Eat, Drink, and Skedaddle

You won’t want the “small plates” any bigger at Belltown’s new izakaya scene-ery.

Why does it take booze to get Seattle diners in the door? We have our brewpubs, our wine bars, our gastropubs, our cocktail-and-small-plates restaurants, our special-event wine dinners and beer tastings. Likewise, it's no longer enough to be a Japanese restaurant--you have to call yourself an izakaya. In Japan, an izakaya is basically a pub (the word comes from sakaya, or sake shop) where people gather after school or work to eat and drink themselves red-faced. If you've ever been to the rowdy, smoky tapas bars of Seville or Barcelona, you've got a good handle on the feel. Nonetheless, the Japanese approach to drinking snacks is to make them more savory and delicate—as opposed to our philosophy of drowning a buzz in fryer fat—and owners of Japanese restaurants across the United States are hoping Americans will buy in. Seattle's own izakayas are basically Japanese restaurants with bigger drink menus and expanded, more eclectic lists of small plates. Second-story Maekawa in the International District, the city's first, remains the most true to form, with its bargain decor and its penchant for mayonnaise, dried fish, and fried pork. Wann Izakaya and Umi Sake House, both in Belltown, take the concept upscale, serving sake cocktails and fusion dishes like Kurobuta-pork corn dogs or grilled scallops skewered on lemongrass spears. Kaname in the ID and Shiku in Ballard, meanwhile, offer pretty much the same menu of sushi and hot dishes you expected from your local sushi bar before you'd ever heard the term izakaya, but somehow they too claim the title. To this roster, I add Kushibar. Located on Second and Bell, the new restaurant from Umi Sake House owners Billy Beach and Steven Han advertises itself as specializing in street snacks, gathering the wares of tiny outdoor stalls into one open kitchen. "Dining here is izakaya style," our waitress announced as she handed us a laminated menu and a wood block wrapped in writing. "You order a bunch of small dishes." It took 10 minutes to catalog and sort through the 2-D and 3-D menus, which overlap but not completely. (My advice to the owners: Ditch the block.) The prodigious drinks list includes beers, sakes, and sugary cocktails. On the food menu, there are sections for fried things and grilled things, plus little bites, ramen bowls, and of course the ever-amorphous "specials." The grilled bits are perhaps the heart of Kushibar's concept: dozens of types of meat and vegetables cut into bite-sized pieces, threaded onto six-inch wood skewers, cooked on robata grills imported from Japan, and sold by the stick. Over the course of my two visits, I ordered both the $10 seafood and chicken mixed "sets" of skewers and discovered that the cooks haven't mastered their robata-cooking technique. Those thumbnail-sized pieces of meat cook very rapidly—so rapidly that by the time their exteriors get the slightest hint of grill char, they're dried out. For example, in the five-piece seafood set, the only stick we cleaned off was the barbecue-sauce-covered unagi, which, as every sushi lover knows, would still taste good if you took a flamethrower to it. Whitefish, tuna, prawn, salmon: All tasted as though they had been left out on a Sahara dune for a couple of days. In the seven-piece chicken set, the chunks of chicken breast were similarly bland and dry, the liver actually sucked the saliva off my tongue, and the threaded chicken tendons had an interesting crunch to them and no succulence beyond it. The chicken bits weren't all bad: The hearts (four of them, so cute!) may have been a tad overcooked, but they retained that concentrated, almost broth-like flavor that makes heart meat so appealing. The chunks of dark meat were the only ones to be marinated, which kept them moist, and the strips of fatty chicken skin, scrunched together and flame-blistered, were of course the most delicious part. Taking longer to cook, the skewered and robata-cized vegetables I tried—thin-skinned, mild shichimi peppers and frilly maitake mushrooms—fared much better. I found the rest of the small plates I tried to be, well, pleasant. Tempura-fried kabocha squash were dipped in the palest, crackliest batter, but had been sliced so thickly that the pumpkin's raw chalkiness hadn't fully heated into custard. Crab croquettes rolled in panko crumbs and deep-fried had a faint crab flavor, while the takoyaki—golf-ball-shaped octopus fritters, quintessential street food—were decent once you scraped through the sauces squirted all over them. Pork fried rice topped with pickled cucumber and ginger tasted like the lard the rice had been fried in, which seemed fine until I noticed that the soup spoon my companion had been eating her rice with contained a half-teaspoon of leftover fat. Twice as we left the bar I asked my dining companions what they thought—one of them our own Erika Hobart, who grew up in Japan and came along as my expert witness—and twice they responded with that high-pitched, noncommittal "Erhm" that always swoops down into "It was all riiiiiight" and always means "I'd come back with you if you picked up the check." In the early evening, when discounted sakes and happy-hour specials lower the check sizes, the room fills with Belltown's designers, identifiable by the steely glints with which they survey the room and the preponderance of tight-fitting blazers and precisely scruffed hair. They're there for the atmosphere as much as the food. The restaurant seems a companion piece to Tavolata, echt Belltown: It has the same raw-cement walls and stratospheric ceilings, the same open kitchen, the same plywood banquette seating. To keep the austere room from feeling like the set of Prison Break, the owners have painted one back wall burgundy and have nailed vertically placed raw-wood planks to the concrete, all painted with Japanese characters listing menu items. (There's also a roofed, sheeting-wrapped patio that is sure to be popular next July.) A single line of communal tables, made of varnished slabs of knotty wood, follows the length of the wall opposite the kitchen, so as you sit you can either cast your assessing eye on other diners, perhaps catching a few scarf-styling tips, or watch the cooks as they twirl the skewers with their fingers. At that happy, happy hour, when the check totals $20 a person and everyone has plans for later in the evening, Kushibar seems much like what an izakaya should be. To make more of the place seems unnecessary.

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