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Friday, March 10, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Restaurant Review

Style, substance and a bento bonanza at Red Fin

Seattle Times restaurant critic

Red Fin 3 stars


612 Stewart St., Seattle; 206-441-4340; www.redfinsushi.com

Pan-Asian/Sushi

$$$

Reservations: recommended.

Hours: breakfast 6-10:30 a.m., lunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m., dinner 4 p.m.-1 a.m. daily.

Prices: breakfast $7-$12.50; lunch starters $3-$9, mains $8-$20; dinner starters $3-$9, small plates $4-$16, mains $13-$28; sushi rolls (lunch/dinner) $7-$14; desserts $5-$7.

Drinks: Cocktails with Asian accents. A broad list of sake. Asian-food-friendly wine list, reasonably priced.

Parking: metered on-street; pay lots nearby.

Sound: Conversation friendly — quieter in the west-end dining area, noisier in the bar.

Who should go: Downtown denizens looking for quality and value; business folk who "do" breakfast — and lunch; small-plates lovers and sushi-roll afishionados.

Full bar / credit cards: AE, DC, MC, V / no wheelchair access at sushi bar.

Red Fin has the Seattle restaurant-scenery down: the menu whose highlights include a long list of "small plates"; a sushi bar where sushi rolls are jalapeño-speckled and goat-cheesed; and a sexy little lounge where the girlfriend contingent congregates, sipping saketinis around a communal table.

But before you take the view that this is just another new restaurant riding the wave of Seattle restaurant clichés, scratch that, because this stylish adjunct to the hip new Hotel Max is full of wonderful surprises.

There's a Japanese bento breakfast for those who'd rather wake up to grilled mackerel and futomaki than bacon and eggs (though they have that, too). Roomy tables are set along the street-side windows, where business lunches might be conducted over juicy Kobe beef burgers with outrageously good togarashi-spiced fries ($12). Custom-blended genmaicha — freshly steeped sencha and green tea powder, delicately flavored with roasted rice — is complimentary.

Dinner brings the welcome option of working one's way through a lengthy small-plates menu only to realize that each pan-Asian sensation is better than the last.

Singapore-style mussels benefit from quick stir-fry with chiles, cilantro, bean sprouts and carrots. Beautiful bouquets of nori-wrapped hand-rolls come filled with crunchy burdock root and other pickled vegetables ($4). Cornmeal-crusted escolar offers a moist, meaty fillet of fried white fish, disguised as a corndog-on-a-stick. And terrific togarashi-seared scallops mingle with sweet mango, offset by a tangle of buckwheat noodles ($12).

Of course, you could keep things simple by savoring one of a handful of "large plates," perhaps the precisely grilled pork loin whose Japanese sweet-potato gnocchi play silky counterpoint to a refreshing apple-daikon slaw ($20). Or surrender your appetite to the "chef's choice" sashimi ($28), a wide variety of fish and shellfish whose artful presentation might include a fried shrimp head, a rosette of chu-toro (fatty tuna) and a cucumber crafted into a dragon.

Other things impress, like the quality of the miso soup and the quantity of fresh seafood — mussels, shrimp, meaty knuckles of king crab! — that come with chewy soup noodles and a perfectly poached egg in a dreamy bowl of udon (an $11 bargain at lunch).

Order eggplant sushi and you'll find bonito flakes enhancing the grilled eggplant's smoky flavor. That sushi, by the way, is available with brown rice. Sound a little too Moosewood Cookbook? Guess again: It's great.

Like the build-your-own bento boxes that are big sellers at lunch ($9.50-$13.50), this sprawling red, white and black-accented space is divided into discrete sections, each offering something different.

Looking for action? Eat in the bar. Pulling for privacy? Retire to the west end of the dining room, where you might be cosseted in a circular booth. Dig visual drama? Perch on a white faux-lizard-skin stool at the sushi bar where co-owner Jun Hong and his fellow sushi chefs work. Hong — who also owns Belltown's Wasabi Bistro, Mill Creek's Wasabi Bay and is a partner at Pioneer Square's Bonzai Bistro — was tapped by hotel management to lend his name and expertise here.

Watch as he and his crew create butterflies out of daikon radishes and raise the wow factor by taking a torch to salmon, searing it to create a bodacious "Barbie Roll" ($12). And no, doll, that name does not refer to the Mattel model, but to the Aussie injunction to "throw another shrimp on" (or in this case, in) the barbe(cue).

This is a solid, well-run sushi bar, and I won't soon forget the depth and breadth of the $20 kaiseki bento offered at lunch: a nine-item extravaganza including sushi, sashimi and exceptional tempura.

But what's with the signature sashimi appetizer? Its molded-ice plate was clever construct and a sight to behold (why haven't I seen this anywhere before?), but the fish was sliced so thick it made me want to beg for a fillet knife. Monkfish liver was seriously oversalted, twice. And though the presentation of herring roe as tiny pressed sandwiches is admirable, the bitter taste of the firm egg-sack made those little lookers inedible.

Friendly young servers are apparently learning as they go. You'll forgive them for having to check their "cheat sheets" to explain a specialty cocktail, or consult with the kitchen before describing an ingredient. They and their managers are quick to greet customers, seat them wherever they're most comfortable, keep water glasses filled and make menu suggestions. All do their best to make you feel welcome, whether you're a hotel guest checking out the Seattle restaurant scenery, or a local delighted to discover that Red Fin is a pan-Asian treat — not pan-Asian trite.

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or taste@seattletimes.com. More reviews at www.seattletimes.com/restaurants.

Sample menu

Breakfast bento $12.50

Barbie Roll $12

Escolar "corndog" $7

Red Fin burger $12 lunch / $13 dinner

Red-curry-braised lamb shank $24

Banana-chocolate-macadamia bread pudding $7

Saketini $7

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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