Japonessa & the End of Cuisine

Olives and sake, together at last? Not quite.

One hundred years from now, everyone will eat lasers and have hyperintelligent talking dolphins for friends. One hundred years from now, traffic jams of flying cars and assholes with jetpacks will make people pine for the good old days of ground-level congestion and assholes with SUVs. One hundred years from now, everyone will have tiny computers in their heads, which will keep them constantly updated on American Idol rankings and celebrity baby news. One hundred years from now, a new generation of food writers will still be calling cupcakes, bacon, and offal dead trends. In the meantime, the hottest restaurant of the age will be Captain Spaceship's Tripe Haus and Bacon Cupcakery. The miracle of nanotechnology will allow Captain Spaceship to open franchises in the basement or garage of every home in America, and recent developments in the science of teleportation will allow bacon cupcakes to be beamed directly into your stomach, alleviating us all of the burden of chewing. There will be no cuisine. Everything—every possible combination of cuisines, of foods from this culture and that—will have been tried. Even the worst failures, the most egomaniacal leaps of illogic and desperation, will get their own pop-up concepts and suffer 15 minutes of ridiculous fame before being cast aside for the Next Big Thing. Clever chefs will have plumbed history and geography, finding ever stranger and rarer ingredients and techniques, until finally they reach a hard, cold bottom of completeness. There will be nothing left to exploit. And like the Jedi upon the destruction of Alderan, foodies everywhere will feel a great disturbance in The Force. In the boîtes of Los Angeles, Paris, and New York, they will look up from their heritage-breed fried-chicken martinis and plates of Styrofoam packing peanuts in ylang-ylang gelée and feel a sudden chill, wondering what they will possibly brag about tomorrow on their Twitter-pathic brain feeds now that no one will be opening any more new Incan/Age of Enlightenment fusion diners or Atlantean comfort-food bistros. There will be much weeping and gnashing of teeth, but this will pass. Eventually a great silence will come as people realize that for hundreds of years they have been living unwittingly under the tyranny of cuisine—of the driving urge among chefs and food writers and restaurateurs to label every goddamn thing they put on a plate—and that, suddenly, they are free. They may, for the first time in ages, simply eat, unburdened by style or tradition. It will be the greatest day in the history of food. The first time anyone mentioned Japonessa to me, they said it was a Japanese/Italian fusion restaurant, and I was excited. Of all the ways to bend history and geography to one's own sick whims, a mashup of Japanese and Italian—two food cultures which have neither touched nor even looked at each other sweetly across a crowded room—had to be the wildest potential culinary screw-job ever. Spaghetti and maguro balls. Veal piccata udon. Mochi tiramisu. I could not wait to go. But Japonessa is not a Japanese/Italian fusion restaurant. My friend had seen the sign at First and Union and misread it as Japonessa Sushi Cucina. What it actually says is Japonessa Sushi Cocina—"cocina" as in Spanish for kitchen, not Italian. Japanese/Spanish fusion would mean lots of little plates and bright, sharp flavors; fresh seafood used in simple concert with minimal distractions; potatoes and sausages and grilled meats on the menu's right flank; fish soups, sweet rice, noodles, and dumplings made from unusual proteins; and kicks of spice in the strangest places. It would mean equal weight being placed on the grill and the raw bar. It would mean olives and sake, together at last. But Japonessa is not really a Japanese/Spanish fusion restaurant either. It is absolutely a Japanese restaurant, with its heavy reliance on noodles, seaweed, sushi, sashimi, and the artful preparation of everything that swims. There are hints of a Spanish tradition dotted here and there throughout the long menu, but these are distant and faint, like the sound of your name spoken in the muddle of a loud and crowded party. Among the first dozen or so plates listed inside the menu's leather fold are oyster shooters (neither Japanese nor Spanish, but modern enough, really, to be either, even with their savory sorbet, san bai zu broth, and quail egg), yellowtail usu, thin-sliced wafers of octopus, ahi tartare, rainbow poke, shrimp tempura, agedashi tofu, and eight-spice tuna tataki served almost like a soup, there is so much sauce. Reading the board, it seems, at a quick glance, completely Japanese, with vague brushes against modernity and a kind of Pac-Rim conceit. But there is more. The yellowtail comes mounded with pico de gallo and wetted with a chile-and-citrus soy sauce that actually makes it taste more Mexican than Spanish; the ahi tartare (which, really, is French in its basic conception), with an international whirlwind of balsamic soy vinegar, yuzu, and oranges. The octopus is actually listed on the menu as pulpo—a nice nod to its Spanish origins—but then comes dressed in cilantro oil and a roasted tomato-and-lime mignonette, tasting kind of like an octopus taco without the shell, or some failed, midnight notion written down in José Andrés' dream journal but then abandoned in the light of day. The tempura is only tempura—pure-strain Ginza junk food—and the poke a mix of sashimi, togarishi, and sesame-oil soy, but the tataki in its deep-welled plate swims in clashing flavors of jalapeno, garlic, soy, and citrus and wears a crown of razor-shaved onion, bangles of