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Friday, September 6, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant Review

Kisaku Sushi Restaurant is pure fun for a raw-fish fanatic

Seattle Times restaurant critic

Kisaku Sushi Restaurant


2101 N. 55th St., Seattle; 206-545-9050

***

$$

Reservations: recommended

Hours: lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday, Wednesday-Saturday; dinner 5-9:30 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday; 5-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 4:30-9:30 p.m. Sunday; (closed Tuesday).

Prices: lunch menu $7-$9.95; dinner menu (available throughout the day); starters $3.50-$8; entrees $14-$19; nigiri sushi $2-$6; sushi rolls $2.50-$8.

Parking: on street.

Sound: easy conversation.

Beer, wine and sake / all major cards / no smoking / no obstacles to access.

On my seventh visit in as many weeks I knew I had it bad. What began as a routine scouting mission to a new restaurant had quickly turned into a regular gig: I was finding excuses to stop at this Green Lake-area sushi bar, ignoring a dozen other restaurants on my "must-go" list and putting my professional time line in peril.

So sue me.

On several early occasions I had owner and sushi chef Ryu Nakano pretty much all to myself; an appealing state of affairs when you're a raw-fish fanatic in the throes of forging a relationship with a rice-fondling, seafood-slicing Japanese man.

The man in question has a terrific sense of humor, converses freely and easily in English and his native tongue and, as I found out during several conversations, shares my love for Korean food and my respect for several unsung sushi chefs who toil in unassuming Lynnwood strip malls.

Quickly coming to recognize my taste for exotics, Nakano began to pull a few tricks out of his hat — or, at least, from under his counter: chewy translucent sea cucumber; musky sea snail in its shell; gently kelp-cured scallops. Once, when I ordered a pair of uni after staring at the sea urchin roe nestled into the corner of his sushi case, he endeared himself forever with the words, "You don't want it." Fans familiar with the metallic aftertaste this sweet roe can acquire in its off season will know why his honesty was welcome.

Nakano will be a familiar face to habitues of I Love Sushi, where he spent the past decade honing his craft. Coupled with an obvious love for the business, an understanding of his art and the importance of maintaining good customer relations, it's no surprise that with his first solo effort he's got the neighborhood sushi-bar thing nailed.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that he's brought along some of I Love Sushi's tenured staff to assist in the dining room and kitchen, and had the good sense to surround himself with a phalanx of capable sushi-makers. One of whom is a stunning young woman with a shaved and tattooed head, whose elegant Caterpillar Roll ($8) gets its tongue-soothing texture from avocado and its sea "legs" courtesy of barbecued eel.

I'm not alone in my esteem for this devoted crew, who work on the ground floor of a new mixed-use complex near the site of the dearly departed Honey Bear Bakery. On my last visit, the 14-seat sushi bar was full, as was the small private salon and the spacious main dining area where linen-draped tables lend an air of formality — despite the room's contemporary design and an obvious effort to present this as a casual operation.

The full-house effect had the staff — among the most affable and accommodating I've encountered in eons — in overdrive. Holding their own with an onslaught of sashimi-eating couples, families with small wandering children, phone calls for takeout service and a growing line at the door, they smiled in the face of adversity. I respected them all the more for their perseverance under pressure and ordered another round of fried shrimp heads and a chubby futomaki.

A kaleidoscope of tastes and textures, the futomaki ($6) hosts colorful bits and bites including eel, shrimp, shiitake mushroom and the sweet Japanese omelet, tamago. This rice- and nori-wrapped roll is one of more than a dozen offered à la carte, or as part of sushi combinations served at lunch ($7.50-$9.50) and dinner ($15-$19).

Playing to his audience, Nakano sells a vegetarian-friendly "Garden Roll" ($4.50) as well as a delightful salmon-stuffed "Green Lake Roll" wearing a hilarious garnish of appropriately slimy marinated green seaweed ($6.50).

When it comes to ordering rolls or an appetizer, rather than cautioning diners to stay out of the water, I suggest jumping right in.

Classic starters include creamy-centered, lightly fried agedashi tofu ($4.50); unctuous miso-marinated black cod ($8) and an assortment of shrimp and vegetable tempura ($6) whose surprise ingredient is a mild chili pepper.

Daily specials may include such rich rewards as buttery geoduck sautéed with shiitake and spinach ($7.50) or chilled monkfish liver in a bracing ponzu sauce ($7).

Subtract the appetizers and the sushi-bar fare and diners are left with a short list of typical Seattle-area Japanese cafe favorites: udon and yakisoba, chicken teriyaki, grilled king salmon or mackerel.

You'll forgive me for shirking my duties, but I've sampled little from that menu save the king salmon (pleasant, if slightly dry). I was too busy sipping sake and savoring raw seafood, deciding among Spanish mackerel, amberjack and yellowtail, Fraser River sockeye salmon, orbs of salmon roe or my fatty-fish favorites, bluefin tuna and albacore. I ate them over perfect fingers of rice, sliced into sashimi, kissed with marinade or fashioned into ice cream cone-shaped hand rolls.

Then I bid farewell and promised to be back. By now they know I mean it.

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

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