Note: Super Dave is no longer in the house at J Sushi. Look for him elsewhere.
If you love sushi and you live in Seattle, you've been a little lost lately. Saito closed his Belltown place last summer. Shiro isn't at Shiro's much anymore; he sold all but a minority interest a couple years ago. Even if you could afford it, Taichi Kitamura's $100-per-person prix fixe at Chiso Kappo is gone, too (though said to be reopening on Eastlake this summer). Who will be your sushi superhero now?
Super Dave to the rescue! Super Dave—also known as Dave Nakamura—works behind the sushi bar at J Sushi in the International District every Wednesday through Saturday. Super Dave's primary superpower is making super sushi, but he has a corollary superpower that's also extremely super: Super Dave is super friendly. Finally, after all those silent, stern-seeming sushi chefs, Super Dave is here for you. Prepare to be disarmed, charmed, and fed like a king of the sea.
Super Dave moved here from Hawaii when he was a teenager; he went to Garfield High School. His father was a sushi chef. His grandfather was a sushi chef. His uncle still has a sushi place in Tacoma called Fujiya, where Saito worked for 12 years before opening Saito's. Dave worked there, too, and at Oasis Cafe on Capitol Hill, and at Seastar in Bellevue, and at Fat Fish in L.A.
Super Dave's moved around a lot, but his fans have followed him. Dave knows the name of almost everyone who walks into J Sushi, and everyone's extremely happy to see him. "Oh-I-am-SO-EXCITED-for-Dave's-sushi!" says one woman taking a seat. She worked with Dave way back at Seastar; she's moved to California, but she's back visiting and made a beeline here, bringing her cousin along. A guy comes in and is visibly relieved to see Dave behind the counter. "No offense to this place," he says, "but you're the reason we come down here. You take care of us!" Another guy stops by to see whether Dave's made any of his special salmon soup. It's sinigang, the guy says, a Philippine soup made with lots of tamarind. Dave hasn't made any, but he writes a note on his hand in ballpoint pen to do so. A few people come in with a staggering toddler, just to say hi. Dave can't believe how big the baby's gotten. "OH MY GOODNESS!" he says. "Hi, boo boo!" The kid, who's wearing a pink hoodie with little ears, looks profoundly disinterested, and Dave laughs. "She's like, whatever!" he says.
The floor server will bring around a checklist and a pencil, but you'll want to put yourself in Super Dave's hands; plan to spend about $40 a person. To start, he might like to make you something from the specials board: an ahi tartare, with shreds of spicy green onion, the slight nuttiness of sesame oil, and a tart star-shape of thin apple slices underneath, all balancing out the fresh, oceanic (not fishy or metallic) tuna. On top is a raw quail egg: "Just mix it in," Dave urges. (If you've ever had a sushi chef admonish you about soy sauce, you'll like Dave's style—it's conspiratorial, like he knows you both want it to be completely awesome.) The tartare is the size of a can of grocery-store tuna; it costs $5.95. It gives your mouth a plush sensation, and it tastes fantastic.
Super Dave's nigiri belies his aloha attitude—it's thinking man's sushi, showing proper regard to tradition without unhealthy beholdenness to it. Here's albacore belly—"Filet mignon from the sea!" he says—with a sprinkling of dried shiso mixed ten to one with salt. "You don't wanna dip that one," he says. "Rock it!" For escolar, Dave gets out his mini-blowtorch, giving it an exacting sear, then a squeeze of lemon. The heat brings the fish's oil to the surface; it's all buttery purity, with its tart lemon kick. Dave takes local salmon and seat-belts it to rice with seaweed, adds a little sweet Walla Walla onion, then ponzu for citrus. Each piece is so good, you could eat 17 of them. If you say, "Dave, it's SO GOOD," he might say—momentarily serious, impressed with the fish rather than himself—"I know, CRAZY-good."
If you're asking questions, you're learning things—about fish, about Super Dave, about the city. If you like Uwajimaya, Dave says, you've got to go down to Georgetown to Maruta's—Maruta Shoten, a smaller but cheaper Japanese grocery that Dave loves. He'll write it down on a sticky note for you. If you let a seared piece of sushi sit for a few moments, he'll refresh it with a minute squeeze of lemon and approximately six grains of salt before you eat it. If you ask him why his fish is so good, you'll hear about how a lot of places use lower-grade fish. Not Dave: He gets the good stuff. Also, a lot of people think you can just make rice and stick fish on it and call it sushi. Not so, says Dave—he's solemn again for a second—you've got to understand the root. Then he might reward your curiosity with maguro yamakake, gleefully grating a gloopy white liquid ("I know what it looks like, right!") out of a Japanese mountain potato, then giving you a dishful with squares of tuna in it. If you like this, he says, you're truly Japanese. It's unequivocally gross; the mountain-potato glop coats the fish (which would've been so good!) with starchy, viscous snot. Dave thinks it's hilarious, and you will too. To make up for it, he'll give you the delicacy of seared hirame fin with a little daikon: "Japanese'll go apeshit over that!" And rightfully so.
The Super Dave roll has too many elements for my taste—salmon, scallop, crab, tobiko, avocado—but Dave's hand rolls are truly super. His improvement on a spicy tuna roll is in cone form, with hamachi and toro mixed with a yuzu-pepper paste that's normally used as a marinade (he'll show you the jar). "Eat it fast!" he says, handing it to you; it breaks his heart to see hand rolls sit while the cone of nori gets soggy. The peppery heat has depth, the fish is glowingly fresh, the cone snaps crisply, and there are tiny bombs of salt in the form of tobiko. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there's Super Dave's Dessert Hand Roll, an unholy combination of tempura eel, a restrained amount of sweet unagi sauce, tamago, and cucumber for crunch. This is also known as the Chicken and Waffles. People at the bar ask for it first thing, then probably again last as well.
"Am I going too fast for you?" Dave will say. When you start to look satiated, he might tell you, "It's cool, it's cool—slow down, conversate, and breathe... and if you want more, holla."