Creative Nijo should be rolling in sushi lovers
Seattle Times restaurant critic
83 Spring St., Seattle; 206-340-8880
Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-midnight. Fridays-Saturdays (lunch menu served till 3 p.m.).
Prices: appetizers $2-$11.95, nigiri sushi $3-$6, sushi rolls $4-$9, soups/salads $2-$8.95, rice bowls/noodles $6.95-$11.95, sushi combos $7.95-$15.95 (lunch), $9.95-$15.95 (dinner), dinner entrees (served with soup and salad) $11.95-$28.95, sashimi dinner $20/$35, desserts $3-$6.
Wine list: still in the works: meanwhile, ask.
Sound: easy conversation
Parking: on-street, pay lots nearby.
Who should go: Sashimi-loving sake drinkers and nouveux-Japanese-food fans.
Full bar / credit cards: AE, MC, V / no obstacles to access / smoking after 10 p.m. in bar only.
If presentation were the only point, Nijo would rank high among the multitude of Japanese restaurants dotting the city's sushi-saturated landscape.
Here, sushi chefs and their kitchen cohorts, led by head chef Ed Tang, offer a feast for the eyes that seldom fails the palate. Whether they're preparing Seattle sushi-shop favorites like bento and sushi combos, or tantalizing taste buds with sea bass "ceviche" and filet mignon tartare, creativity is a constant.
If it's the little things that count, Nijo scores on that front, too, with tasteful touches everywhere: carved wooden chopsticks tucked into eggplant-
colored napkins; soy sauce poured from cunning cruets; orange slices flavoring the drinking water; glass sake carafes nestled in ice. Those little extras extend to the menu: a house salad impressive for its fresh greens, miso-laced dressing and crunchy fried noodles; purple Peruvian potatoes snug in a bento box; tempura udon with the tempura served on the side to keep it from getting soggy.
But a restaurant is more than exciting food and beautiful accoutrements, it needs a sense of vibrancy — the happening-eatery-energy that's missing here.Nijo, a West Edge neighborhood newcomer, opened in November. Newbie status might explain why it's often sparsely populated, particularly at night. That's a shame given all the elements of a downtown sushi scene are on tap: pre- and post-dinner happy hours, ambient music, subtitled movies projected onto the wall in the tiny bar.
One could blame the lack of patronage on its locale. The place anchors a rear quadrant of the National Building on Western Avenue, with main access off Post Alley. Though it's possible that service — some days friendly and accommodating, others ditzy and disjointed; one time too swift, next time too slow — plays into the picture.
That said, owner Jasmine Mac is an ever-gracious host, greeting guests, chatting them up in the bar, checking on them as they relax in her dual-level dining room. No stranger to the business, she worked for years at her parents' long-lived Hong Kong Seafood Restaurant in the Rainier Valley. Ask what made a Chinese girl open a sushi bar and she'll tell you she's always been a sushi freak. Ask about the bar's array of sake — and you have to ask, because there's no list yet — and she'll likely turn your query over to the bartender.
He might suggest "the black bottle," aka Kurobin ($15/$8). Smooth and medium-dry, this junmai (pure sake) heightens the senses while you're sampling sushi-bar fare, or any of the long list of seafood-centric appetizers.
Some of these could easily star on a swanky-restaurant menu. The oyster tuna wrap, for instance, whose scarlet maguro is draped, stolelike, around five local oysters ($9.95). Each wears a designer "hat" created from multi-colored tobiko (flying fish roe): neon-orange, spicy green wasabi and yuzu-yellow. Sea bass "ceviche" is well worth the expense ($11.95); its firm-textured slices are lightly seared and generously apportioned. Yuzu, orange, lime and lemon give this pretty arrangement its citrusy accent. Its Italian accent — an olfactory shock — comes from truffle oil.
Marinated seaweed salad, the slithery, crunchy, addictive green stuff now sold at fussy supermarket counters everywhere, is ubiquitous here. It garnishes sashimi platters and plays the Medusa role in the poke tuna, chunks of maguro marinated in soy and ginger ($8.95). And it's the gonzo garnish heaped alongside the entree-sized calamari steak salad ($7.95).
Agedashi tofu ($4.95), four gently fried tofu pillows stacked in a ginger-stoked dashi, needed salt. And while eggs — a classic accompaniment — were MIA from the sukiyaki ($12.95), that dinnertime delight was impressive for its array of other ingredients: thin-sliced beef, two kinds of noodles, tofu, cabbage, carrots and mushrooms floating in a stock that, while sweet, won't set your teeth on edge.
Sweet and dull describes the sauce accompanying the kushiyaki dinner ($10.95), whose skewers of grilled mushrooms, beef and chicken (the latter a bit "off"-tasting) were redeemed by their spectacular sidekick: crusty scallion cakes perfumed with sesame oil.
Order bento at lunch ($9.95), and in addition to soup, rice, salad and sushi roll, choose two items from among a dozen add-ons. These include excellent teriyaki-glazed salmon and an inventive take on chicken teriyaki. Order sashimi, give the sushi chef free reign, and you may be pleasantly surprised.
When I put myself in the hands of Grant Cho, late of West Seattle's beloved Mashiko, his artful presentation included sea scallops imported from Japan, layered with snow crab and garnished with black tobiko; sensational swordfish (an anomaly in local sushi bars); albacore rubbed with spicy togarashi then lightly seared; and a rosette of red snapper.
Among two dozen sushi rolls is the kitschy house specialty, a Flamin' Fire Roll ($8). This spicy tuna roll wrapped with albacore and yellowfin is a snack and a show all rolled into one. It's rolled. It's sliced. It's topped with rum-soaked sugar cubes resting on a slice of cucumber and it's ignited. Absurd? Sure it is. But like much of what's offered here, it tasted great.
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company