Down a Madison Park Alleyway, Sushi Suzuki Has Great Fun with Serious Sushi
Madison Park has many things in abundance: stately brick, well-groomed dogs. Water views. Mystery, however, remains in short supply. Until you spot the tiny, tasteful Sushi Suzuki sign, hidden in plain sight on the corner of a storefront on the main drag.
If you follow it down a narrow passageway between a bookstore and a hair salon, another gold sign encourages you, “keep going.” Beyond this corridor awaits a sushi restaurant that’s smaller than many of the residential kitchens in this affluent neighborhood. It’s home to a new arrival in Seattle’s pantheon of great sushi bars, and to a chef with an unabashed goofball giggle.
Chef Yasutaka Suzuki’s omakase spans 20 deft little courses. He seasons his rice with two kinds of vinegar (both aged) and provides each place setting with two types of ginger. As dinner begins, he displays a platter of tuna, that same orange-pink flesh rendered dramatically different depending on the cut and whether it’s been cured or aged. Culinarily, this is a serious place.
But the best sushi counters exude a certain warmth, even amidst serene décor and exacting minimalism. Right now, Sushi Suzuki seats 10 people at a time, around the L-shaped counter. Each meal has the aura of a dinner party, where customers can’t help but join one another’s conversations, especially when the sake kicks in.
You don’t need to be a scholar of tuna anatomy to grasp the ways Suzuki differentiates himself from Seattle’s other great sushi chefs. He’s a gleeful freak about rice temperature, adjusting it with each course to best frame each individual fish. More fatty pieces, like the night’s standout otoro get warmer rice to help open up the flavor—the nigiri equivalent of decanting a wine. His dinner changes almost weekly: with the seasonal arrival of ankimo or tiny firefly squid. With each order of tuna from suppliers in Japan. And with his constant tinkering.
Usually spot prawns and uni are hallowed soliloquists on an omakase menu. This chef stacks one on top of the other. “Please chew a long time,” Suzuki says as he offers each diner a nigiri of spot prawn curved atop a small pillow of sea urchin. Turns out, combining two seminal sushi delicacies is like dunking a potato chip in really good chocolate—so many flavors, so many textures, taking over your brain in one giddy burst. It’s subtlety, just shy of overkill. “There’s music in my mouth,” one diner says solemnly as she takes her first bite. Her voice carries no trace of irony.
Suzuki had flipped the order of this course a week earlier. He originally placed the dainty uni on top of the spot prawn. But nestling it next to the warm rice amplified its flavor. Behind that giggle, this is the level of detail that consumes his brain. He’s hypnotic to watch in his starched white jacket and hat; his fingers move with the practiced flow of a competitive knitter, forming rice, affixing fish, daubing the result with yuzu pepper or Japanese yellow mustard and chives. His menus chase fatty flavors with clean ones, and often round out wasabi with less familiar—equally punchy—garnishes like yuzu kosho.
Suzuki is just the second chef in decades of sushi bar meals to notice I’m left-handed and angle my nigiri the opposite way of everyone else’s to prevent awkward chopstick fumbles. And he’s the only sushi chef I’ve ever encountered who has a bathroom tricked out with US presidents. Portraits of Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson gaze down serenely as you wash your hands. A sign outside proclaims it to be the “oval office,” the oval in question being the silhouette of a toilet seat. Suzuki and his wife and business partner, Yoshi Takamoto, aren’t hardcore history buffs. They just wanted to do something to offset the self-serious reverence that usually cloaks $300 sushi dinners, says Takamoto. When diners duck out to use the facilities, “They come back, they’re laughing.” The couple considered dubbing the lavatory “the smoking room,” but worried customers might take them seriously.
Suzuki embraced this petite location for the same reason that drives most Seattle restaurants’ decision-making right now: It’s easier to staff a small place than a large one. But esteemed sushi restaurants in Tokyo are generally small affairs, hidden away from the sidewalk in places like subway stations and the upper floors of office towers. This offbeat address (recently a wine bar that also hosted art and trivia) held similar appeal. It's more of a destination this way, says Takamoto, while Suzuki nods emphatically at her English articulation. “You have to know what it is, in order for you to come.”
After a childhood in Osaka, Suzuki became a sushi apprentice at 17, quickly distinguishing himself among more than 2000 people working under the regional guild’s president and sushi master. When he was 21 he had a chance to visit Seattle for a week. A local educator connected him with no less of a host than Shiro Kashiba. Seattle’s famed sushi chef took his young charge over to Eastern Washington to witness its rolling hills and agricultural scenery. The kid who hadn’t even visited Tokyo yet marveled at how wide everything was. Kashiba later sponsored him to come over to join him working at Shiro’s; Suzuki became a partner at his next spot, Sushi Kashiba.
Seattle’s been extraordinarily fortunate with our sushi scene of late, and some of the best spots trace their lineage to Kashiba. Many recent arrivals—Ltd. Edition Sushi, the slightly older Taneda, even righteously non-traditional Sushi by Scratch—embrace out-of-the-way addresses and bypass dining rooms to make the sushi bar the main event.
At the end of the night—after the amberjack and anago, the dungeness crab with egg yolk and a supplemental round of wagyu nigiri I ordered despite being very full—Suzuki placed the traditional final course of tamago before each diner. The challenges of making this subtly sweet Japanese omelet formed an entire emotional arc in the Jiro Dreams of Sushi documentary. Suzuki’s version nails the taste, but the texture is more like flan or crème brulee. It comes with a tiny fork so nobody has to attempt eating custard with chopsticks.
The tightrope of great omakase—besides watching someone wield knives and torches while an audience scrutinizes their every move—is how a chef can imprint individual personality within a framework governed by centuries of tradition. Suzuki has certainly found his way. Now he holds court in this tiny space, trusting people will, in turn, find him.