Shiku Sushi’s Hat Trick

The Roger Ebert of sushi hosts makes an international mashup, to mixed reviews.

If there's a neighborhood that seems as though it should be glutted with sushi, it's Ballard. Not that Fishermen's Terminal is the city's point of entry for California uni and Hawaiian hamachi, but you'd think a deeper sort of spiritual sympathy would draw legions of maki-makers close enough to taste the salt in the air.Credit gentrification more than the fishing boats for bringing Shiku Sushi to Ballard Avenue this past October. Considering the concentration of sushi bars in Belltown, which the shopping strip is coming to resemble, Ballard is clearly underserved. Perhaps some glutting is on the way—this week Moshi Moshi opens a block down from Shiku, and a sign for O'Shan Sushi was just taped up on 24th Avenue. [This story has been corrected since the original posting, which mistated the location of Moshi Moshi.] What with the concurrent pizzapalooza, it appears that there are many great minds in Ballard.Beating them to the punch is Rob Kim, an alumnus of Red Fin who lives in Ballard and noticed there weren't any high-end sushi places around him. I've been getting e-mails from Ballardites asking me why I haven't visited Shiku yet, and I took their indignation as a promising sign. I went to the restaurant twice, splitting my visits between the raw and the cooked. Sitting at the marble-topped sushi bar, I found that it's possible to have a very good meal of sashimi, nigiri, and hand rolls. But Shiku also claims to be an izakaya, or Japanese pub, a subtrend of small-plates dining that has captured a lot of imaginations in North America's cities. That side of the business isn't so accomplished.There's an appealing surrealism to most izakaya menus. At Maekawa in the ID, for instance, you can order fish cake with cheese, lotus-root slices fried in butter, or omelets with mayonnaise and fish roe. Belltown's Wann Izakaya and Wallingford's Issian do things with hot dogs and corn I'd have never imagined.With Shiku's internationally Japanese fare, the cooks and their American diners seem to be sharing the wink: There are jalapenos stuffed with crab and cream cheese, aka poppers remixed with crab rangoon. The eggplant croquette spins a mashup between potato korokke and eggplant parmesan: a chunk of potato bookended in fontina cheese and thin eggplant slices, rolled in breadcrumbs, deep-fried, and presented with a smear of tonkatsu sauce. Too bad it's the only hint of flavor.Shiku's approach to too many of its dishes: Take one Japanese foodstuff, pair it with one Western foodstuff, and roll that shit in breading! Order the ebi shinjo and you end up with patties of ground shrimp sandwiched between lacy lotus-root slices and deep-fried, which come out as bland as they are oily. Or take a pair of tiny deep-fried halibut cheeks—this time the moist-crisp dynamic works perfectly—that the cooks have plated on a pool of shiitake mushrooms sautéed with cream and not the tiniest pinch of seasoning.The cooked dishes I liked the most were the simplest, like a small plate with big hunks of kakuni pork that had been braised for a few hours in sweetened soy sauce and in all the juices that had flowed out of the meat as it cooked. The battered shiso leaves that garnished the organic vegetable tempura plate were a bravura performance in the fried-food genre: The leaf stayed flat and green underneath the translucent coating of batter, and its soft mint flavor perfumed each delicate crunch. (The kabocha squash, lotus root, carrot, and onion slices on the plate were equally good, if sturdier.)Still, izakaya means drinking as much as eating, and Shiku carries a full bar for Asian-influenced cocktails—yuzu lime drops, lychee martinis—as well as a few sakes and taps for Sapporo, Manny's, and Laughing Buddha beers. The place looks as much lounge as restaurant, with walls of black and exposed brick, tiny halogen lights, and a few booths in back so romantically lit that from my seat at the spotlighted sushi bar I couldn't see who was sitting in them. (Made a mental note.)Shiku's sushi bar is staffed by men bringing SexyBack with black shirts and tilted fedoras. Rob's uncle, Johnny Kim, the alpha Timberlake, is a charmer who garnishes his nigiri with winks and thumbs-up signs.The elder Kim, who's worked in sushi restaurants in California for a couple of decades, gives his assistants the big American-style rolls to construct, with their multiple fishes and quirky names (the Zig Zag Roll, the Honey Roll, the WTF-were-they-thinking "Homeless Roll"). The Bruce Lee roll I tried, about the thickness of my wrist, was stuffed with spicy tuna. Its nori-wrapped exterior was striped with slices of albacore and avocado, squiggled over with jalapeno-spiked mayonnaise, and flourished with a shower of crispy tempura-batter fluff. The crispy bits were appealing, especially since they offset the soft, gushy texture of the avocado and tuna. As was the prickle of spice. Only trouble was, with all that, I couldn't really taste the fish.And Shiku's fish is worth tasting. Johnny does a neat trick: He slices the fish long and thin, so it looks big enough to satisfy that American get-value-for-your-money thing but makes for a complete, one-bite experience. (No one looks graceful trying to chew off half of a giant hunk of rice.)His knife sliced bluefin tuna and hamachi into translucent panes of flesh, and made an octopus tentacle look like a Victorian woman's handkerchief, white at the center and embroidered around the edges with lavender. His Spanish mackerel tasted as if it had been brushed in cold, clean brine, with a bit of ginger and green onion dabbed on top. His sea-urchin roe, satisfying any dessert craving, was cold, sweet, and custardy. And tobiko, presented in nori-walled cups, crackled and burst between the teeth."Eat this now," Johnny commanded as he handed me a hand roll the size of a sugar cone. I bit into the great crunch of the cool sprouts and hot salmon skin, which tasted like a hybrid of fish and bacon. Johnny didn't leave the table while my eyes widened, and when I made a motion to switch to another nigiri, he ordered, "Don't even set that down!" So, dear readers, I didn't pause until the whole thing was gone. And then the sushi chef and I exchanged thumbs-ups.Price Check

Tako nigiri $6

Aji nigiri $6.50

Salmon skin roll $5

Bruce Lee roll $12.50

Kakuni pork $9

Halibut cheek $12

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