Dinner at Chiso Kappo costs $100 a person. It's omakase only, meaning no menu. Omakase dining is about trust: You put yourself in the chef's hands, and the chef takes on faith your willingness to put anything in your mouth. Omakase involves many courses, raw and cooked, fish, vegetables, et cetera, best eaten across the bar from a man who becomes your hero. Implied in the pact is that your sense of adventure will be rewarded with the exquisite, the obscure, that which is usually saved for speakers of Japanese, for the regulars who've spurned the California roll and earned the love.
I once spent $277.23 on omakase for two at Tojo's in Vancouver, BC, the most I personally have ever paid for dinner. The privilege of expensing meals as a critic may make value an abstraction, but it also raises the stakes when you're spending your own money: It'd better be damn good. I remain overjoyed about emptying my wallet on Tojo's sushi bar. Each course was a small revelation, often creative, always beautiful, sometimes with the challenge of unpinpointable flavors. The chef—it wasn't even Tojo; he was out that night—was taciturn, quietly appreciative of our appreciation. The physical space was forgettable, but in my memory, it's bathed in the kind of light that painters of a certain ilk depict beaming through clouds. The food was transporting. Lacking a religious experience, my impoverished index of associations could only go to feeling drugged—the heightened senses, the weird, secret joy.
At Chiso Kappo, you're buzzed in at a side door. The place is unremarkably sleek, but the second-floor location and the intimacy of only 10 seats, all facing the chef, lend a sense of possibility and exclusivity. The chef, Taichi Kitamura, trained with Shiro in Belltown; in 2001, he opened Chiso, a Fremont sushi favorite that's never surpassed his master's reputation. Chiso Kappo is upstairs; here, Kitamura says he uses some different suppliers, gets some different and better foodstuffs.
In Japan, Kitamura says, entire restaurants are devoted to eel; he makes it at Kappo because he wants to eat it. It's been both steamed and broiled, and it's rendered very tender, a whole side of it served simply, sprinkled with the citrusy peppercorn sansho (a traditional spice for eel). Kitamura might serve a classic chawan mushi soup of delicate, balanced bonito broth containing an eggy custard, matsutake mushrooms, and perfectly cooked seafood, warming and sustaining. He might take chunks of purest white rock cod, roll them in rice flour, deep-fry them, and set them in front of you immediately, an elevated version of fish 'n' chips. Or skinny little Japanese cousins of smelt might get rolled in potato flour and treated likewise, served whole, like completely tasty fish-French-fries.
All of this is good, but, in truth, it is not great—it feels more like Japanese comfort food than discrete, amazing episodes in a once-in-a-lifetime dinner. And Chiso Kappo's raw fish, too, fails to astonish. Wild hamachi is buttery-delicious; Yukon River king salmon is striped with rich fat; uni, just in season, is a fresh froth. But maguro might be mealy, lackluster. And some fish in the sashimi course makes another appearance later as plain-and-simple nigiri, duplication without adornment that, in context, seems unforgivable. In the turf department, room-temperature slices of duck with scallion and wasabi are lovely. But bites of Wagyu beef—seared, presented as a special treat with oyster mushrooms and a lime to squeeze—were so tough that they could've been chewed until the end of time. The cut: short rib, done a grave disservice by such brief cooking.
The work of the additional server was, on two occasions, objectively terrible. Formerly warm hand towels sat crumpled up on the bar for the majority of one meal; dirty plates lingered through new courses. Two people, with good sake and a tip, won't get out of Kappo for significantly less than $300. To expect refuse to disappear, cups to magically fill, seems only fair.
In the absence of spectacular food, Kitamura needs to be so compelling that you'd crawl across broken glass to sit across from him. He's not. He's nice, but he doesn't inspire supreme confidence. His presentations can seem thoughtless. The gourmets along the bar (and they are here, wanting to know everything about their food) have to press him for more information repeatedly. On one visit, in various conversations, he said that he doesn't fish for squid in Elliott Bay in the middle of the night anymore because he has no one to go with; that he doesn't drink; and (not without rue) that his parents never told him they loved him, that it's not part of Japanese culture. The atmosphere is less than partylike, nor is it one of reverent captivation. If Kitamura inquires anxiously, you don't want to lie. It's good, you can say honestly, still staring at your used hot towel in front of you, thinking it's not great and kind of wanting to leave. If the food was transcendent, all would be forgiven. As it is, your trust is betrayed.