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Salmon congee at Kraken

Image: Olivia Brent

What began with Monsoon 16 years ago, then evolved with spirited innovators Joule and Revel and Trove, has exploded this year: Asian cuisines unloosed from convention.

You could call it fusion, but for better or worse that word has come to suggest a flabby disrespect for whatever culinary tradition is being riffed on. The story in Seattle? Notably opposite.

Consider our Restaurant of the Year where Southeast Asian dishes are lovingly burnished by formally trained classicists. Or our Chef of the Year, whose Szechuan dishes pass through only the lightest filter of his pivotal Northwest sensibility.

This latest group of Eastern synthesizers sustains the highest regard for the cuisines they’re interpreting, whether they’re peddling kimchee pork off a dim sum cart as at Tray Kitchen or stuffing Szechuan flatbreads with slightly Americanized versions of peppery meat and greens as at the stunning Country Dough.

Varying degrees of homage or irreverence, nostalgia or invention ensue—but what never goes away is deep respect for what’s real. Here are four newcomers bringing just that—each very differently, all very well.

Kraken Congee

The world goes borderless and gleefully rogue within this cozy brick-lined basement in Pioneer Square. It’s cross-cultural comfort food—from small plates like pinch buns pale as moons, packed with five-spice duck confit and pickled blueberry sauce for tang, to a list of congees—Asia’s staple bland rice porridge—afloat with boundary-busting combos like pinked nuoc cham–marinated hanger steak with crispy shallots, blistered cherry tomatoes, peanut chunks, and a flurry of cilantro. It’s a great idea executed with unexpected finesse and consistency; this one’s a find. 

Naka

Japanese food hasn’t had this much fun since Tampopo. And if fun isn’t the word that first pops to mind when you think of a five- or 10-course chef’s choice feast—you haven’t tasted Shota Nakajima’s stunning kaiseki. The visual gasp of raw fish arrayed on magenta seaweed and a banana leaf over ice in an asymmetrical bowl. The sensory blast of chawan mushi, or egg custard, with morels and chunks of black cod arriving—when the lid is removed—in a cloud of briny steam. And for dessert: smoked cedar gelato. It’s the most informal formality in town (you can also order a la carte), enjoyed in a mod split-level Pike/Pine room with chill music and a destination bar. 

Girin

All lofted timbers and sleek glassy surfaces, the sprawling stadium district Girin is as striking as restaurants get in this town—and the first, unbelievably, to present highest-end Korean cuisine. What this means—besides bring the platinum card—is Korean steak house: kalbi-marinated short ribs to dry-aged bone-in rib eyes, butchered in house to abet nose-to-tail eating. Meats are all served with ssam (herbs, leaves, and vegetables for wrapping) and banchan (a constellation of small-dish accompaniments, eggplant to nettle greens), and they’re done to perfectionist specs by devoted traditionalist Brandon Kirksey (whose culinary tradition, Italian, somehow prepared him perfectly for this). 

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Mushrooms at Zhu Dang

Image: Kyle Johnson

Zhu Dang: Closed

Beneath its soaring ceiling, this lofty crowd-pleaser on Capitol Hill is beloved for happy hour—and not just because its name means Pig Party. The flock of chefs laboring in the open kitchen only care about one thing: making familiar Chinese restaurant favorites appeal across the broadest possible spectrum, connoisseurs to takeout devotees. So the nine-flavor chicken is lacquered with hoisin and lemongrass glaze, the seafood claypot is a fine bubbling brine loaded with juicy seafood, the dumplings are crusty and shining with good grease. And if this Chinese fare aims straight for the Northwest palate, its preparations are consistently careful, and those Northwest bona fides include rigorous local sourcing. 

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