Splurge for the $150-per-person omakase at Minamoto and you’ll experience an elegant procession of pristine ingredients. Feeling less flush? An a la carte dinner or lunch will treat you just as well.
On my first visit to Minamoto, I did not plan to eat omakase. My friend and I arrived craving nigiri, only to discover that the sushi bar at this five-month-old Bellevue restaurant is reserved for omakase, where the chef plots your course through a multifaceted Japanese dining experience. Advance booking is required for two seatings a night. The price: $150 per person.
Certainly we could have satisfied our sushi lust less extravagantly at a table in Minamoto’s serene and very pretty dining room, but the sushi bar’s 14 seats were vacant — save for a couple of regulars — so we asked if they might make an exception. The host consulted the sushi chef, who nodded his assent. Thus we embarked on an impromptu evening of epicurean opulence.
The meal was a cavalcade of precious and pristine ingredients that began with a tiny pot of creamy tofu capped with uni, speckled with Key lime zest and freshly grated wasabi. A single Pacific oyster followed, wearing a citrusy foam cape and a briny crown of salmon roe and sea grapes.
11011 N.E. Ninth St., Bellevue
Reservations: accepted; required for omakase
Hours: lunch menu 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; dinner menu 5-10 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday, 1-11 p.m. Saturday and 1-10 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday
Prices: $$/$$$$ (lunch $12-$30; dinner appetizers $4-$35, sushi/sashimi/maki $3-$22, sushi specialties $18-$48, dinner entrees $16-$95; omakase $150 per person)
Drinks: full bar; sake and wine; unusual Japanese beers and whiskeys; Fentiman’s sodas
Service: cordial, polite
Parking: on site, two-hours free in Alley 111 garage with validation
Sound: quiet to moderate
Credit cards: all major
Access: no obstacles
Each of those bites conveyed explosive flavors as fleeting as fireworks. Then came something quieter: uni paired with geoduck and spot prawns beneath mottled, musky petals of Italian black truffle for an enthralling, many-textured merger of land and sea.
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Next we used mother-of-pearl spoons to transfer butter-soft toro tuna tartare from a footed bowl to bite-size squares of warm toast that were delivered from the kitchen just as sushi chef Grant Lin finished placing pearls of Idaho white sturgeon caviar and flakes of edible gold atop the mound of fatty bluefin.
Lin wears an earpiece with a microphone attached to communicate and coordinate with the kitchen. Both Lin and executive chef Dylan Xu have worked in prominent New York City Japanese kitchens. General Manager Isaac Zhang, another New York transplant, guided us through the sake list, pouring our choice into exquisite little handblown glass cups.
The only meat course was interactive. We seared rectangles of A5 wagyu beef on a hot lava rock. The marbled meat sizzled and smoked for seconds. Then it was ready to eat, so tender it hardly needed chewing. We seasoned it with seaweed salt and added a smidge of yuzukosho, fermented chile-citrus paste, for punch.
Earth and ocean converged again in a clam-packed chawanmushi veiled in truffled dashi. All the chawanmushi here is impossibly light. The custard holds together just long enough to get to your mouth, then it dissolves. Truffles returned to flavor a fabulous donburi. The aroma of sansho pepper also wafted from the savory rice, cooked in a clay pot crowded with wild-caught fresh water eel (unagi), salmon roe (ikura) and lobster mushrooms.
The meal climaxed with individual nigiri. Two spot prawns, brought from shellfish tanks behind the scenes, skittered off the plate twice while Chef Lin readied his knives and selected pieces of fish from a pale wooden storage box. Eventually the raw shrimp meat would end up on ingots of seasoned rice and served alongside the tempura-battered and fried shrimp heads. But first we ate salmon, Spanish bluefin, sea bream, kinmedai (a deep-sea red snapper), striped jack, horse mackerel, blue mackerel and what the chef called “red bluefish” (akamutsu).
All the nigiri was simply prepared, the pieces sometimes brushed with sauce or smoked, dotted with yuzukosho or wasabi, or placed on a salt block and lightly torched. Each was perfectly proportioned for a single bite. The finale — an open-faced handroll filled with toro and uni — preceded a dazzling triple dessert of fresh fruit, tea-smoked custard and truffle ice cream.
By now you’re wondering, was it worth it? Much depends on the size of your paycheck — or trust fund — but as a special-occasion splurge for sushi-obsessed folk even of modest means, I’d say emphatically yes. One quibble: pacing was a little too swift.
But you don’t need a second mortgage to frequent Minamoto. The same team of chefs cooking at night are cooking at lunchtime, too. Nigiri, maki, sashimi, sukiyaki, ramen and more are among the affordable teishoku lunch sets (think Blue Plate Specials) offered Tuesday through Friday. Average price: $20.
The ramen’s golden, self-effacing chicken broth allows the soup’s other ingredients to shine: bamboo shoots, fish cake, mushroom, scallion, a soy-cured soft-cooked egg, corn kernels that tasted fresh-cut from the cob, and tender pork belly (chashu) that contributed hints of cinnamon, clove and black pepper.
The chirashi bento is the daytime equivalent of omakase. It comes all at once in an inverted pyramid of three trays. The largest one holds the chirashi, a carpet of seasoned rice strewn with raw fish that on my visit featured lean bluefin (akama), toro, king salmon, amberjack (kanpachi), uni and ikura. In addition to miso soup, salad, silky chawanmushi and dessert, there were king salmon maki and three vivid little sides á la Korean banchan: chile-sparked octopus, gingery seaweed salad and slivered seaweed root. All that will set you back $30. I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent more pulling plates off a kaiten conveyor belt.
Some of the same dishes from my omakase meal also appear on the a la carte dinner menu, among them donburi with truffles and the lava rock wagyu beef. Wagyu is also an option to add to sukiyaki. A few slices mightily enhance the sweet broth, but even the less expensive Angus beef would benefit that umami-rich, ruddy brown pool chock-full of cabbage, maitake, tofu and a poached egg.
A budget dinner a la carte might include the aptly named “Beautiful Alaska Roll,” filled and abundantly draped with king salmon. No need to add shaved truffle to carefully grilled maitake mushrooms when truffle salt and truffle oil already amplify their woodsy flavor without a surcharge. Grilled Saikyo miso black cod tastes every bit as luxurious as bluefin belly or king salmon. The delicate lobes edged with blackened skin came with blistered shishito peppers and a magenta stem of preserved ginger arcing gracefully across the plate, exemplifying the simple elegance that defines Minamoto at any price.