green bell pepper, and a lace of wasabi aioli (in addition to the eight-spice rub), coming off like a last-call floozy at a rodeo bar—showing everything she's got and just way too eager to please. So at this point, let's count the culinary traditions being pressed in just a half-dozen plates, shall we? There's Japanese for sure. And Spanish. Certainly a kind of nouvelle Latino. French. Non-Japanese Pacific Rim. Mediterranean. And that's not even counting the très-PNW king-crab tower that I didn't order, the South American ceviches, the tempura brie, or the ubiquitous sticky garlic short ribs with a basil glaze. And that's not even moving beyond the menu's first page. Japonessa lives in the shell of what used to be Union, the former diamond in the crown of the Ethan Stowell restaurant empire. Just to move into a location like this takes balls—like going to your wedding in a tux once worn by James Bond. What was once a simple and rustic space is now a sleek and Spartan one: lots of black, lots of chrome, a sense of dirty futurism as glimpsed through a pair of 1980s glasses, complete with thumping house music and a crowd that skews as young and sleek as the fixtures. Japonessa does a good business at lunch. At dinner, it fills early and remains that way late—the floor a vivid example of Brownian motion as described by the comings and goings of suits, Italian shoes, fancy purses, and yuppie-punk haircuts. Service is adequate and strange. Every time I found myself in this dining room, there seemed to be a different gestalt understanding of what constituted an appetizer, an amuse, a snack, or a main. The menu is no help, divided as it is into Raw Bar, Kitchen, Soups, Salads, and then sushi upon sushi upon sushi. Inasmuch as there is no cuisine at Japonessa to get in the way of the food, neither is there any order to get in the way of eating. One time, my bento-box lunch appeared alongside my Bad Boy roll (crab and more crab, avocado, and rice, tempura'd then painted with chile aioli and a soy glaze), followed by a bowl of king-crab soup, followed by an enormous plate of grilled yellowtail collar off the appetizer menu. Another evening, I ate my way through a handful of standard sashimi and handrolls, only to be presented—later, and timed as though deliberately—with my sloshing plate of tataki and then a massive bowl of udon soup brought like a dessert. This all would have been maddeningly backwards if not for the fact that with each discrete and mystifying plate, I was presented with something like an entirely new vision of what food without labels might be. The Bad Boy roll broke pretty much every rule of traditional sushi preparation: It was cooked, it mixed finned fish with shellfish, it used nontraditional ingredients, and it came dressed in not one sauce but two. And yet it was delicious in its careful balance of sweet and spicy. The king-crab soup was smooth, subtle, and addictive, coming with legs and claws broken open and swimming in a bonito broth enriched with a dollop of infused chile butter. The grilled collar was perfect and simple—just a massive V of fish flesh, cut from the neck, grilled, and presented on a bed of greens which I completely ignored. And the udon was like something out of one of those shows about extreme soups: a bucket of savory broth, cracked crab legs, nuggets of yakitori, shards of green onion, thin-sliced fish cake, and noodles, with a whole egg, over easy, hovering like a flying saucer in the middle of everything. As I ate it, I tried to decode it, and decided it was either a traditional udon assembled by an ADD-afflicted cook with the keys to the chef's private pantry or a Spanish barroom caldo made with every leftover available, including the udon noodles that'd been delivered by accident. The sushi at Japonessa is shockingly fresh and remarkably well-cut by rollers with knife skills like ninjas, producing thick, marbled lozenges of fish flesh so beautiful they could be the centerfolds in piscine porno magazines. And all that delicious Spanish beef, olives, fried potatoes, and sardines in fragrant oil? Missing in action, totally. For all the internationally inflected Japanese food on the board, there isn't a single example (except, arguably, a plate of calamari, fried and dressed in sweet chile and yuzu) of Spanish food touched with a hint of Edo style. In this way, Japonessa is a complete failure as a restaurant—blowing its own concept, failing to be either a sushi bar, a cocina, or a balanced mix of the two. But just because a concept fails doesn't mean it can't also be good. And Japonessa is. This failure of a restaurant served me maybe two dozen different plates, but only one I wouldn't order again. The single disappointment was the signature Tres Diablos roll, and the only reason is because I don't think anyone needs to have spicy tuna, cucumber, cilantro, nori, maguro, salmon, yellowtail, three colors of tobiko, and an acetylene-hot strawberry-habanero sauce mixed together in a single bite. The future is born in every minute of every day of everyone's life. It takes more effort than it should just to stay in the moment, and a fantastic exertion of smarts and will to move beyond the instant into even a temporary brush with the actual future. Some men have made millions doing just that. More have made nothing at all. At Japonessa, you have the opportunity to make the work of it easy—to briefly experience an accidental step in the direction of quiet nothingness and a world beyond cuisine. Price Guide Pulpo $12 Tataki $10 Poke $9 Yellowtail collar $10 Crab udon $18 Crab soup $8 Tres diablos $15 Bad Boy $13 jsheehan@seattleweekly.com

 
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