses special licenses in Japan and abroad. Shiki's owner, master chef Ken Yamamoto, had to jump through some serious hoops to offer customers the privilege of experiencing his fugu hot pot ($90 per person) and fugu sashimi ($80 per person). Yamamoto holds the rare fugu license and serves the rare seasonal delicacy, available now through March.

Shiki is open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday and for dinner 5 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 5 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Japanese ingredients are also poised to star at Belltown's Bada Lounge (2230 First Ave., Seattle; 206-374-8717), scheduled to open this week in the brightly refurbished husk of the formerly dark and now departed Chef Wang. Bada (pronounced "pah-da") takes its name from the Korean word for "ocean" and its culinary cue from an expansive Asian repertoire including tastes of Thailand, Japan, Korea and India.

Meant to attract a hungry fun-loving crowd with its contemporary design, billiard tables and after-hours disc jockey, the restaurant and lounge are the brainchild of Steven Han. Han's family also owns and operates Belltown's Wasabi Bistro, Mill Creek's Sushi Zen and Mountlake Terrace's Asian cafe, Zen 244.

In the kitchen at Bada Lounge are chefs Seisuke Kamimura, late of Spago Beverly Hills, and Kelly Gaddis, whose Seattle-centric career includes time spent at some of the city's finest restaurants: Flying Fish, El Gaucho, (the late) Pirosmani and Campagne.

Highlights from their menu include Caesar salad with miso-marinated black cod ($8); seared sea scallop pad thai ($12); grilled ribeye steak with yuzu-black pepper, sautéed spinach and jasmine rice ($20); and grilled king salmon with curried cauliflower and red lentil dal ($17). Bada Lounge will offer dinner nightly from 5 to 10 p.m. with a bar menu served until 1 a.m.

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or nleson@seattletimes.com

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