Bush Garden has seen better days, but the karaoke is fun
Seattle Times restaurant critic
I was sitting at the sushi bar at Bush Garden when a waitress approached with the age-old greeting "Can I bring you something to drink?" Sure, I said, "What kind of sake do you have?" She fixed me with a look that read "Excuse me?" and described my options: "Hot or cold."
You've got to love this place, best-embraced for its historical significance. Open since 1953, it holds the distinction of being Seattle's oldest continuously operating Japanese restaurant. Who can resist that old-fashioned Asian décor (the once grand lobby, with its rickety wooden bridge, could double as a stage-set for a high-school production of "South Pacific") or fail to give thanks for free parking here in the Chinatown International District? And what about that karaoke bar?
In its heyday, Bush Garden was one of Seattle's few fancy-pants dining destinations and the ultimate in exotic eats. Today — in a city packed tightly as a bento box with high-end dining spots, great neighborhood mom 'n' pop Japanese cafes and superior sushi bars — it's a few chopsticks short of a has-been. The menu may be long on Japanese-American favorites, but it's short on inspiration.
But let's face it: People don't flock here for the food, which, to its credit, is priced to sell. So what keeps this hallowed haunt going after 50 years? Well, it's no longer the upstairs banquet facilities — mothballed after the place sold in 1997. My guess is it's the comfort that comes from a restaurant heavily imbued with nostalgia. And have I mentioned the fun-filled karaoke bar?
I would love to tell you about my dinner in one of the traditional tatami rooms — a suite of straw mat-covered spaces built around low tables and divided by painted shoji screens. But my plans for a shoeless sukiyaki supper went south when I called to postpone a 7:30 reservation by an hour. Turns out they'd lost the reservation ("What did you say your name was?") and the tatami rooms would be closing at 8 p.m. (on a Friday night?). "We're short-staffed," the hostess explained.
That didn't appear to be the case when we arrived at 8:30, taking a seat at one of a half-dozen comfy booths-for-four surrounding a lengthy sushi bar and robata (grill). There was nary a tush at the sushi bar and only a few booths occupied, but several waitresses were busy ferrying appetizers to a crowd in the bar. A waiter stopped by to offer refreshment and when I inquired about sake choices he paused before answering: "Large or small." Have a large. It's small.
A sushi chef for 30-plus years — the past five spent in the dim confines of Bush Garden — co-owner Masa Sakata is quiet and purposeful, quick and responsive, aware when a server fails to offer more tea, miso soup or another beer, making sure the job gets done when service gets spotty. He occasionally makes soba noodles by hand, marinates a mean mackerel for buttery saba ($3) and does a fine job fashioning hand-rolls to customers' specifications.
Sakata-san's signature "Bush Roll" offers a substantial amount of tuna, salmon and yellowtail tossed with chili-spiked mayonnaise ($4.75), a much better bet than his spider roll, with fishy-soft-shell crab ($7.95). Overall the sushi bar suffers from lackluster quality (where's the seafood shine?) and limited scope.
So what? Get over it! Each night, beginning at 9:30, seafood plays second-fiddle to the see-food when patrons take the stage to sing their hearts out accompanied by soundtracks and video visuals. They nosh, they drink, they channel Barry White and Roberta Flack and warble Hawaiian love songs. On one recent night they even got to hear my sake-fueled version of "My Funny Valentine." (Don't laugh! They didn't.) The fun came after I'd sampled heavily-breaded oyster katsu with a cloying fruit sauce ($11.95); a properly oily black cod kasuzuke marinated in sake paste and grilled ($15.95); and a serviceable combo with tender grilled beef, tempura and a vapid California roll ($11.95).
As much as I love the karaoke bar at night, lunchtime's another story. Then it becomes the dining-venue for parties of five or more, who can examine the stained carpet and enjoy the scent of stale smoke. Here I slurped uninspired nabeyaki udon ($9.75) whose best feature was a cooked egg, and sampled several specials ($7.25) served with salad, frozen green beans, fresh melon and dual-picks from the "most popular dinner menu item." These included winners (shrimp and vegetable tempura, deep-fried pork cutlet; chubby barbecued pork ribs) and losers (dry mackerel and salty salmon teriyaki; slightly "off" chicken teriyaki and deep-fried "creamy crab cakes" that were more cream than crab).
Little did I know: We could have reserved a tatami room at lunch though the hostess admitted it's not a great idea. Tatami-room service can suffer, she said. As if on cue, a woman rose from her tatami mat and poked her head into the bar: "Excuse me," she trilled. "Can someone come in here and take our order?" It was all I could do not to say, "Send her a large cold sake — on me!"
Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Information in this article, originally published May 9, was corrected May 16. Bush Garden, open since 1953, is Seattles oldest continuously operating Japanese restaurant. It is not the longest-lived, as stated in a previous version of this review. That distinction goes to Maneki, 304 Sixth Ave. S. Believed to have opened in 1904, Maneki closed for several years during the Japanese internment and reopened in its present location in 1946. Maneki closed in 1993 for a year during a renovation.