Cold Fish

Chiso's great for sushi, not for stubborn bachelors.

Behind the sushi bar, the cooks are rolling--snapping plastic wrap off their stock of hamachi and octopus arms, their inserts full of spicy tuna and ikura and amberjack. They're shuffling plates like card sharps working a deck, flexing their fingers and clearing orders with the machine precision of guys accustomed to their work and comfortable in it. They don't sweat. They don't rush. They barely look at what they're doing. And they work as though standing under a waterfall of sound--cool heroin jazz dripping from hidden speakers and slowly filling the room the way the customers do: a little at a time, coming and going, blending in like extra elements in the air.At my table, I inhale the warm steam off a bowl of miso soup brought to me with no spoon. In one form or another, miso soup has been around for as long as there has been cuisine in Japan. It is a bedrock dish, a standardized preparation honed over centuries that nonetheless manages to be different in every dining room that serves it.At Chiso, the ingredients are dashi, miso paste, spongy lumps of tofu, and small cubes of potato, because apparently it is still winter in the heart of whomever made the miso soup today. It is my first course, and I use it, as intended, as a kind of meditation—clearing my head, cleansing my palate, putting me in the proper state of mind for the ballet of courses to come.But really, I'm using it as a shield to cover the smile I can't quite swallow. I might be pretending to be totally into my soup, wallowing in its salty goodness and using it to align my chi or whatever; but truthfully, I'm just trying not to laugh as I watch the complete crash-and-burn first date going on across the room from me.I know it's wrong. I know that Japanese food is ascribed some kind of special role among foodistas as this ultimate expression of simplicity and seasonality and the focused calm of regimented dining. But for the most part, that's crap. In 99 restaurants out of 100, Japanese food—sushi in particular, and the ippin-style small plates and nibbles served at Chiso—has more in common with across-the-bar jalapeno poppers than it does with anything fine or upscale. Sushi is a cuisine of convenience developed in a place that had lots of fish, lots of rice, and not much else; originally served to shoppers, tradesmen, and construction workers from stands outside the walls of the Imperial city of Edo. It's fast food, elevated by an obsession with ingredients, freshness, and care, made special primarily by the insatiable American appetite for all things small, strange, and Asian.Don't get me wrong: I love the stuff. And I can get all weighty and serious about it, too—talk about the thousand-year history of preserved fish; the careful balancing of sweet and savory and umami; the way the best sushi chefs in the world will make a hand-roll in which all the grains of rice point in the same direction.But seriously? Watching the fast dissolution of young lust over some quick grub from a talented kitchen is just a lot more entertaining sometimes, like dinner and a show all in the same place. And as I get to the bottom of my bowl of miso soup and start picking up the soft potatoes with my chopsticks, I am reminded that this is why I like to eat alone. Were I with my wife or a bunch of people from the office, I might feel guilty about amusing myself with other people's heartbreak. I might feel obligated to talk about the weather or something.Instead I get my own private soap opera, played out over sashimi and chirashi and cold bottles of Sapporo. And I don't feel bad about it at all.Chiso opened in 2001 as the first expression of the style of Taichi Kitamura, a Japanese chef who'd done time at a few different notable local sushi joints (I Love Sushi and Shiro's, for example) before going his own way, finding a spot in the then still-gentrifying Fremont neighborhood and opening an authentically modern Japanese restaurant where he could, essentially, serve fish in a basement. Half a basement, anyway, one set below the sidewalk and offering excellent views of the ankles of those passing by above.It worked. Chiso became popular, and for good reason. The space is cool and dim and sleek, done all in soft earth tones and steely grays. Kitamura then took a second space upstairs to open Chiso Kappo in 2007—Kappo being both the name of the restaurant and the style of cooking. Kappo was a much more intimate expression of Kitamura's style of cuisine: 10 seats, omakase only, a place where Kitamura cooked individually for customers who sat and watched him do it.This worked for him for a while—right up until it didn't. Kappo closed in February, and Kitamura handed command of Chiso to his kitchen manager, Hiro Kirita, while he went looking for a new home for Kappo in Eastlake. Chiso continued, offering a diverse menu of sushi, sashimi, and small plates, as well as tempura, tonkatsu, warm bowls of miso soup, and mozuku seaweed salad with a sharp vinegar dressing.Kappo was for pros—a trust exercise between customer and chef. Chiso is somewhat more egalitarian, offering a broad spread of Japanese cuisine, focusing primarily (but not exclusively) on fish, rice, and seaweed. The problem on this night, though, is that Chiso's history is intersecting with another kind of smaller, more intimate history: the incredibly temporary one of the couple across the room from me, Chad and Terri. These aren't their real names, but they've got to be called something.Chad had arrived first, ordered a beer and then sat, craning his neck every 30 seconds to look up and out to the sidewalk above. Terri followed, and one reason I know this is a first date (possibly a blind date) is that Terri walked in guarded, peering into the dining room and looking around as though searching for someone she didn't quite know. I also know this is a first date because Terri apparently does not eat sushi and Chad didn't know that, or think to ask, before he chose the restaurant. That's one strike against Chad already. But for a few minutes at least, Terri gamely