Kaisho is the slick new kid on a block of Bellevue Way crowded with restaurants. You’ll find it next door to Blue C Sushi where Boom once lived.
The three restaurants share the same parent, Seattle-based Madison Holdings, but where Blue C and Boom hew to more traditional Japanese cuisine, Kaisho recognizes no boundaries. On the menu you’ll find gyozas stuffed with smoked brisket, moo shu tacos, and Thai fried chicken with kimchee waffles. Two decades ago, we might have dubbed this East-West mash-up fusion. Here, it’s called global cuisine.
Jeffrey Lunak, a former corporate chef in the empire of Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, oversees all things culinary at Kaisho and its siblings. Chef de cuisine Kalen Schramke arrived here by way of Rover’s and Terra Plata in Seattle, where it appears he learned a thing or two from Thierry Rautureau and Tamara Murphy. Kaisho’s food is fresh, seasonal, skillfully prepared and full of nuance.
I thought I was so over pork belly until I encountered it here, several ways. Chunks of it alternated with squid and octopus on a skewer that was grilled and finished with sweet-hot, Thai-style chili. In terrific moo shu tacos, tender, seared strips of it were folded into crepe-like pancakes amid a tangle of watercress, radish, kimchee, edamame and azuki beans.
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A slab of braised pork belly forms the midsection of the “Bao burger” — a towering edifice also involving a juicy Wagyu beef patty, tempura-fried onion rings and kimchee pickles on a steamed bun, lightly toasted.
Smoked brisket and kimchee stuff supersized gyoza, ripe for a dip in “dragon sauce,” whose spicy, sweet jolt comes from gochujang, the Korean chili paste. Dragon sauce helped assuage the slight dryness of smoked brisket slices topping a giant rice bowl. The meat formed an edible mosaic with orange-glazed fennel, shishito peppers, kimchee, lettuce, cucumber and a sunny-side-up egg.
A bowl of vermicelli is similarly stocked, minus the egg and peppers and subbing roast pork for brisket. The cold rice noodles and their accompaniments are best enjoyed tossed with a generous amount of Thai chili sauce (served on the side).
Those rice and noodle bowls are lunch-only items. I much preferred them to the Kaisho noodles on the dinner menu. Crumbled chicharones (fried pork rind) melted into that muddled mélange of seafood and vegetables undermined by tough bits of smoked tuna and a lack of citrus spark.
I was wowed, however, by the fried chicken’s golden-brown crust and the subtle heat of savory kimchee waffles, so good on their own but even better with coconut butter and five-spice maple syrup filling their deep pockets. (And don’t miss the hot doughnuts for dessert — malasadas with a hint of kaffir lime in the vanilla cream filling.)
Roasted cauliflower was a knockout side dish, enhanced with black garlic and zesty mitsuba gremolata (wild Japanese parsley, panko crumbs and lemon).
Manila clams joined celery, braised daikon and pungent, house-made lap cheong (Chinese sausage) in a broth potent with charred lemon, dragon sauce and sake. Pan-seared dorade was a beautifully cooked fillet, paired with avocado-edamame purée and a piquantly dressed pink grapefruit and watercress salad.
Carrot-ginger soup impressed as much for its vibrant flavor as its presentation. It was poured at table from a Japanese teapot (tetsubin) into a bowl readied with diced apple and radish. Tea is served with less ceremony: just a tea bag plunked in a mug of steaming water.
Sake or beer is my drink of choice here. Cocktails were off-kilter. A pear and cucumber vodka martini was floral on the nose but bitter on the finish, with no discernible fruit. The Far East Manhattan (made with Hibiki 12-year-old Japanese whiskey) was also heavy on the bitters, too light with sweet vermouth.
In Japanese, Kaisho means a club or meeting place. With roomy tables and big booths, the handsome, 100-seat restaurant is well-equipped for group gatherings. Purple orchids grace the bar and lounge. Blown-glass ornaments and pendant lights in rainbow hues accent the black-and-white dining room. But on all my visits Kaisho was sparsely populated. Maybe next time there’s a wait at The Cheesecake Factory, Bellevue diners might check out the new kid on the block instead.
Providence Cicero is The Seattle Times restaurant critic. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.