Grazin' Asian

At this sushi bar, the raw gives pride of place to the cooked.

CHISO

3520 Fremont Ave. N., 206-632-3430

lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Mon.-Fri.; dinner 5-10p.m. Mon.-Sat., till 9p.m. Sun. The demise of Fremont—the funky old Fremont of coffeehouses, solstice happenings, and Waiting for the Interurban—has often been bewailed, not least in these pages. God knows the look of the neighborhood has changed, along with the demographic and traffic; but step behind the facade and you'll find that the Spirit of the Troll still lingers. Case in point: Chiso. Chiso is a Japanese restaurant, ensconced in the ground-floor retail space of an anonymous, spanking-new condo complex. But Fremont funk has already taken up residence. The long, high room, tending toward dimness, doesn't feel customized to restaurant use; it has that agreeable "conversion" air that makes former sweatshop lofts and warehouse spaces so pleasant to live and work in. The decor is spare, with some Japanese touches, but appears less Uwajimaya- than Pier 1-inspired. The pleasantly muted background music, when it registers at all, is mostly Miles-style cool jazz. And when a pleasant young woman in no hurry at all shimmers up to your table wearing a trim, black "I'm-working-as-a-waitress-but-I'm-really-a-modern-dancer" uniform right out of a classic Jules Feiffer drawing, Fremont soul settles round your shoulders like a comfortable, hand-knit raw wool stole. Sushi features prominently on the Chiso menu, as one might expect of a place skippered by Taichi Kitamura, who used to chop seafood at I Love Sushi and Shiro's. That's why we were at Chiso in the first place, because the Lady Friend is . . . how shall I put it? . . . fixated on sushi: Phrases like "ama ebi, with the heads, please" fall from her lips as naturally as "double 2 percent decaf" falls from those of other women. I, on the other hand, can take sushi or let it alone, unless it is so supernally fresh and luscious as to transcend the fact that I basically like my food a little more texturally varied and robustly flavored (and that the very sight of uni, a.k.a. sea-urchin goo, makes me gag). So while the Lady Friend engaged in arcane dialogues about chutoro and hamachi, I perused the remainder of the menu, and was agreeably surprised: not at first by what I saw but by what wasn't there. No teriyaki beef; no tired old tonkatsu pork with boring brown sauce (except for a rather steep $9 version at lunch—some things don't change). Without exactly cutting loose from Japanese-American restaurant tradition, Chiso's menu goes its own way. In form as well as content: Portions are priced to encourage browsing and sharing, as in Chinese and Thai establishments. Miso soup doesn't arrive uninvited; you may even have to remind your server to bring you some rice to go with the platters of inviting protein you order. The first to grab my attention were a saut頯f geoduck and shiitakes in a sake-butter sauce ($6.50) and a simple spread of marinated duck breast, thinly sliced and served with a garnish of grilled scallions ($8.75). Both were terrific. Equally delicious, at a later visit, were the pork-chive-and-shrimp pot stickers ($5.75), some grilled prawns brushed with a tangy hot sauce ($6.50), and a bowl of tofu, asparagus, and mushrooms swimming in dashi broth ($6.50). Our only gripe: All the accompanying dipping sauces seemed too bland to complement such feisty ingredients. (Well, one other—the service is leisurely even by Fremont standards.) Oh, yeah, the sushi: Well, the few bites I had confirmed the Lady Friend's judgment that in the raw department, Chiso is not in the same class as Saito's, or any of that incomparable establishment's Belltown competition, for that matter. Perfectly acceptable, serviceable sushi—just the thing for a light lunch or preshow dinner if you're in the neighborhood—but definitely not something to drive across town for. The tempura, too, is nothing out of the ordinary, except in the way it also is geared to browsers: You can order a mixed assortment (three shrimps, mixed veggies) for $8.50, all vegetable for $6.75, or any of a dozen single-issue varieties ࠬa carte (whitefish, onion, green bean, squid, eggplant, etc, priced from $3 to $4.75), encouraging you to mix 'n' match. Vegetable ingredients get an A, fleshy ones a B-plus—where do you have to shop to find tough whitefish?—and the batter, which was a tad too oily and deep-fried tasting, no better than a B-minus. Again: Close enough for neighborhood dining, but right off the worth-a-trip screen. Still, after both our visits, we departed the restaurant satisfied—well fed but not replete, credit card unstressed—save for one thing: Why's the place called "Chiso"? No sign of that savory deep-green leaf anywhere on the menu that we could see. We could have asked, but . . . better not to, perhaps. Life is sweeter seasoned with a little mystery. It's Fremont, Jake: Fremont. . . . rdowney@seattleweekly.com

 
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