Shiro’s – Seattle’s Classic Edomae Sushi Restaurant
Everything old is new again…or so the saying goes. For those of us that have lived in Seattle for some time, we all know ‘the legend’ that is Shiro – the master sushi Chef who presiding over the counter at his namesake restaurant. People have come to Shiro’s for over 20 years and its well-deserved reputation precedes it far and wide.
But all good things come to an end and it was only last year that Shiro’s founder decided to move on to greener pastures. Seattle sushi enthusiasts were certainly stunned and many wondered what would happen to what had become the closest thing to an ‘institution’ in our town. Would it change? Would it ever be the same? After visiting with Chefs Jun Takai and sous Aaron Pate I can give you the definitive answer – No. It’s not the same. In fact, in many ways it’s better.
For anyone who has seen the film Jiro Dreams of Sushi you know that the Japanese sushi culture is almost obsessively steeped in tradition. One need not look further that Jiro’s son Yoshikazu who, at 50, was still waiting in the wings to take the reins from his octogenarian patriarch.
The New Guard at Shiro’s
Chef Takai-san worked in the fish markets in Kyoto (he had no choice – he was born into it) and moved on to be his Uncle’s apprentice at his sushi restaurant. He wasn’t allowed to touch the fish at first and instead spent a year learning to make rice. Yes, just rice. Why a year? Because that’s how long it takes to understand the variations in the rice. There are many factors involved – crop variations, the season of harvest, how you wash the rice, water ratios, and timing and how you cut the rice with vinegar. If not done right it becomes too starchy to use for sushi.
After this, he was promoted to make rolls followed by making sashimi in the kitchen. Nearly three years later he finally found himself at the bar. What followed was another 18 years of working all over Japan in Yokohama, Tokyo, Osaka and even a stint in San Diego before coming to Shiro’s in 2012.
I asked Takai-san about how traditions are changing in Japan with the training of new cooks and he said, “There are so many sushi schools in Japan –but it’s usually only a 3-6 month program so you just get the basics. And now there are these ‘sushi robots’ making rice and rolls and it’s like fast food – I don’t like it.”
Reinventing Sushi via Tradition
The day I arrived to meet Chef Takai-san and the team, he was busy fileting a small fish called an Akamutsu or Nodo Guro which is a line-caught Blackthroat seaperch from the Sea of Japan north of Kyoto. It’s also known as the ‘otoro of white fish’ and is very rare – so much so that each fish costs $50 and weighs just over a pound. They only have two a night on rare occasions and it goes quickly.
Beyond that delectable little fish were others such as Kawahagi (Thread-sail Filefish) and Ishidai (Striped Beakfish). But the highlight of the scene was the 300 pounds of giant Blue fin tuna sitting on the counter waiting to be broken down. And this was only half the fish. No other sushi restaurant in town can handle the kind of volume it takes to move through that amount of Bluefin. And before you get all uppity about boycotting Blue fin know that this particular fish came from a large, sustainably run farm in Spain.
Takai-san next went to work deftly trimming the loins to rid them of the metallic-tasting bloodline and breaking them into workable blocks for aging before becoming nigiri and sashimi later on. Yes – tuna needs to be aged 2-3 days before serving as the depth of flavor develops to become more pronounced. This is a problem in some other restaurants GM Tiger Nakawake tells me as many serve their tuna ‘too fresh’ and it can be bland.
The tuna belly or otoro was massive weighing in at about 35 pounds. I asked Tiger what the ‘street value’ of the belly was and he said, “probably about $2500-$3000 if you were to buy it retail.” But the more stunning realization was that the belly itself looked just like Wagyu. The famous Japanese cattle that gets massaged and fed beer and sake. Unctuous, marbled fat that I just wanted to take a bite out of right then and there.
Strength Through Diversity
The team at Shiro’s is a diverse one with its chefs coming from all over the world. One chef is from Fukushima, another from Shizuoka in Japan and, of course, the American addition to the team, Aaron Pate who hails from Maui. Good sushi chefs are in demand and the restaurant leverages a ‘sushi chef headhunting’ company in Japan to find top talent in the US.
I asked Takai-san about the training his chefs receive and he said, ‘If you learn from the right person it makes a big difference. They all have styles based on where they learned and came from – Tokyo, Osaka, North-side. Each of these places has different traditions and teaching/learning processes.” He went on to add, “But we all learn the Shiro-style here. And I mean the ‘new’ Shiro style of doing things.”
Takai-san also had great praise for his sous chef. He said, “Aaron has experience working in Japan. If you sit in front of him at the bar – nobody can beat his character. He’s passionate and it shows in his food. Recently, he went to Kyoto for the World Washoku Challenge and while he didn’t win, the judges all loved him. His knowledge of fish and the craft impressed them all. Even Chef Murata of Kitcho, which is probably one of the best restaurants in all of Japan – he loved Aaron!”
But that doesn’t mean that Pate always gets treated by customers the same as the Japanese chefs. He told me that, “Once in a while, someone will walk in and they won’t want to sit on my side – but it’s their loss. Which is the opposite of when I was in Japan. Japanese customers treated me very well and they were interested in eating the food I made. They wanted to have something different and I was a bit of a novelty. There aren’t many Americans making sushi in Japan!”
Quality Is the Name of the Game
You would be hard pressed to find something that is so closely related to a country’s culinary identity. Sushi is to Japan as the cliched ‘hot dogs and apple pie’ are to the USA. Yet our country’s relationship with this cuisine is very nascent indeed. Upon reading the excellent book The Sushi Economy by Sasha Issenberg I was instantly intrigued by the fact that sushi didn’t even exist in the US until the mid-70’s and wanted to know the answer to the question: What makes good sushi good?
When I asked Takai-san how they maintain a level of quality here comparable to Japan he said, “Of course, the quality is better in Japan because of the freshness of the fish.” But he went one step further by throwing down the gauntlet, “No one in Seattle is bringing in some of the fish we have here. And no one does Edomae style here like we do. This is the closest you are going to get to Tokyo.” Pate added, “The fish we’re bringing in from Japan is cared for better than anywhere else in the world. Our sources bring in good product on direct flights – especially some of the great, lesser known fish from Japan that is seasonal. We want to educate people about some new fish before they eat up all the popular varieties.”
And so the change for the better at Shiro’s lies within the exploration of tradition in Japanese sushi culture. This isn’t to say that respect for tradition did not exist prior to Takai-san taking over the Head Chef position at Shiro’s. But the ‘new’ version is actually going old school. And that means sourcing rare and unique fish from Japan that you simply don’t see in many (or any) sushi restaurants in Seattle. Sure, you can still find your maguro and hamachi here but both the quality and variety of options here cannot be beat. On any given night you’ll see up to 25 different fish in the case – several of which you may have never seen in this city.
Passing the Mantle
I asked Takai-san the unavoidable question of how it feels to take over for a Seattle sushi legend and a restaurant like Shiro’s. His response was simply that ‘It feels the same. The most important thing I learned from him was how to talk to customers – he’s really an entertainer!” Aaron added, “I’m very lucky to be where I am. I experienced working with great chefs in Tokyo which enabled me to come here. To work with these guys is an honor for me. Just after one year there are so many great things happening for me.”
I’ve long been fascinated with the traditions and culture behind sushi. It is an ultimate sensory experience and food in its simplest form and is what many Western chefs aspire to create by combining ingredients to achieve a perfect harmony. It also happens to be what many of those same chefs have told me that they crave when dining out – pure, unadulterated flavor. If you want that too then head to Shiro’s and get in line – early.
*Portions of this story originally appeared in Seattle Weekly