What's Good Tonight
Happiness and Enlightenment at Sushi Kappo Tamura
If you want to sit at a table and order sushi rolls at Sushi Kappo Tamura, have at it. One night recently, a bunch of guys did just that—it was someone's birthday, and a few ladies joined them, and everybody looked camera-ready and had a great time, Entourage-style. They requested a caterpillar roll—it's a big one, made with unagi (eel) and a traditional dark-and-sweet sauce, draped with thin slices of avocado. When it was gone, they immediately ordered another one. "Man, it's so good!" they said.
The caterpillar roll was doubtless a pleasure: The quality of ingredients at Sushi Kappo Tamura is, in fact, so good (and the caterpillar's two little sprouts for antennae are adorable). I'm not anti-roll. The spider roll at Tamura was the best I've ever had: The nori seaweed snapped when bitten; the tempura soft-shell crab was ungreasy and fresh tasting, its shell and insides melding into a still-slightly-warm creaminess. And I could've sat at a table in the corner—even the corners of Tamura are nice, as it's a tastefully restrained ground-floor condo space on Eastlake, with blond wood and good lighting.
But table-and-rolls is, in the end, a limited kind of pleasure. Sushi-bar-and-open-mind: This is the way to happiness and enlightenment. The Buddhist concept upaya prescribes the right teaching for the right student at the right time. Through upaya, the skillful teacher offers not only salvation from ignorance, but movement toward understanding beyond the mere intellectual: understanding of the connection of all things great and small.
Sushi Kappo Tamura owner/sushi chef Taichi Kitamura used to own and operate popular Chiso in Fremont. (He trained with Belltown's rightfully revered Shiro.) Then he created Chiso Kappo upstairs, an exclusive 10-seat omakase (chef's choice) place, which some people loved, and some people found overexpensive and a little awkward. I was in the latter camp. Kitamura didn't seem comfortable talking about his food then, even when asked. Once he memorably told a captive audience that his parents never told him they loved him; for $100-plus per person, the comforting should be administered from behind the bar, not vice versa. Now at new Tamura, the back-and-forth feels energized, balanced.
On a recent Tuesday—a little slow, since they'd just missed signing up for Restaurant Week, Kitamura reported without undue balefulness—a solo guy sat down at the bar. While I was eating delicate, glittering silver local smelt, draped over a perfect pad of rice and dressed with a little ginger—like a shimmering idea of the ocean—the guy was saying he'd just moved to the area.
"Welcome to the neighborhood," Kitamura said, "not that we've been here too long!" With a happy empathy established, the fellow asked about the tiny fish icons next to some selections on the menu. "It means it's sustainable," Kitamura said.
"What's that mean?" the guy replied. Without condescension, without belaboring the point—without preaching about importance or using the weird word "fisheries"—Kitamura said that, well, such-and-such might be overfished and near extinction, but such-and-such, there's plenty of, so... And the man ordered the special sustainable sushi selection.
In seeking enlightenment at the sushi bar, there is no such thing as a stupid question, but a certain simple one is your best companion: "What's good tonight?" Your unattached readiness engages the sushi chef's nature. If you've laid groundwork by first ordering something besides a roll, or tuna, or salmon, so much the better. (Think octopus—which is meaty rather than chewy at Tamura, subtle and excellent—or geoduck, which I regrettably forgot to try.) "What's good tonight?" produced a lovely curved tray of local shigoku oysters bedded on ice, dressed lightly with drops of ponzu, chili, and curls of scallion. The cupped shells of shigoku oysters are unusually deep: Ask why, and you shall receive wisdom about tumbling in icy, clean water instead of sitting on the bottom.
Observation is rewarded. What is that sitting in a tray behind Kitamura, next to the deep fryer? Again, ask and you shall receive—in this case, a sample of tempura shiso leaves. His chef friend Lisa Nakamura, who runs Allium on Orcas Island, dropped off a bunch of shiso, he said; the leaves were big and thick, so into the hot oil they went. With thin, super-crisp batter and a post-fryer squeeze of lime, they were plain but outstanding, bringing to mind a veggie pork rind.
Friends of someone who works in the kitchen came in—they were ensconced at the bar, greeted, and shortly talking to Kitamura and their neighbors. It evolved that the apprentice shadowing Kitamura volunteers at the Vera Project; questions were asked, and everyone learned more about that very good thing. Meanwhile, how's the Alaskan king crab? Kitamura looked thoughtful, then said he'd make it a special way. Moments later, I was eating a deconstructed sunomono crab salad: rice wine vinegar, thin-sliced baby cucumber, two kinds of seaweed, and a few big, whole pieces of crabmeat that tasted sweet, buttery, rich, and a little lemony. It's what sushi is meant to be: simple, beautiful, shockingly good. What is the taste of enlightenment?
Tamura is, without a doubt, among the very best sushi restaurants in town, but perfection is not attainable in this life, so here are a few caveats. You'll need to speak up when sitting at the bar: The seats are oddly low, and there's an unfortunately loud fan back behind Kitamura. The prices are on the high side, and the pieces of fish are not huge—it's easy to spend a lot here, even without going the omakase route. (Beware: The local/seasonal small plates, while good, add up especially fast; same with the sake—a house sake would be great.)
In the end, Kitamura asked a question: Do you like uni? Always say yes, even though sea urchin can go the most wrong of any fish, maybe of any food at all. It's very good tonight, he said, and he was right—it was fluffy like a soufflé, almost sweet like frosting. "Yes!" he said. "You can almost taste vanilla!" He laughed. "You can put it on a cupcake now." There was no need for dessert.