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Friday, January 24, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant Review

Sushi: Just put your lips together and blowfish

Seattle Times restaurant critic

Shiki Japanese Restaurant


4 W. Roy St., Seattle; 206-281-1352.

Hours: lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; dinner 5-9 p.m. Mondays- Thursdays, 5-10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 5-9 p.m. Sundays.

Tuna House


15015 Main St. (Suite 101), Bellevue; 425-746-0123.

Hours: lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; dinner 5-9 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays (closed Sundays).

Taka Sushi


18904 Highway 99 (Center III, Suite A), Lynnwood; 425-778-1689.

Hours: lunch 11:30 a.m.-1:45 p.m Tuesdays-Fridays; dinner 5-9:15 p.m. Sundays-Mondays, 5-9 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 5-9:45 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays.

Chiso


3520 Fremont Ave. N., Seattle; 206-632-3430.

Hours: lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m Mondays-Fridays; dinner 5-10 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, 5-9 p.m. Sundays.

Sushiman


670 N.W. Gilman Blvd., Issaquah; 425-391-4295.

Hours: lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; dinner 5-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 4-10 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays (closed Mondays).

Hiroshi's


2501 Eastlake Ave. E., Seattle; 206-726-4966.

Hours: lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; dinner 5-9 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, 5-10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays.

Sushi chef Masa Sakata looked on as I polished off my uni, then smiled broadly when I ate my ikura with quail's egg. "You've been to Japan," he said with conviction as I popped salmon roe against the roof of my mouth and wiped egg yolk from my lips. "In my dreams," I replied. "You don't eat sushi like an American," insisted the man behind the sushi bar at Bush Garden, where Seattle has been eating Japanese food since 1953.

Sakata-san has my utmost respect, but it's obvious he hasn't been hitting the 'hoods on his days off. If he did, he'd find that Americans in general — and Seattle-area diners in particular — have embraced sushi like never before: even the ushy-gushy stuff.

Not so long ago, if you had a jones for sushi, you'd be forced to look to the International District and places like the now-defunct Mikado, the original Nikko and the venerable Bush Garden. Today you could hit a different sushi bar in a different neighborhood every other week and still have a tough time staying on top of the fresh-fish phenomenon. Here I offer an overview of a half-dozen neighborhood restaurants, some fairly new, some new to me, all affordable and worth a sushi-lover's visit.

Shiki Japanese Restaurant

At Ken Yamamoto's unassuming Lower Queen Anne cafe, talk inevitably turns to the potentially lethal and drop-dead expensive Japanese blowfish: fugu. Farm-raised in Japan, it's a specialty at Shiki, offered raw as sushi ($12) or sashimi ($80), or cooked in a hot pot meant for sharing ($90). As the only chef in the state with a fugu master's license and the health department's nod, Yamamoto prepares this seasonal dish in winter — when he can get his hands on it. I showed up recently, willing to put my life in said hands, but the fugu had sold out New Year's Eve, the next shipment due in this week.

I consoled myself with a selection of generously cut sashimi, then moved on to a variety of modestly priced sushi, including sweet local sea urchin and a Japanese import, aji. To my great delight, the chef unwrapped a whole small aji (Spanish mackerel) and, as I looked on, filleted the fish's one remaining side, layering the delicate striated flesh over rice before lightly hacking at the head and fine bones with his knife. As his wife ferried the remains to the kitchen, he acknowledged the glint in my eye, nodding when I asked, "Are you going to fry it?" Later I was treated to the light, crunchy ahi "leftovers": just like the fugu, it was to-die-for.

Tuna House

Forgive them the name, it's theirs for good reason. And forgive me for waiting so long to tout the glories of Tuna House. For two years, owner/chef Hiro Shiroyama, with the aid of his sushiman, Manabu Shimoji, has been offering guests a wonderful world of tuna (and other fishy fun) at Bellevue's Kelsey Creek Shopping Center. You'll find tuna — maguro, shiro maguro, chutoro and o-toro — gleaming in a well-stocked sushi case. The big fish takes center stage in an eye-catching, tongue-pleasing "House Roll" draped with tuna and albacore and twinkling with wasabi tobiko.

