Tale of Two Sushis

Mashiko revisited; Nijo uncovered.

Where were you the week of June 30, 2004? If you were right here, where you are now, you might remember reading my rather inelegant proclamation that the service at Mashiko, my favorite neighborhood restaurant, had started to suck. Of eating out in general, I said, "an excellent dining experience demands a marriage of skilled service and outstanding food. You can't have one without the other," and of Mashiko, "the food never disappoints, but lately, the service always does." Figuring that I was persona non grata (if, that is, they had somehow matched my byline with my face), I expected to never eat there again. Given how fed up I was, I can't say I minded. But then the folks at Mashiko sent a letter to all their e-mail contacts (many of whom forwarded it to me and added a note of solidarity), acknowledging the problems, concurring with my critiques and resolving—actually, I believe they promised—to do better. Incredible, I thought. I guess I haven't cut off my nose to spite my nigiri after all. We returned, cautiously optimistic at first, and found it was still too early. Change does take time. After a couple more so-so visits and a threat by my old man to adopt a strict take-out-only policy, things finally began to feel different—better. There were new faces, and they smiled. Most importantly, that sense of flow that had gone missing was restored. On one particular night, with a friend from London in tow, we had an absolutely perfect meal served to us by a confident, swift server who made excellent sake and sushi recommendations and equally good extemporaneous conversation about seasonal shellfish and ponzu sauce. The world feels right again—but I can't say service at Mashiko is always perfect. From time to time, I still have cause to wonder how it can possibly be a bummer working amid all that gorgeous food, but a sullen waitress here and there is OK so long as my sashimi continues to come before my rolls and the sushi and sake are served in a manner befitting their quality. As if it weren't good enough fortune to have the efficiency restored at my favorite neighborhood sushi joint, Nijo Sushi Bar and Grill recently opened in the lobby of the National Building on Western Avenue, just a few floors below SW headquarters—and it's managed, in part, by two Mashiko alums. Grant Cho and Phil Hensyel, Nijo's general manager and sushi bar manager, respectively, each did time in West Seattle (and they both say they're hoping to return to Mashiko for guest appearances from time to time), as well as at Wasabi Bistro, I Love Sushi in Bellevue, and Chinoise. Both are from California, where they learned to make sushi that was relatively unadorned and lighter than a lot of the Americanized, cream cheese–laden rolls we encounter up here. Hensyel wants to return to that fish-focused style. "We're not going to sauce the hell out of everything," he told me. And when he does want a buttery smooth sauce in his rolls, he cuts the customary mayo quotient with a dose of orange juice and then adds a secret ingredient, giving just an illusion of creamy goodness. With sashimi platters, a brush of lime will suffice where some sushi chefs might indulge in a thicker, more aggressive dressing. Traditionally, and at Nijo, sushi is about simplicity. But Hensyel and his fellow fish lovers still reserve the right to attach Western ideas to their creations. At lunch recently, I was too tired and too flustered to even think for myself, so I asked Hensyel, on shift behind the bar, to just make me something delicious. Minutes later, I had a tempura shrimp, avocado, and cucumber roll topped with spicy tuna and soy sauce- and seaweed-infused black tobiko. Hensyel said the roll was called Frank and Beans. lcassidy@seattleweekly.com

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