Hannyatou | ★★ | Sake and Japanese snacks | $-$$ | 1060 N. 39th St., Seattle; 206-294-4104; hannyatou.com; Tuesday-Thursday 4-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 4-11 p.m.; no reservations; 21+ only

 

As they’ve sometimes done in the past — evaluating the likes of Seattle’s posh rooftop bars and Renee Erickson’s bar/restaurant combo in the Amazon Spheres — Seattle Times critics Bethany Jean Clement and Tan Vinh will occasionally team up to review food and drink for you. Here’s their take on new Fremont sake-and-snacks spot Hannyatou.

Bethany Jean Clement: Hannyatou is the smaller sibling to big-deal Seattle chef Mutsuko Soma’s Kamonegi, two doors up. That place, with its lucky duck-carrying-a-leek-logo, is known and loved for chef Soma’s handmade soba noodles, which are marvelous — she studied their methodology in Japan and started making them at her erstwhile Miyabi 45th. She’s also been nominated for a James Beard award and named one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs 2019.

Kamonegi is small, but Hannyatou is even tinier, an itty-bitty trapezoid of a place with seven seats crammed cheek-by-jowl at the bar, a handful of tables, and, for summer evenings, a pretty little back patio. The menu’s all about sake — the list is massive, and they also sell bottles to go — plus the kind of go-along-with-drinking snacks that are very popular in Japan (and should be more popular here).

Chef Mutsuko Soma, left, and co-owner Russell King with a few bottles from Hannyatou’s massive sake selection. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
Chef Mutsuko Soma, left, and co-owner Russell King with a few bottles from Hannyatou’s massive sake selection. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

Tan Vinh: The panel above the bar looks like a Hasbro Connect Four grid, only with sake bottle caps. This nook is steeped in Japanese culture and aesthetics, hearkening to salarymen downing drinks before staggering onto that train ride home.

But they were uncompromising in their vision to the detriment of mine and others’ derrières. This setup was not designed for supersized Americans. A trip to the restroom is more like walking through a gauntlet of chairs and elbows.

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That uncompromising vision spills over to sake, where they are bent on showing provincial Americans that sake deserves to be on the same pedestal as pinot or bourbon for food pairing and serious drinking. There are no sake bombs or sake-tinis on this menu.

Bethany: If you feel like you don’t really “get” sake — something I heard Tan say as we set out to investigate Hannyatou — prepare to be happily (and eventually tipsily) immersed. Soma’s partner here, Russell King, is an incredibly friendly, all-knowing teacher when the place isn’t too busy. When it is, he’s designed a sake-inclination flow chart for some autodidactic adventuring, about which he said one evening, “I can’t help it — I’m a nerd.”

You, sir, are the kind of nerd we love, especially when you’re pouring overflowing glasses of pretty-in-pink Ozé x Rosé — born of a naturally red strain of yeast, this is sake that tastes like a strawberry Popsicle in the best possible way. Tan also liked a super-boozy Kubota ginjo genshu that King recommended — with eyes closed, it might’ve been brown liquor. Which goes to Tan’s point that with a zillion bottles on hand and expert guidance, sake can take you pretty much any direction.

How sake happens at Hannyatou. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
How sake happens at Hannyatou. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

Tan: I loved the Tohoku Meijo Makiri junmai daiginjo: citrusy and melon-y, with a finish like a dry martini. A floral sake called Jewel Brocade was honey-rich with ripe fruit. Both were great staff suggestions. I love the “Sake for Dummies” flowchart, but if, like me, you have an aversion for anything that resembles a PowerPoint presentation, then just let the bartenders guide you.

Bethany: “Hannyatou” is an alternate name for sake that Buddhist monks coined back in the day to get around a rule against drinking alcohol — it means “wisdom water.” Go, monks! Though appreciate enough of it at Hannyatou, and your wisdom will wane. Better have some snacks along the way.

Tan: They wanted the food and drinks to be in harmony. Playing on its fermented-rice beverage theme, Soma focuses on miso, pickled snacks and other fermented noshes.

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Around the world, big-name chefs from René Redzepi to David Chang rhapsodize about it. Rising stars such as Misti Norris of Petra and the Beast in Dallas integrate fermentation into their menus. In Seattle, Soma has evangelized about this more than any chef — it’s her clarion call. Her shtick: fermenting familiar and nostalgic Americana foods that jog back to the era of ABC Afterschool Specials and Kid Power lunchboxes: Wonder Bread, Spam, Honey Nut Cheerios, Goldfish crackers.

Bethany: Some are treating these ancient techniques with capital-R Reverence when it was really all about “How do we make spoiled food that we can still eat without it killing us?” It’s nice that Hannyatou doesn’t take itself too seriously, and the taste of Goldfish made into miso is good umami-fun. But the onigiri — largish rice balls — that it was spread upon were distinctly, gummily overcooked one evening, falling apart as we tried to eat them. Another experiment, a Honey Nut Cheerios miso-cured egg yolk, tasted gluey, chewy, slightly salty, maybe faintly breakfast-y …? It was a bit lost on me, though a bed of avocado and shiso is always good.