Tuna tempts among the appetizers (tuna salad, tuna yamakake, tuna carpaccio, tuna tempura), and the entrees (tuna teriyaki, toro katsu, tekka don). It even stars in the multicourse omakase dinner, available with 24-hour notice.

Tuna House is a catchy name in a competitive business, but the name's no joke, and neither is this sleek, spotless, elegantly appointed spot where the long comfortable sushi bar lures with attentive service and faultless seafood.

Taka Sushi

You won't have to blink to miss Taka Sushi. Consider that a good thing. With only six tables and a six-seat sushi bar, its off-the-beaten-path location is a blessing. (Pssst: It's hidden in a light industrial park just off Highway 99, south of PetSmart in Lynnwood.) Those savvy enough to find the place, and lucky enough to cadge a seat, will be rewarded with the gift of serious seafood priced to keep customers coming back and crafted by a sushi chef happy to have recently downsized from a much larger operation.

The original Taka Sushi, located for 10 years on an unfriendly Shoreline strip, not only failed to appeal to the patrons chef Tomokatsu Takayama hoped to attract, but was severely lacking in charm: an attribute his new joint quietly flaunts. Few chefs are purveyors of albacore and toro as meltingly buttery as Taka-san's. His small sushi case is heaped with pristine products that, along with his sushi rolls, have earned him a devoted clientele.

Chiso

Chiso, open a year and a half, just keeps getting better; though anyone who's been will tell you it was great from the get-go. The Zen-like atmosphere, spare and stylish, attracts a mixed crowd: Japanese businessmen, construction workers, professorial types and the New Fremont hipsters who surely must appreciate Chiso's open ductwork, soothing khaki- and sage-colored walls and the sound of jazz standards. What moves me most is the seafood stylings of owner/sushi chef Taichi Kitamura. He trained with master chef Shiro Kashiba and it shows, apparent in his ability to procure superior seafood and present it with artistry and élan.

It pays to point and ask, to pray for albacore belly and to inquire about potential treasures hidden behind the 12-seat sushi bar, perhaps live sea urchin in its spiky shell or the most outrageously ugly sea treat I've tasted in years, shiraku. "What is that?" I asked, intrigued after he'd offered the dish to a Japanese patron then prepared the squiggly alabaster goo by topping what looked like brains with a dark sauce and a lemon spritz. Blushing, the chef explained it was the sperm sac of a large cod. "It tastes like an oyster, and it's great as sushi, too." It was greater than great, delicate and divine. Consider me addicted.

Sushiman

"Sushiman" Bobby Suetsugu is a major dude. The Seattle native and former professional sumo wrestler stands at 300-plus pounds behind the sushi bar that's become his life's work — and one of Issaquah's main attractions. At this slick spot the big man can be found sporting a ponytail, a hair band and a hands-free cellphone that keeps him in close contact with friends, even as he slices fish for his customers. It's apparent from the hugging and fist-punching going on between Bobby and his hungry admirers that there's a fine line between patron and pal.

So, how's the sushi? Fine, thanks, but who cares about the fishy foodstuffs when you're smack in the middle of a neighborhood love fest: the closest thing Issaquah's got to a "Cheers"-style hangout. Stay long enough, sipping a sake sampler, noshing on monkfish and maguro, and you may learn that Bobby's been here five years, having spent the previous seven selling sushi "up the block in a place half this size." Bobby's talented sidekick Kei-san not only rolls a mean Sushiman Roll (with saba, salmon and shrimp) and constructs a top-notch spicy-tuna sushi, he's a karaoke king in a place where harmony rules.

Hiroshi's

Remember Tommy's Sushi, a fixture on Eastlake and a ho-hum sushi purveyor of long standing? Last spring it morphed into this bustling Japanese restaurant and catering service, and quickly claimed a fervent following. Reasonable prices, daily specials, take-out options and proximity to the U-Dub make Hiroshi's a great addition to the neighborhood. Longtime denizens of nearby I Love Sushi might (hush my mouth) prefer the cozy appeal of this strip-mall competitor's small sushi bar and private tatami rooms.

Last week, during the lunch rush, I was struck by the quality of chef Hiroshi Egashira's wares, impressed by a well-turned hand roll pleasantly salty with pollock roe, and by a simple array of sashimi. Sweet translucent ama ebi (raw shrimp) arrived alongside crunchy, deep-fried shrimp heads, compliments of the chef.

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

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