Review: Tamari Bar, Capitol Hill’s Vibrant New Izakaya

No matter the hour, Tamari Bar feels like a rollicking late-night bender.

By Allecia Vermillion May 22, 2018 Published in the June 2018 issue of Seattle Met

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The O-Sashimi 7 Sampler...because things just taste better on a miniature staircase.

If Stefon from SNL teamed up with a clip art–savvy third grader, they might create something that resembles the printed menu at Tamari Bar. Chickens, fish, and anime-eyed spot prawns dart across the daily fresh sheet, which contains words, not to mention flavors, in unexpected proximity: Yellowtail maki and parmesan cheese. Cornflakes, salmon, and balsamic reduction. Need a cocktail to help you take it in? Perhaps the Hola!! Geisha, a cheerful lime-and-ginger tequila drink with a Pacific rim of matcha salt.

It may be five o’clock wherever Jimmy Buffett is, but Makoto Kimoto, the chef-owner at Tamari Bar, suspends time in that convivially hazy hour just before last call—even if evening sunlight still fills the front windows and there’s a dad at the next table holding up his baby to see the vintage Ultraman action figures posed in a wall-mounted shrine. Kimoto’s food captures the drama and possibility, not to mention unexpected liaisons, of a great night out. Seven tiers of sashimi strut down a tiny tabletop staircase, melted Beecher’s cheese is stuffed inside menchi katsu (a breaded and deep-fried ball of ground wagyu beef), and chefs at the sushi bar wield tiny butane torches for aburi, sushi rolls topped with lightly seared salmon or beef.

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Kimoto is Japanese, but arrived here by way of Canada after more than a decade in some of Vancouver’s best izakayas. Seattle already had a few of these drinking dens that serve small-plate snacks, but with tiny hot spot Suika, Kimoto planted the flag for Vancouver’s particular strain of izakaya culture, which fuses Japanese cuisine to Chinese noodles, Korean fried chicken, french fries, and any other promisingly decadent ingredient, creations all drizzled in artery-crowding sauces.

Suika kept Kimoto plenty busy, but his real estate agent suggested he visit the cavernous space just down Pine. This block between Belmont and Summit was once Pike/Pine at its rowdy utmost—teeming gay bars, the Irish dive that played mostly metal, the original Bus Stop and Cha Cha Lounge. Now it’s a tastefully forgettable midrise apartment building. 

At first, Kimoto dismissed the skinny, multilevel space on the ground floor, which sat empty for a year and a half after a stint as a beer bar: weird layout, not his aesthetic, and zero kitchen. And yet he returned, maybe 10 times, to admire the covered patio. For a guy whose menus exude escapist nightlife, “I love drinking outside,” he says.

Now the ground floor of this bland edifice is awash in unexpected personality. Coolers from the beer bar days house cocktail syrups and a portion of the 40-bottle sake program; cement block shelves lined with sake bottles recast the mezzanine into a pair of tiny dining rooms. That patio is a prime Pike/Pine outdoor enclave, its tables weighted with wings, sushi rolls that pulse with flair, and bottles of Japanese craft beer. Kimoto stocked up on tacky dollar-store sunglasses customers can wear. “I do that for Instagram,” he says. Even his alfresco game has all the hallmarks of nocturnal fun.

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Tamari Bar’s shoka-do bento box of nine starters is the most enticing tic-tac-toe board ever.

“Enjoy,” says our server as he presents the shoka-do bento box. “It’s already sold out.” It’s 5:58pm. The kitchen makes just 18 of these a night (24 on weekends), a collection of nine miniatures from the starter menu. If you can snag one, these photogenic lacquer grids solve the dominant problem of dinner at Tamari Bar: Every dish sounds interesting (or so freaking unexpected, you just have to check it out). There’s mackerel to win over the mackerel averse and deep-fried tuna that melds sashimi’s elegant subtleties with the glory of fried food. Well-informed servers offer no suggested order in which to eat these; Tamari Bar’s not that kind of place. But eventually all routes lead to the shiro shooter, an undersize ramekin of creamy cauliflower puree (a creation of Kimoto’s new chef, Nobu Watanabe) topped with a shower of microplaned white chocolate—two snow-white ingredients with inverse plays of sweet against earthy. Flavors this revelatory seem airlifted out of a fine-dining tasting menu yet somehow at home amidst photos of old Japanese TV stars and anime on loop on the big screen over the bar.

Just like at Suika, seriously intriguing things happen on the fresh sheet. The “crispy salmon strips,” aka that salmon-cheese-cornflake-balsamic combo, might sound suspect, but the first bite assures you it’s just fish-and-chips dressed for the club in parmesan tuiles, a supremely crunchy cornflake coating, and an underpool of yuzu kosho tartar sauce. Not everything is amazing—the seared parmesan shreds that top the hama-cheese roll sushi don’t enhance the yellowtail, cucumber, and miso-aioli combo beneath so much as avoid making things weird. But nitpicking at this level feels like a party foul. 

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Kimoto’s Vancouver days inspire most of the set menu. The sashimi sampler splayed on the miniature staircase isn’t any less tasty and pristine for its dual identity as Instagram bait. Ditto for the Rockin’ Marinated Wagyu Beef, the thinnest strips of zabuton, served raw alongside a sizzling rock. Diners drape that raw beef over the hot stone to cook. Just about every table orders one of these platters. The ease of cooking depends largely on what shape rock you get. “That’s my favorite part,” says Kimoto of these eye-catching presentations. “I want to surprise people.” 

He adapted the dan dan noodles from his boss’s recipe at BC’s famed Kingyo, and made its heady charms of ground pork, cashew nuts, and three types of miso even spicier to suit Seattle tastes. The broth unfolds like a slightly inebriated conversation: at first deep and complex, then things heat up. There’s no gimmick to this bowl of noodles, no quirky flair to woo social media. And yet the hypnotic mottle of blackened garlic oil on the surface of the broth was the thing that finally made me reach for my phone and summon Instagram. Novelty sunglasses and meat on rocks are fun, but there’s no more powerful marketing tool than crazy good food. 

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