Yaki onigiri, like the one here spread with Safeway cheddar-jalapeno-bagel miso, is just one of the Japanese snacks at Hannyatou showcasing Mutsuko Soma’s creativity and fascination with fermentation. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
Yaki onigiri, like the one here spread with Safeway cheddar-jalapeno-bagel miso, is just one of the Japanese snacks at Hannyatou showcasing Mutsuko Soma’s creativity and fascination with fermentation. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

More gamesmanship: “Spam & chicken liver mousse” served with saltine crackers (with the salt side turned down so it hits your tongue — proper!). This was a one-note festival of saline creaminess, a sort of over-the-top-yet-can’t-stop-eating-it scenario.

Tan: All the components are there, but the proportions are off on some of these bites. These are not cohesive dishes, more works in progress or hypotheses. A yolk is cured in miso, robbing it of all that creamy lusciousness and leaving us with a gooey-candy texture that sticks to our teeth. What is this sorcery? Please make it stop.

But she hit a couple of home runs. The “smoked cod liver in a can,” foie de morue fumé, tasted like foie gras with Soma’s touches of daikon oroshi and rhubarb vinegar ponzu, giving it pronounced tart, sweet and savory notes without overwhelming what was most important in that can. All across Seattle, bars are showcasing tin-can seafood — Barnacle, JarrBar and Roquette for starters — but this tops them all. And I love the cultural nod. Fish liver is big in Japanese cuisine.

The “egg-on-egg” sandwich is her most successful bite, taking an American classic and adding her Japanese sensibilities. It’s packed with umami from Kewpie mayo and ikura roe. Every other egg sandwich I have after this will be just an also-ran.

Bethany: That tinned cod liver is absurdly good — the poor person’s foie gras, for sure. You can get some for home use at Paris-Madrid Grocery.

I really liked the egg-on-egg sando too, with the creamy-lush egg salad and the super-salty pops of roe. Bonus: Its contrasting colors and presentation will very much please your Instagram. But! Hannyatou serves its Japanese sandwiches on toasted Wonder Bread. This is a cute idea, however, Wonder Bread is not even in the ballpark of the squishy, deliciously fresh white bread they bake at Sandwich House Tres in Bellevue, or the slightly less-fresh version that Shota Nakajima has flown in for his sandos at Adana. The Wonder Bread ends up working against Hannyatou’s sandos — harshly dry, wadding up in your mouth as you chew. Also, the egg-on-egg costs $15 … bread upgrade, please!

We also both favored a little snack Soma gave us — surprise amuse-bouches often happen here — that was tofu marinated in red yeast for six months. Talk about umami: This silky-textured madness tasted like a bouillon cube ate some blue cheese. Contrast that to the on-menu housemade tanuki tofu, which made a pleasant hot-day snack, but dissolved in the mouth in unsettling wet crumbles.

Tan: For every dish that misfired, there was another one that inspired or came close. People think of fermentation as salty, funky or sour. Bacteria, mold and yeast are the stuff of fermentation. Soma is giving us a more familiar starting point. Here is miso made from a Safeway cheddar-jalapeno bagel. Here is what Tillamook cheddar tastes like after fermentation. In this expensive city, where overhead costs are insane, chefs are too afraid to take chances now. I like that Soma is taking some risks. But Hannyatou is too much about the concept and not the execution.

Bethany: And even when several people are working, things can go haywire here. You better speak up if you want another glass of sake — otherwise, you might sit there for a long time, never get one and leave a little sad. But I love the space and the staff, when they have time to talk. And I love the spirit of experimentation, too — it’s just that not as much is as super-delicious as you hope it would be at Hannyatou.

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Hannyatou: 1060 N. 39th St., Seattle; 206-294-4104; hannyatou.com; Tuesday-Thursday 4-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 4-11 p.m.; no reservations; 21+ only

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Recommended for a very fun sake field trip and for adventuresome, if not always perfect, experiments in snacking — we especially liked the smoked cod liver, spam & chicken liver mousse and egg-on-egg sando

No reservations, 21+ only

Prices: $ (snacks $5-$11; “bigger bites” $9-$15; but note that it’s easy to run up quite a bill)

Noise level ranges from tranquil to convivially moderate

Service is super-knowledgeable and congenial, but sometimes overwhelmed

Drinks: so much sake, with bottles sold to go as well

Access: narrow spaces, extremely small single bathroom

About our restaurant reviews

Star ratings:
Assigned by Seattle Times restaurant critics
★★★★ Exceptional
★★★ Highly recommended
★★ Recommended
★ Adequate
No stars: Poor

Average price of a dinner entree:
$$$$ — $35 and over
$$$ — $25-$34
$$ — $15-$24
$ — Under $15

Updated: August 2019