Decades of nightlifers in search of cheap dinner have worn down the brown brick floors inside the hodgepodge of a complex known as Broadway Alley. On the ground level, an old-school red-and-blue barbershop pole twirls outside an equally old-school barbershop. But farther down the hall—across from Broadway Smoke Shop, where a window of racy posters obscures the vape pens and hookahs within—Hideaki Taneda built his own universe. It’s not much larger than a city bus.
Tonight, he smokes salmon over a countertop brazier filled with hay as members of his rapt audience wait for him to affix their piece to just the right ratio of sushi rice with just the right flick of his own blend of nikiri.
When the chef left I Love Sushi, the massive crowd-pleasing kitchen on Lake Union, to open his own place, he didn’t care about being in a particular neighborhood. He just wanted a restaurant like the one he worked at in Tokyo decades ago: tiny and invisible from the street. Unfortunately Seattle’s a little light on restaurant spaces tucked in subterranean train stations or on the upper floors of urban towers.
That’s how the city’s newest destination for top-tier Japanese cuisine landed in the garishly lit heart of Capitol Hill nightlife. Taneda serves $118 omakases in the same building where you can get a competent pedicure or a really excellent $2 taco.
There’s no sign to hint at Taneda’s presence from the street, and yet it’s nearly Il Nido–level difficult to get a reservation; the counter only has nine seats. Tonight, most of their occupants fall in two different camps, each with their own cultural imperative to drop serious money on immaculate raw fish: a trio of older Japanese women who followed Taneda here from I Love Sushi, and two dudes chatting loudly about their golf game, using the multitude of dainty plates to mimic the setup of a particularly gnarly fairway.
Taneda keeps the lights on high, Japanese style, so his audience can watch him wrap sweet Canadian shrimp around uni and dot snow crab with glowing granules of caviar—“I want to show them my skill.” He built a false floor into the dining area so he’s at eye level with the row of customers sitting across from him at the broad white birch counter made in Japan but assembled by a trio of Japanese carpenters flown up from California. He’s not messing around.
He is, however, taking some liberties with two different branches of Japanese food. After culinary school in his native Miyazaki Prefecture, the chef spent seven years in Tokyo learning the ways of kaiseki—because, he says, it’s the nation’s “number one, most prestigious” form of dining. Kaiseki is a sort of portrait of the current season in the form of a meal, a sequence of intricate courses built on centuries of tradition and technique. Taneda washed pans for two years before he was allowed to touch the fish. Later he moved to Seattle for a 15-year career as executive chef at I Love Sushi, earning discerning fans at the sushi bar even as the kitchen churned out 12th Man tempura rolls.
Before he left Tokyo, he spent six years at a restaurant that cross-pollinated kaiseki and sushi. “It’s not very common in Japan,” he acknowledges. His own restaurant returns to this approach, embedding certain kaiseki traditions into a framework more familiar to Americans—the sushi omakase.
The gossiping fanladies and the golfers talking stock vests (one wearing an actual vest) fall silent as our meal begins. “Sakizuke,” Taneda explains. Kaiseki’s traditional first course, “just like appetizers.” Each diner’s round tray holds a precise arrangement of vastly different sensations—Okinawan mozuku seaweed in sweet rice vinegar, a school of tiny Alaskan icefish tempuraed into a crunchy tangle, a tiny tomato poached in sake, and a strip of uni folded atop housemade tofu silky enough to put the Ellenos yogurt down at Pike Place Market to shame.
This composition is the first of 20 delicate rounds of food, most of them single pieces of nigiri. Taneda treats a wooden box of fish much as Mary Poppins did her carpetbag, summoning a seemingly endless supply of marvels from these relatively confined depths.
Stylistically, fusing sushi and kaiseki seems a recipe for befuddlement. One tradition puts the chef in charge—omakase translates to “I leave it up to you”—and encourages freestyle courses. Kaiseki traditions are riven with more ironclad ritual than sorority rush week. But Taneda’s formula—30 percent kaiseki, 70 percent sushi, by his own estimate—flows like a sharp knife through chutoro. Becoming weary of sushi isn’t a sensation I’ll ever experience, but a cup of dashi blended with pureed edamame or the shiizakana hot course (perhaps steamed abalone and scallop tempura wrapped in seaweed with a shiso leaf and plum paste) inserts a sort of meditative pause before Taneda resumes the regularly scheduled nigiri program.
Taneda reaches for his blowtorch often, searing a length of barracuda and setting it atop a rice concoction he later compares to risotto made with uni. His handwritten drink menu reboots our American notion of a sake flight as an abbreviated liquid omakase. Three generous glasses keep pace with a menu that at one point collects eight disparate bites—from a morsel of rich wagyu to broiled eel wrapped in a tamago ribbon—on a single plate.
When Shiro Kashiba brought omakase to Seattle five decades ago, his playful banter helped win over an unfamiliar public. Taneda is less showman, more surgeon—clad in scrupulous white and bent stoically over a prostrate tuna filet. His explanations of each course skew understated—except when he returns from the back room with a tuna head the size of a medicine ball. The room erupts in hoots and gasps at the giant fish head spectacle. The chef smiles softly as he fashions hand rolls of the chopped flesh and some daikon pickle relish. I should have known a guy who was game to remix two storied dining traditions, and do it across from a tobacco shop, would be capable of a few surprises.