MANY PEOPLE appear to be at ease around sushi. They can probably turn cartwheels and perform other such acts of physical dexterity. I cannot. My cartwheel-free existence parallels my encounters with sushi -- the once complexly compact roll unraveling all over my lips, bits of rice and seaweed breaking free and plopping into a dish below, splattering soy sauce and wasabi at my fellow diners. Usually, I just pick up sushi with my fingers when no one is looking and stuff the whole thing in my mouth.

Despite my defects, I was drawn to Maneki, nestled in a side pocket of Japanese restaurants in the International District. Its unimposing entrance, with a small lit sign advertising a cocktail lounge, beckoned. Once inside, a list of weekly specials in both Japanese and English -- with useful descriptions for the Konji-impaired -- tempted me to slip past the narrow hallway of a bar, filled with boisterous patrons drinking sake from tiny cups and nibbling at wee fish poised on small, descriptively shaped dishware. The dining room hummed with 20 or so tables of diners tippling from giant Sapporo bottles and wielding chopsticks with authority.

Slinking past, I seated myself at the sushi bar, tucked in the back of this compact yet winding restaurant. I was hypnotized by the sushi chef's hands -- a spell shattered only when he slammed down the tray of hand-rolled spicy tuna and barked at a passing waitress. She immediately rushed over with chopsticks, warm towels, and green tea, returning moments later with really palatable dry sake. On my left sat a patron obsessed with sushi, who comprehensively sampled nearly the entire à la carte menu, topped off with a light after-snack of tempura, that exquisite deep-fried sculpture of vegetables or seafood. As our evening unfolded I learned that she performed this feat of consumption once a month or so, being generally confined to the sushi-free zone of Vashon Island. She was only the first of many dedicated fans of Maneki I met throughout several return visits.

Maneki, Seattle's oldest sushi bar, opened in 1923 around the corner from its current location. The old restaurant was sectioned off into private rooms with sliding doors that could be opened to accommodate up to 500 guests. Returning from internment after World War II, Maneki's owners found their grand restaurant ransacked. Maneki reopened in the 1940s in its current location -- which had served as a storage space during internment -- and has stayed small, recently expanding the sushi bar from three seats to six.

Jeanie, who now owns and runs Maneki, puts together Japanese home cookin' and a comfortable environment. Her friendly presence, along with the sushi chef's craftsmanship and the waitstaff's lightening-quick service make Maneki feel like a Japanese diner, the kind of place one might visit regularly. Then there is the food itself. The weekly specials range from merely interesting to outright exotic; Jeanie says these dishes are traditional "drinking snacks." She explained that the Japanese (wisely) consume appetizers while they drink, and Maneki offers the kind of seafood snacks to get you through a whole lotta sake. I conservatively sampled the Tempura-Battered Deep-Fried Smelt chilled in a spicy pickled sauce ($4.25), Salmon Croquettes ($3.95), and Beef and Pickled Daikon Radish ($3.95). I won't waste words describing the intense joy that eating these small dishes gave me, because the weekly specials change (duh, weekly) depending on the availability of fresh, seasonal seafood and the whims of the chefs. The ever-changing, never-boring specials are reason enough for return visits.

Moving on to the sushi: The eel arrived in such generous portions, I feared for my dignity. Fortunately the eel melted neatly in my mouth. As I tore through the best soft-shell crab rolls ever to crumble down my chin, Jeanie told me a story about some diners more awkward than me. A couple from Idaho who demanded that someone remove the black electrical tape stuff from their tuna roll. Oh, what silly people! Not knowing how to eat sushi! Personally, I could eat those spicy tuna rolls all day, every day, and never be bored with Maneki's complex variation of flavors and textures. The folks at Maneki serve up authentic Japanese food with deftness and delight, and will look the other way if you need to use a fork.

Maneki

304 Sixth Ave S, 622-2631. Daily 5:30-10:30 pm. Beer and sake. $$.

Price Scale (per entrée)

$ = $10 and under; $$ = $10-20; $$$ = $20 and up

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