Image: Amos Morgan

What is this, Tokyo? This city’s gone crazy with ramen houses and izakaya bars, of the sort Japanese working stiffs flock to for beers and fried snacks after the five o’clock whistle. Seattle’s had upscale sushi bars for decades, but now sake shops and cream-puff stalls and mod noodle joints pulse with youthful street prowlers, and at least one dive purveys the daffy East-West hybrid cuisine called yoshoku (think Japanese spaghetti). These days, the more down-market the Japanese food, the more down this town seems to be with it.

Kushibar is one of this new breed, but a passerby would never suspect it from the street. The sign out front spells “kushibar” in coolly blue lowercase letters but means: “You are in Belltown, land of young food faddists and cocktail swillers.” Inside, I checked off the essential indicators: architectural flower arrangement at the door, dentally fortunate hostess, blue-lit bar, barely-lit restaurant, sandblasted-cement walls.

At the wider spot in the back, alongside wallpaper of life-size trees (an ironic reference to that Asian restaurant cliché?) we sat down and opened our menus. All of them. The one encased in plastic listed the specials, oden and noodle bowls, and cocktails and happy-hour noshes. The “Special List,” just a half-sheet of paper, gave no explanation of how its sweet potato tempura and shrimp shumai and so forth merited distinction from the other specials. The kushiyaki menu, listing the grilled and skewered meats and vegetables Kushibar counts as its specialty, was stapled to a thick wooden block and displayed beside containers of paper napkins and pull-apart chopsticks.

You can’t swing a sake bottle around here without hitting an Okonomiyaki, the stuffed grilled pancake that you get all over the streets of Tokyo.

Before I could puzzle out whether I was going to shove the whole wooden block into my purse or simply claw the paper off—I steal menus; occupational necessity—our “chicken set” of kushiyaki arrived. Apparently the heavier the menu, the lighter the food. These slim little skewers, charred up on sidewalk street grills across Japan, radiated prettily from the corner of a white plate. “Dark meat chicken,” our waiter narrated, as I popped a fine sweet nugget of the moist meat into my mouth. “Chicken wing,” she said needlessly. “Skin!” she declared. “Gizzards and livers! Hearts!” (Kushibar is not for the gut shy.)

The gizzards offered the gristly texture of digestive organ walls—which is what they are, after all, but not always so noticeably. The rest of the skewers—white meat, chicken hearts, rich red chicken livers—had languished far too long on the grill. The poor overworked skewer of dripping skin could only lend so much moisture. I could see the chefs from my table, painstakingly placing skewers of meat across the narrow grill, its wells glowing with embers. The chefs certainly looked vigilant. But throughout my visits the dryness problem arose again and again, from the three potent but desiccated pieces of saba (mackerel) to the skewer of tough, gently citrusy scallops.