tries to play along.I drink my soup while the two of them go through the awkward first steps of their courtship. I smother my smile when Chad asks Terri if she likes sushi and Terri says no, not at all—and Chad's best date face seems to crumble a little bit. As they attempt to negotiate the menu, I eat tamago (sliced thick and sweetened heavily, but cool and soft and appetizing nonetheless) and maguro, cut and molded by quick, competent hands, and scallop that is clumsily cut (leaving a bit of the tough, chewy ligament attached to the back) but fresh, cold, and tasting dimly of seawater, always a sign of quality. The sushi rice at Chiso is excellent—perfectly sweetened with a splash of rice vinegar, the fat grains sticky but not clumpy. Getting the rice right is more than half the battle at any sushi restaurant. More often than not, this is where most kitchens lose me.Across the room, Chad is insisting that sushi is good. He has chosen to take the position of bold culinary adventurer—a valiant but ultimately stupid move."Have you ever tried sushi before?" he asks."I don't eat raw fish," she replies, smiling. "It just doesn't seem like food to me, you know?""But you really should try it..."Chiso's sushi board is fairly typical—all the hamachi and maguro and uni and salmon anyone could ever want, each offered as nigiri or sashimi. But it brightens on the opposite side of the page, where the kitchen shows off its rolls. Yes, there is a California roll. Yes, there are ebi tempura (the fried-shrimp rookie's roll that people love for the texture more than any flavor), spider rolls, and tekka maki (which always get an undeserved bad rap), because any sushi-bar operator in this country would be a fool to not go for this easiest section of the sushi market. But the rollers here also do fat futomaki with kampyo gourd, tamago, spinach, shrimp, and eel; salmon-skin rolls with gobo root and kaiware seaweed; gari saba with mackerel (that tastes powerfully of fish oil and deep, black oceans), sparks of ginger, and the eponymous shiso leaf. In this lies the history of Japanese culinary tradition, unchanged across thousands of miles, balanced against American tastes for mayonnaise, avocado, and anything out of a Friolator.Terri, of course, is interested in none of it.My mom once tried to get me to take a job on an assembly line. Her rationale: Why do the hard thing when there's an easy option available?She tried to get me to take welding classes. She tried to get me a job doing scutwork down at the marina where she did the books. This was all while I was making my living as a cook, and I'd once thought that she did all this because she didn't think cooking dinner for strangers for a few bucks an hour was a respectable way for a man to make a living.Now, though, I understand that it was something else.For my entire life, I have been a perfectionist. This made me perfect for kitchen work, where perfection is always the goal, though never achieved. The kitchen is a place where perfectionists go to test themselves against the impossible. And my version of that was 14-hour days, seven-day workweeks, and a commitment to a craft totally out of line with what I was receiving from it in return. What she'd been trying to steer me toward was the easier path—to a job where perfectionism wouldn't matter so much. Sweeping, making welds, doing linesman work for Kodak—any of this would've been easy compared to how I'd chosen to make my living.Kitamura could've chosen an easy path. Doing sushi in a city obsessed with seafood, with eating fish, with all things Asian? That's easy. But Kitamura had a different vision for Chiso, so he tilted the board and his focus in the direction of ippin, or Japanese snack foods—usually single-ingredient dishes, cooked fast and presented simply. Yakitori is an ippin dish. Edamame and gyoza are too. All three have a place on Chiso's menu.Chad could've chosen an easy path, too. If Terri didn't want fish, she had plenty of other options: things like yakitori sticky with teriyaki sauce, white bowls of steamed edamame frosted with salt, a plate of tatsuta—like Japanese fried chicken, the meat marinated in soy and ginger and then deep-fried.None of us chose the easy path. I remained a cook for many, many years and never learned to weld. Kitamura made ippin an integral part of his menu, offering probably two dozen little plates of monkfish liver with ponzu (ankimo), egg custard with crab and mushrooms (chawan mushi), and various fish collars, depending on the night and what's available to his cooks.And Chad? He persisted, man. By the end of the night, he and Terri weren't even talking—just staring in opposite directions, she sipping angrily at something in a martini glass, he facing down a big spread of maki and negiri single-handed and eating more out of anger and pride than anything resembling hunger.As for me, I wanted to stay for the bitter end, so I ordered a plate of sansho yaki duck breast—thin slices of breast meat, capped with fat, cooked a bare mid-rare and swimming in a marinating broth that tasted of soy, salt, and the grilled scallions in the middle of the plate. It was excellent duck, well-handled by the hot side of the kitchen and better by a long stretch than the pedestrian tempuras and half-dozen katsus that the kitchen also offers by way of rounding out the full, broad reach of the Japanese street-food canon.Like a gentleman, Chad paid the bill when it came.Like a lady, Terri walked out with him.Like the voyeur I am, I watched them from my seat by the front windows as they stood briefly on the sidewalk, then went their separate ways with no kiss—one of them hungry and sloshing with liquor, one of them full and (hopefully) a little bit wiser.As for me, I ordered a final beer and a plate of tekka maki from the bar, and wondered how different my life would've turned out had I taken that job at Kodak.jsheehan@seattleweekly.comPrice Check

  Tamago   $3.50

  Scallop  $8

  Hamachi  $5/$10

  Maguro  $5/$10

  Gari saba   $6

  Sansho yaki   $10.75

  Miso soup  $2.50

 
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