Chain reactions

A Florida-based fondue place and a Portland-based Japanese restaurant test the Seattle market.

Blind dates and new restaurants have one thing in common: First impressions can make or break them. Exceed your date's/customer's expectations, and you'll be trumped up to all their friends. Disappoint them, even a little, and everyone will find out. Turn off your date/customer completely, and that person will never return. Restaurant reviewers don't have the option of not going back. Even if the first date sucks, they have to go back. And back. And back yet again. I went back to the following two restaurants only to have the impression of my first visits reinforced. Just because I didn't love these places doesn't mean someone else won't fall madly head over heels for them. I know I'm already in the minority: They're both part of chains with quite a track record of pleasing large hordes of diners. The Melting Pot (14 Mercer St, 378-1208): Despite the warm Sonoran desert colors, the huge plushy booths, and the clean-as-a-new-motel smell, there's something crypt-like about this huge space at the foot of Queen Anne Hill. Lights are turned down low, past the point of moodiness, well into the shadowlands of creepiness. All the better, I guess, not to see what you are trying to cook in a bubbling cauldron . . . er, fondue pot . . . of oil. Between the three diners at my table there were enough advanced degrees to launch a rocket into space—maybe that's why it took us half an hour to decipher the menu. After grilling our waiter several times, we finally figured it out: There are four types of fondue styles—cheese (also available as an appetizer), traditional (bubbling canola oil), court bouillon (seasoned vegetable broth), and dessert (some type of melted chocolate). All the styles, except for dessert, come with a salad (mushroom, chef's, or California); some are available only as combination platters for two. We tried "The Classic" entrée for two ($39.95), which comes with a cheese fondue (we chose Kirschwasser, a mix of Gruyère and Emmenthaler in white wine with a dash of the eponymous brandy). The other entrée was "The Tuscan" ($16.95). Both were ordered in the traditional oil style because that's the only way the Tuscan can be cooked (the items are batter-dipped and need to be deep-fried). My accompanying salad, the "California," was a fresh mix of baby greens with a pleasantly tangy raspberry/black walnut vinaigrette; the mushroom salad was strictly for button fans. All conversation died as we watched our waiter whisk the grated cheeses with wine, brandy, lemon juice, garlic, and spices. We happily dipped bread, apple, and fresh vegetable chunks into the silky, fragrant cheese. Then the entrées arrived: the Tuscan, with its pieces of chicken breast, onion, zucchini, eggplant, portobello mushroom, and Gorgonzola ravioli, accompanied by pesto, marinara, and Gorgonzola dipping sauces. A "tasty vegetable medley" also comes with the Tuscan, sided by "Green Goddess," curry, and horseradish sauces. Six sauces for the Tuscan alone, and that didn't include the sauces for the Classic (assorted chicken, shrimp, tenderloin, teriyaki sirloin, fish), which were barbecue, ginger-plum, curry, horseradish, cocktail, and teriyaki glaze. Did I mention there were two types of breading available as well? Yes, it was as confusing as it sounds. We promptly gave up trying to figure out which items went together. Only the marinara, Gorgonzola, and Green Goddess sauces were worth double-dipping into. The rest of dinner was spent raising the heat so that the oil would cook our meat faster, only to have our waiter chide us and promptly turn it back down. The conversation turned to questions of potential liability: Surely, in the Melting Pot's 23-year history, someone had spilled boiling oil/

broth on himself and/or not cooked his chicken long enough. What kind of insurance did it carry? Evidently, pretty good: Seattle's is no. 46 and counting for the Florida-based chain. Koji Osakaya (89 University St, 583-0980): It's a classic mom-and-pop restaurant fairy tale: Koji Okuno and his wife, Kyoko, moved from Osaka, Japan, to Portland, Oregon, where they started a restaurant, Koji Osakaya, in 1982. They did so well that outside investors came flocking. There are now four Kojis in the Portland metropolitan area. The first one in Seattle opened on the Harbor Steps a couple of months ago, in the site of the former Bombore. Aside from the addition of a pleasant, free-standing sushi bar, the new owners have made very few changes to the space, which always felt cold and cavernous despite its green ceilings and paprika red walls. The only warm spot is the sushi bar, where you can nurse a Kirin and watch an endless loop of Japanese sports TV. There are literally hundreds of items on the four-page menu (the same at all Koji restaurants): dozens of appetizers, dozens of noodle dishes (udon, soba, and ramen), dozens of sushi options, dozens of donburis (rice bowls with assorted toppings), and dozens of combination dinners. Of the appetizers I tried, both the okonomi yaki, a "Japanese-style pizza pancake" ($4.50) and the tempura vegetables ($5.50) arrived mealy and barely warm. The chicken breast teriyaki dinner ($11.95) was fine, but only just. You can get worse chicken teriyaki in this city, but you probably won't have to pay as much. The most affordable items on the menu are the noodles and donburi dishes. The dinner donburi of rib eye with onions ($7.50) offers a large bowl of rice, meat, and an intense teriyaki-esque sauce, accompanied by miso soup and salad. The broth in the chicken-and-egg udon noodle soup ($6.50) was pleasant, if unremarkable; if only the chicken hadn't been so gristly. Those same chewy pieces showed up in the yakitori lunch combo ($6.95), an attractively presented combination of grilled chicken skewers, miso soup, rice, and salad dressed with mayo. In fact, presentation here is always discreet and attractive and oh-so-appropriate: lacquerware, ceramic, and chopsticks all strike the right visual notes. The sushi at Koji Osakaya is strong, but lacks character. It's hard to explain exactly what I mean by this: The fish is fresh, but the rice is forgettable. As anyone who understands sushi knows, the rice—not the fish—is what sushi is all about.

 
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