This unpretentious Ravenna restaurant is a purist's haven.
At his modest Ravenna restaurant, Wataru, chef Kotaro Kumita is the star of his own show.
He works alone in a pool of bright light behind a six-seat sushi bar. His knife flashes as he slices, trims and sometimes scores the raw seafood. His cuts are as fluid and precise as an haute couturier, carefully executed to allow each piece to drape with natural grace over a fragile ingot of vinegared rice.
There is no display case for the fish. Two chilled cedar boxes with glass lids hold what Kumita will use for service — uncut gems that include tuna in colors ranging from garnet to ruby to rose quartz; silver-skinned mackerel; coral-fleshed salmon; ivory hamachi and pink-marbled madai.
2400 N.E. 65th St., Seattle
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday (sushi bar seatings at 5:30 and 7:30 p.m.)
Prices: $$$ (fish $2.50-$5.75 per piece; rolls $4.25-$11.50; appetizers $4.50-$12.75)
Drinks: sake, wine, beer, tea
Service: smiling and sweet
Parking: on street
Who should go: sushi purists
Credit cards: Visa and MasterCard
Access: no obstacles
Kumita’s hand darts like a bird in flight, fingers skimming across a bowl of ice water, dipping into the rice basket, swooping to gather a dab of fresh wasabi, a shiso leaf or minced daikon as he assembles the sushi — one, two or sometimes six pieces at a time. Each is no bigger than a woman’s thumb, easily consumed in a single bite, or two at most.
Asari miso soup $3.75
Eggplant nibitashi $5.50
Chawan mushi $7.75
Smoked albacore tataki salad $9.75
Broiled miso king salmon $12.75
He anoints sockeye with ponzu sauce, made with yuzu he grows at home. Slices of sweet, soft Okinawa scallop may get only a pinch of salt and a few carefully counted drops squeezed from half a lemon. Other fish merit nikiri, his house-made sauce, a reduction of soy, sake, kelp and bonito flakes, applied in quick brush strokes. More of it is in the small pot at each diner’s place, to use with discretion.
The style is Edomae sushi, also called nigiri, which originated in Tokyo in the 1800s, when the city was still called Edo. The execution is minimalist. “It’s all about the fish,” says Kumita, “and the skill the chef brings to it.”
Kumita chose the name Wataru, derived from a second reading of his name in Japanese, because it means “coming from another place.” He arrived in Seattle from Japan at 18, and worked in restaurants while he went to school. After graduating from South Seattle College, he apprenticed at Shiro’s with Shiro Kashiba, the chef who introduced Edomae sushi to Seattle some 45 years ago. (Now in his mid-70s and no longer connected with Shiro’s, Kashiba recently opened another eponymous sushi restaurant in Pike Place Market, called Kashiba.)
After five years at Shiro’s, Kumita returned to Japan for more training. Then it was back to Seattle and stints at Hana, Shun, Moshi Moshi, Shiro’s again, then Kisaku, until he was ready to open Wataru last November. Converting a former Garlic Jim’s into a Japanese restaurant took a lot of wabi-sabi and eight months, because he did much of the work himself, though local artisans crafted the bar top of live-edge elm and the beautiful ceramic plates.
Don’t expect a list of crazy combination rolls oozing mayonnaise or sriracha here. The menu offers a few simple rolls, as well as miso soups and a short list of appetizers, among them a sumptuous chawan mushi: spinach, pork, a whole shrimp and fish cake suspended in a savory custard made of equal parts egg and dashi.
But sushi is the reason you are here. To ensure you get a seat at the bar, make a reservation for one of two seatings at 5:30 and 7:30 p.m. Reservations are a good idea, in any case, as the whole restaurant seats only 24, at well-spaced tables.
Kumita’s wife, Miho, welcomes guests. A gracious waitstaff takes your order for dishes from the kitchen or for drinks. The sake, wine and beer choices are rudimentary but entirely adequate, also moderately priced. Kenbishi Kuromatsu, an appealingly dry and fragrant honjozo-shu sake, is just $13. It comes in a handsome 180 mL bottle you’ll want to take home and reuse.
The two-sided sushi bar is an intimate experience, conducive to camaraderie even among strangers. You’ll sit in a comfortable chair, with a ledge for your feet. You are not required to order omakase (chef’s choice) at the bar, but purists will say you should, and I would agree.
If you do put yourself in Kumita’s hands, the bill might tally $80, before drinks, tax and tip, for a two-hour procession of individual nigiri that may begin with something from the kitchen. One night it was a trio of small bites: a tart salad of spicy radish greens from the chef’s garden, marinated albacore with pickled daikon, and braised tuna.
Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market is the source of much of the fish. The nigiri parade began with sweet Hokkaido scallops and unbelievably delicate hamachi. There was shima-aji (striped horse mackerel) from Kumamoto, seki-aji (Spanish mackerel), and king mackerel subtly smoked over straw. Madai (sea bream) was similarly smoked. Local shellfish included Canadian shrimp, Alaskan king crab and geoduck. Creamy uni came from the cold waters off Maine.
Dark-red Big Eye tuna from Ecuador tasted like steak. Pale otoro melted on the tongue like pure, clean, delicious fat. Albacore, Spanish bluefin and sockeye salmon yielded soft rich belly meat, and sometimes back loin, too. The fussiest bite was a gunkan-style roll of monkfish liver, Kusshi oyster and scallion wrapped in a tall band of nori. The only truly cooked fish was anago, saltwater eel glazed in inky tare sauce made with the head and bones of the fish.
After the final bite, a crunchy, palate-reviving roll filled with cucumber, gobo, shiso and umeboshi plum, it was hard not to applaud.