I enter Ikina Sushi at 4:30 p.m. A young man watering leafy plants looks up and informs me that the place isn't open for business yet and I should come back in half an hour. I explain that I have an appointment with Jason Velasquez, the joint's head sushi chef. He calls for Velasquez, and almost immediately the chef emerges from a gap between two black curtains that separate the sushi counter from the kitchen. Velasquez, who is in his mid-30s, has a bowl in one hand and chopsticks in the other. He is having something quick to eat before work starts. The bowl contains two fried eggs on plain white rice. This is something that even I could prepare.
There are two levels to my fascination. One, I'm impressed that a man who has mastered not only the refined art of selecting, slicing, and decorating raw fish, but also has a background in French and Korean cuisines, is just eating two fried eggs on some rice. And two, I'm deeply moved by the idea that I could never eat a simple thing with his kind of pleasure. I can only make simple food, and so it means nothing to me. In my case, simple food is not for the sensitivity of the mouth, it's for the stupidity of the stomach. In the case of a person like Velasquez, a person with culinary erudition and depth, simplicity has to be about the essence of a thing, the thing as itself. Watching the chef eat is like watching a hand descend from the clouds, pinch pieces of egg and rice with the tips of chopsticks, and return to the clouds to enjoy the simple things of life.
We sit at a table and he tells his story. Velasquez has been with Ikina Sushi for six months. He started as an assistant, but when the head chef left, the owners offered him the top job. Before Ikina, he helped start Wanderfish, a poke joint on Broadway. Before that, he ran a Korean restaurant in San Diego. It did well enough, but he had return to Seattle, where he's from, for family reasons.
Velasquez, who went to high school in Auburn and Federal Way, became interested in sushi when he was 18. "It was like stepping into a trap—a bear trap," he says. "Once I got interested in it, I just could not stop thinking about it. I had to learn how to do it... I was raised on Filipino food, but this was something totally different and I wanted to understand it. I bugged people to teach me about sushi.” As a young man working in a LA sushi restaurant, Velasquez had one of those moments that’s the bread and butter of Hollywood films. The head chef saw his raw ambition, saw he was doing everything he could (mopping floors, clearing tables, washing dishes) to get his one shot, his one chance to blow, and said to him: “You will never be a sushi chef. NEVER!” That moment changed his life. He had to become sushi chef.
Velasquez also explains that Ikina is a great fit for him because, although it's traditional (which matches his training), it's not opposed to doing new things (which matches his sensibility). "This place attracts a lot of young people," he says, finishing his bowl. "People in their 20s and 30s who want good sushi but are still open to new things."
Ikina, in my mind, is not like Maneki, an old and venerable Seattle institution. As I have written before, Maneki's bar has the same warmth and mood as Tory's, the bar in Yasujiro Ozu's 1962 film An Autumn Afternoon. Tory's patrons are middle-aged, a little melancholy, and sentimental when drunk. In one scene, a tipsy Shuhei Hirayama, the main character, sings patriotic songs with a plastered portly man. Maneki is that kind of place.
With Ikina, which has an excellent happy hour (solid wines, superb rolls, and one of the best chicken katsu dishes you will find in this city), the equivalent is not found in cinema but in a piece of music in the special edition of Liumin by Detroit's Echospace. This section of the album, which is called "Liumin Reduced," is all field recordings of the streets and businesses and apartments of Tokyo over processed melodies. The recordings are the city, and the melodies are the spirit of the city. Thirty-six minutes into "Liumin Reduced," you hear the rattle of a train passing overhead, then the approaching footsteps of a person in high heels. Then you're in a bar, where a youngish couple is talking. He says something, and she laughs a little; she says something, and he laughs a little. Ikina is that kind of place.
When done with the bowl of eggs and rice, Velasquez goes to the kitchen, returns to the sushi bar with an apron, and begins to prepare a dish that is not on the menu but has been on his mind for some time. He can't stop thinking about it. It involves nigiri (raw fish over pressed rice), but each one is constructed differently. He works on the skin and flesh of this and that fish with his custom-made knives. ("This one is only for fish. This one I can use on beef.") He bashes half an avocado in a plastic bag, then balls rice and pokes a hole into it, then examines a slice of lemon peel that's so thin it's transparent. I keep asking what he is doing ("Why the blowtorch? Why that sauce?"), but his answers only get shorter and shorter. Eventually, I become silent. I have completely lost him.
Velasquez may dwarf my knowledge of sushi, but I'm aware that the core of his art is an understanding of how each of the fish he is cutting and setting on his counter breaks down in the human mouth. Tuna does not decompose like salmon, and the same goes for yellow tail and mackerel. And the manner of the decomposition can be enhanced by the sauces, garnishments, and construction of the rice. You have seen the demolition of something big. You have seen the Kingdome come down with a series of controlled explosions. It is a beautiful thing to watch. Eating sushi is also an act of destruction. And it is only a great chef who can make the demolition of the rice, the raw fish, the sauces, the garnish a beautiful thing in your mouth.
If you have reached the end of this piece, you can order what Velasquez made for me that afternoon. He came up with a name for it after I finished eating it and was thinking about the Kingdome, about how it came down so precisely: "Let's call it 'densetsu,' which means "legendary." It costs 20 bucks.