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Wednesday, October 17, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Taste of the Town

In Fremont, secret stairs lead to sushi-bar serenity

Seattle Times restaurant critic

Nancy Leson on KPLU

The Seattle Times restaurant critic's commentaries on food and restaurants can be heard on KPLU-FM (88.5) at 5:30 a.m., 7:30 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Wednesdays, and at 8:30 a.m. Saturdays.

Last week, Seattle sake-lovers received an e-mail invite from Johnnie and Taiko Stroud, owners of Pioneer Square's new premium sake shop, Sake Nomi (76 S. Washington St., Seattle, 206-467-SAKE; www.sakenomi.us)

The invitation said they'd be joining sushi chef Taichi Kitamura to host a sake-tasting and roll-your-own sushi-fest in Fremont on Nov. 8. That alone was enough to make me sit up in my chair and say, "Hai!" But it wasn't the Sake Nomi event -- limited to only 20 participants at $60 per person plus tax and tip -- that caused my ticker to tock faster: It was the news that the party would be held at Chiso Kappo, an intimate 10-seat "omakase"-only sushi bar and private dining suite, open since Oct. 2.

I was heretofore unaware of this second-story adjunct to Kitamura's five-year-old Japanese restaurant and sushi bar, Chiso (3520 Fremont Ave. N. 206-632-3430). Wasting no time, I secured a solo reservation that very night, and was soon climbing the secret stairway on the north side of Chiso's entrance to take my place at the mahogany sushi bar at Kappo (701 N. 36th St., Suite 200, 206-547-0937), where I took in the view of Fremont's autumn maples and reveled in the serene setting in which I sat.

Here I had the great good fortune of sharing the sushi bar (and a Dungeness crab dipped in dashi) with the chef's charming wife and his parents, who were taking a break from their own café-style restaurant in Kyoto, where Taichi-san got his first taste of the restaurant business as a boy.

My dinner, designed, cooked and presented by the sushi chef with help from a friendly server, was well worth its $100 tab. Sushi and sashimi are major players in the omakase (chef's choice), a memorable multicourse meal whose highlights, on my visit, included three types of toro from the same 600-pound tuna, fresh lingcod sashimi, extraordinary Yukon River-salmon sushi and several courses involving golden-sea-urchin roe, including matsutake and king-crab chawan mushi (steamed custard) and a palate refresher made with lotus sprouts and a bracing hit of fresh ginger. Dinner Tuesday through Saturday by reservation only.

One door closes ...

Perhaps you've heard that executive chef Brian Scheehser, late of Seattle's Sorrento Hotel, made his debut as chief cook and kitchen-gardener at the new Heathman Hotel in Kirkland this month.

And maybe you've heard about -- or even tasted first-hand -- the Northwest-styled Tex-Mex eats that chef-owner Jeff Birkner is selling at Austin Cantina, the tiny joint that replaced Ballard's beloved Dandelion bistro in September.

What you might not have heard is that Scheehser came this close to buying the Dandelion from his good friends Carol Nockold and Connie Palmore before Nockold's death from Lou Gehrig's disease and Dandelion's sale to Birkner this year.

"We're in the process of purchasing the restaurant," Scheesher confided to me back in July 2006. He saw the opportunity as "a great chance to go into something wonderful and small." Though plans had been in the works for some time, he later called to say he may have "put the cart before the horse," by discussing his plans and later still chose, instead, to stay on at the Sorrento. Which he did -- until the brass from the Heathman came calling.

They offered him one sweet plum: the chance to end his 13-year tenure at the Sorrento and put his garden-fresh signature on their new luxury hotel. At Trellis, the Heathman's 90-seat fine-dining room and bar (220 Kirkland Ave., 425-284-5900, www.trellisrestaurant.net), Scheehser's walking the walk with his farm-to-table philosophy, offering produce from the sustainable three-acre plot he's leasing and maintaining at South 47 Farm -- 10 minutes from the hotel's front door.

He's regularly schlepping 35-gallon garbage cans full of compostable comestibles from his hotel kitchen to his garden and recycling spent fryer-oil for biodiesel. What's more, with winter soon to come, Scheehser's continuing to play the "eat local" card, having cold-stored, frozen or "put up" a multitude of homegrown products and locally foraged edibles to bridge the span between this year's harvest and the next.

Among his booty: 400 pounds of fingerling potatoes; 1,000 pounds of tomatoes seeded, skinned and crushed and Cryovac'd; 150 pounds sweet summer strawberries; 20 gallons of corn broth; 400 pounds of wild mushrooms; and a full complement of jams, relishes and marmalades that will appear on plates at Trellis at breakfast, lunch and dinner.

While Trellis is not his restaurant per se, Scheehser is thrilled to have made the move to the Eastside. "I'm doing my own food, and that's what I'd do at my own restaurant," he says.

... Another door opens

Back in Ballard, Jeff Birkner (aka "Jefe" -- Mexican slang for "boss"), late of Austin, Texas (among other places he's called home), spent plenty of time looking for the right spot before buying the Dandelion and reopening it as Austin Cantina (5809 24th Ave. N.W., Seattle, 206-789-1277, www.austincantina.org).

Like Scheehser, he's going for the green, trying to keep things local and sustainable. That's Hale's Ales in the keg -- carted all the way over from the "Frelard" brewery on nearby Leary Way. Order his best-selling enchiladas, and you'll find them stuffed with the likes of beer-braised Texas pot roast made with grass-fed beef chuck from Thundering Hooves in Walla Walla.

Noting that many of his friends and Ballard neighbors eschew meat, Birkner's rice and beans are vegan-friendly and he'll gladly cook for those who just say no to animal products. Though his check averages are running about $20-$25 a head, it's well worth noting that the line-caught wild salmon (run as a "special") and organic eggs and Sharfen Berger chocolate (used in his chipotle-fueled flourless chocolate cake) are a far cry from the nuked Tex-Mex standards served at way too many area eateries.

Sure, he's pouring tequila. But with two youngsters of his own, Jefe (pronounced "HEFF-ay") insists that this is a family joint. Proving it, he's taken shelves once reserved for Dandelion's wines and transformed them into a place where the kids can grab a book, crayons and stuffed animals while Mom and Dad sip margaritas, stuff themselves with Northwest-accented Mexican fare and enjoy the kind of music you might hear in, well, an Austin cantina.

Bear in mind that with fewer than 30 seats (including the four at the original counter), cadging rear-end-real estate here might be difficult. Those interested in what makes the restaurant tick can log on to his Web site, where Birkner's blogospherian musings ("Too Much Chili!!!" "First full weekend") tell the tale. Looking for a place for brunch? Stay tuned: It's in the offing. Open for dinner from 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays.

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

More columns available at seattletimes.com/nancyleson.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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