Field Notes

Three New Arrivals, Three New Takes on Sushi

Takai by Kashiba, Sushi by Scratch Restaurants, and Uminori couldn’t be more different. But they have a place along our spectrum of great sushi.

By Allecia Vermillion Photography by Amber Fouts December 16, 2022

Takai by Kashiba is the Eastside's new flagship for serious sushi.

Before Jun Takai left Tokyo to apprentice with Shiro Kashiba in Seattle, he bought himself a new knife. A long, lean blade with a black handle, almost menacing in its simplicity. He didn’t use it when he landed here to work for the city’s consummate sushi master. Not even after he left for I Love Sushi in Bellevue to build a following of his own. “I saved it,” he says of the knife, waiting for a day when he ran his own restaurant.

Finally. That wicked blade now sees action every night at Takai by Kashiba, an uplit dining room at the base of a Bellevue condo tower, with cool slate walls and a soundtrack borrowed from classic Manhattan hotel lobbies. When Takai—who prefers to go by chef Jun—lays the knife down, in between slices of barracuda or kinmedai, it takes up the length of his large cutting board.

 

Image: Amber Fouts

He’s an acolyte of the man who straight-up created Seattle’s sushi landscape. Now Takai presides over his own 10-seat bar, gravity center for the Eastside’s new flagship of capital-S Serious Sushi. The chef’s mentor—most people call him, simply, Shiro, in a tone of familiar reverence—lent his name and celeb status, but this food is chef Jun's. 

Like his teacher, Jun Takai practices uber-traditional Edomae sushi. But within there, differences arise. He sources less-expected sea trophies like monkfish or gizzard shad and likes to age fish, a chemistry high-wire act embraced by new-guard sushi chefs. After 10 days of enzyme magic, his chutoro tastes complex. Rich. Somehow more. 

This restaurant doesn’t exactly scream rebellion, with its four-figure bottles of grower champagne materializing for pairing pours, and staff slipping by wearing discreet earpieces. Shiro himself—a hale 81 and still behind the bar at Sushi Kashiba in Pike Place Market—often slips in during dinner to greet tables and kibbitz with chefs (diners receive him with the rapt fandom of Mickey Mouse roaming the grounds of Disneyland). “Takai” also happens to mean “expensive” in Japanese. 

But the differences are there. A tea pairing is an elegant recognition that even hard-charging diners don’t necessarily drink alcohol. Stemmed glasses of single-harvest green tea and oolong-chamomile blends glide through 24 elegant courses at the sushi bar, sans buzz. (In the dining room, the omakase is 12 courses.) Even the restaurant’s location is an overdue nod: This side of Lake Washington has plenty of discretionary income and a major jones for high-end sushi.

Jun Takai presides over his own sushi bar, and his own fan base, with a pleasantly mellow energy.

Image: Amber Fouts

In a year that hasn’t been great for restaurants generally, it’s been a great time for sushi. A handful of new places are quietly, sleekly, opening our aperture, finding more nuance between the temples of traditionalism and maki that sports more garnishes than happy hour at TGI Fridays. Our landscape of vinegared rice and raw fish fizzes with possibility right now. We’ve got the owner of Kisaku, Tangletown’s omakase equivalent of Cheers, making moves. We’ve got a white guy from California arriving with tiny sushi cannolis, big dinner theater drama, and Michelin star cred. We’ve got hand rolls.

These new arrivals aren’t here to ply you with gateway-drug partytime maki. But when they claimed a perch in our pantheon of great sushi restaurants, they also shook it up a bit.

 

At Sushi by Scratch Restaurants, you find your assigned seat and let chef Julian Tham regale you with fresh fish and well-honed anecdotes.

Image: Amber Fouts

“Tonight, we go on a 17-course omakase journey.” Head chef Julian Tham delivers this proclamation with the energy of an announcer who wants to know if we’re ready to rumble. 

This is location number five for Sushi by Scratch Restaurants. Telegenic restaurateur Phillip Frankland Lee aims for a “jab, hook, jab, hook” cadence to his omakase-esque tasting menu, he says, with high-drama darkness and oversize lanterns standing in for the usual blond wood and serenity. Boxing metaphors come easy here, maybe because the dining room’s scant number of seats present like a ringside view into the choreographed moves behind the counter.

The Sushi by Scratch in Montecito holds a Michelin star, earned presumably for turning tradition on its ear without surrendering quality. You could argue Lee’s doing what the revered sushi traditionalists do—showcasing the ingredients around him. When you’re a guy from the San Fernando Valley, that happens to be sweet corn and sourdough breadcrumbs, poblano peppers, or maybe pineapple and brown sugar. They accompany pristine fish, fresh wasabi, housemade soy sauce, and a generous dose of blowtorch drama. Purists would hate this place; Lee’s not courting them anyway.

With exactly 10 seats and lots of social media curiosity, Sushi by Scratch books fast. Its narrative begins long before anyone places an introductory cannoli-shaped hand roll on your plate. Ring the minimally marked doorbell and you’re ushered into a dimly lit bar, a way station to sip a petite welcome drink and wait for doors to swing open on the main event. When the meal commences, every diner finds the place setting marked with their name. It’s time for the show—and another drink.

Bone marrow and blowtorches figure prominently in Phillip Frankland Lee's tasting menu of neo-nigiri.

Image: Amber Fouts

Lee or Tham run emcee duty, showering the audience with stories, discourses on Norwegian wasabi, the occasional F bomb. Formality isn’t on the menu, but Lee still maps out his courses with the precision narrative of a white tablecloth degustation. He came up in those sorts of higher-end kitchens, often around seafood; sushi training happened mostly as a customer, ordering omakase and observing. 

The bites of nigiri handed over this room, blow torches and video-mode iPhones piercing the darkness, only look restrained. Sushi by Scratch’s signature bite—technically a one-two punch if we’re going back to the boxing talk—is a nigiri of roasted, re-solidified bone marrow. Following close behind: eel nigiri drenched in rendered marrow that chefs melt off the bone with a torch. It’s a ludicrously luxurious clapback to the barbecued eel course traditional to many omakases, says Lee: “What I’m not looking for when I’m in the mood for sushi is hot, roasted, sticky, sweet fish.”

Chefs murmur, “This course is time-sensitive,” as they press it into your palm. Sushi by Scratch is so not Seattle. Except, now it is.

 

Don't knock it 'til you try it. (But then get to know the less-gimmicky dishes on Uminori's hand roll menu.)

Image: Amber Fouts

Nearly every table at Uminori orders the nigiri with seared foie gras and a puff of Barbie-pink cotton candy (chefs retrieve each tuft of candy floss from the metal pan by stabbing it with a giant knife, an act that’s an oddly satisfying precursor to eating a sushi roll topped with carnival food).

The whole thing works…surprisingly well. But it’s also a well-plated pink herring for what this place is really about. 

Kyu Han didn't intend to open a hand roll bar. He and his wife walked into the former Aki Kushiyaki space thinking about a restaurant similar to Kisaku, the Wallingford sushi standard he’s owned since 2018. 

He took in the room’s strong lines, its commanding bar. Han could see people coming for a bite before heeding the gravitational pull of Capitol Hill nightlife. More importantly, he saw a chance to tap into some creativity honed earlier in his career. 

Uminori mixes a menu of casual temaki with small plates where chef Kyu Bum Han flexes his creative abilities.

Image: Amber Fouts

Pre-Seattle, Han worked at Southern California’s Katsuya, then at Uchi in Dallas for chef Tyson Cole, a guy who redefined high-end sushi with help from things like candied citrus, pumpkin seeds, and squid ink. Han became head chef, and left utterly sold on the idea of serious sushi as a vehicle for creativity. He bought Kisaku from Ryuichi Nakano, a chef nearly as revered as Shiro around these parts. Which meant Han walked softly into a restaurant with devoted regulars and a track record of the classic, Edomae-style sushi Seattle loves.

And so, at his second spot, he seized the potential of temaki, or hand rolls, as a more casual canvas. Chefs nestle squares of nori into holders that resemble a giant-child’s wide-tooth comb, set upright. Next comes rice and filling, a casual U-shaped roll you grab with your fingertips and devour in two bites.

Hand roll bars are recently reinvigorated in cities like New York or Los Angeles. The Seattle area has a few now; Uminori is the one with the most soul, the freshest fish, and a rock-solid pedigree. It hides in plain sight amid some gnarly RapidRide construction on Madison. 

Temaki, or hand rolls, give chef Kyu Bum Han a casual canvas for combining flavors and ingredients.

Image: Amber Fouts

Half of Uminori’s fillings hail straight from the familiar canon…spicy tuna, salmon and avocado, an upgraded California roll. From there, things get interesting. Yuzu crème fraiche and some applewood-smoked ikura deliver the balance of a proper bagel and lox. Diced wagyu joins a fine dice of Asian pear. Snowy soy paper replaces seaweed in a white album of a baked crab roll.

Yes, these creations might arrive topped with rice cracker confetti or a slice of jalapeno. But Han bypasses convention in ways that feel purposeful, not gratuitous; the kitchen uses the same ingredients, the same vinegared rice as Kisaku. This is flair sushi for people who usually disdain flair sushi. 

Look long enough and you realize, Uminori is a great concept wedged into a slightly mismatched space. Hand rolls beg for a counter, but most seating here is tables, save a few seats by the door. Still, I’m interested to watch this space, and this chef, gain traction. 

Han has an even newer spot across Lake Washington. Umigawa slipped into Kirkland’s Village at Totem Lake with a stealth agenda of coaxing customers away from the been-there shrimp tempura rolls and yellowtail nigiri. Head chef Jason Jang was previously behind the (sushi) bar at Sushi Kashiba, and a Kisaku regular in his off hours.

That same Uchi-driven energy also surfaces in some creative starters and the fresh sheet at Kisaku; Han's made his imprint alongside the Edomae favorites. Working under Cole, the Korean-born Han realized, “This sushi is more American.” Its flavors, “more like American people.” 

 

The man who brought Jun Takai to Seattle as an apprentice arrived here on a flight of his own in 1966. Shiro Kashiba opened the town’s first sushi bar, ultimately embracing Northwest seafood, like geoduck. It’s hard to say whether his talent or his personality played the bigger role in converting uninitiated diners. Nigiri and omakase slipped into Seattle’s vernacular sooner than in most cities; maybe that’s why we tend to be committed classicists in matters of raw tuna and rice.

Set aside breadcrumbs and the big Bellevue energy: None of these recent arrivals diverge wildly from sushi’s centuries-old mission to preserve and present the best assets of each season’s fish. Like transformative sushi chefs through the decades, they’re just doing it on their own terms.

Share
Show Comments