You could get sushi in Ballard before: inexpensive sushi, usually described as "okay," at the unfancy Bento Sushi and Sam's Sushi Bar & Grill. But Ballard is no longer inexpensive, "okay" is no longer okay, and, in an evolutionary quantum leap, three fancy new sushi bars have opened in Ballard in the last five minutes. Two of them are on the same block. All three are quite good; while I didn't locate any reality-bending bites of sheer sushi bliss, none of them would be out of place in Belltown. Which one is right for you? Depends on what you like.
Do you like pretty trees? How about cartoons? Do you like smoking marijuana? This last preference is not a prerequisite; it's just that Moshi Moshi Sushi (5324 Ballard Ave NW, 971-7424), or The Place with the Tree, is self-evidently an especially good place for your highness. The airy, two- story-tall space buzzes with collective happy sushi-eating excitement while simultaneously projecting tranquility—e.g., a few Japanese paper parasols hung on a celadon wall. The Tree, at the center of the room, is also two stories tall, and it is covered in tiny pink fabric cherry blossoms, and each one is illuminated by a tiny LED, and these tiny LEDs emit light on a magical hypnotic wavelength. Furthermore, "Moshi Moshi Sushi" means "Hello Sushi." Stare up at the Tree, murmuring "Moshi Moshi!" in your mind, and you are in an anime fairy tale.
At Moshi Moshi, the fish is fresh, handled with care, and not subjected to too much elaboration. The rice is pleasantly on the slightly vinegary side; cuts of fish for nigiri are long and thick. The head sushi chef, Kotaro Kumita, trained with traditionalist Shiro, whose Belltown sushi bar is considered by many to be the best in town. (Before that, Kumita spent time behind the bar at Hana on Broadway, considered by many to be just all right, but really cheap.) If you like to sit at the bar, Kumita and his colleague are a pleasure to watch work, and they'll answer whatever questions you might have. Meanwhile, the floor servers devote themselves to maniacal beverage- monitoring and removal of empty dishes. In the latter capacity, they say each and every time, "I'll clear this plate for you" or "Can I get this out of your way?" It's not a hate crime, but a little silent efficiency would not be amiss. In other minor quibbles: The dark wood chairs and bar stools do not match the blond benches, bar top, and other accent woodwork, which gives a cut-rate effect, which Moshi Moshi's prices are not. But! Cocktails are taken seriously here, with delicious-sounding drinks made by a barman imported from San Francisco's Slanted Door. (Tree appreciation also doubtless increases while sipping an Angel's Share.) In final noteworthiness: Happy hour, both early and later-night, has inexpensive drinks, sake, tempura, and various rolls—if I lived nearby, I'd be there for it and the Tree at least once a week.
Do you like fedoras? Are you fond of mayonnaise and fried-ness? What about special-action toilets? While it's true that it doesn't sound very appetizing, Shiku Sushi (a few doors south of M.M. at 5310 Ballard Ave NW, 588-2151) must be known as The Place with the Toilet, as its most-talked-about feature is a TOTO-brand commode imported from Japan. The Toilet has many buttons, which activate functions involving surprising jets of water, which are delivered to areas not accustomed in this country to such visitations. Also, there is drying by way of warm air. It's, um, interesting but time-consuming; on a busy night, the ladies' room line could get daunting.
Also much-mentioned with regard to Shiku: the fedora-wearing staff, whose headwear is meant to complement the dim, sleek urbane atmosphere. Only one fellow, head sushi chef Johnny Kim, was thus haberdashed on my visit (a disappointment, even though the gimmick is silly). Given Shiku's mod/noir elegance, the laminated flip charts with color photos of the specialty rolls are incongruous, as is the mark-a-list-with-a-pencil style of sushi ordering. This is a low-rent system; they do this at Hana. Yet you're paying upmarket prices for your seat at Shiku. And it's a particular letdown if you like sitting at the bar, where the piece-of-paper go-between discourages interaction. Then when Kim was asked why the Homeless roll was named that, he said he was too slammed to answer and it'd have to wait. (The eventual reason: "It's so good, you'll get addicted right away and won't want to cook at home anymore.")
The Homeless roll involves jumbo-shrimp tempura and avocado topped with a hillock of soft-shell crab mixture drenched (their word, and an accurate one) with spicy mayo, then drizzled with that sweet, teriyaki-style unagi sauce. In general, mayo and tempura and squeeze-bottled sauces and gigantic-roll format are favored here; if that's your thing, you'll be in hog heaven. (The dark booths would also be perfect for stuffing big pieces of roll into each other's maws, all romantic- like.) Shiku's nigiri has smaller pads of rice than usual; one piece of fish had a ragged edge. And while service was generally attentive, an order of miso soup got forgotten. (There's a happy hour here, too; you could hit both Shiku and Moshi Moshi, and see for yourself.)
Do you like hearty greetings? How about nice families? Does the quality of genuineness please you? O'shan Sushi (5809 24th Ave NW, 420-3737), or The Place of the Sparkly Tie, is located in the former Austin Cantina space, much smaller than the other two. While it's not without contemporary decorative charm—in paticular, a backlit screen on one wall—O'shan feels less forcibly high- or low-wattage, overall lower-key. (As are the prices; each nigiri pair is $1 to $1.50 less here.)
It's a family affair: One night last week, the owner's father was behind the sushi bar, welcoming everyone as they came in. His best friend was lodged at one end, visiting, eating, and wearing a tie that was somehow both sparkly and tastefully elegant. Other bar- sitters were introduced to Sparkly Tie; exchange of pleasantries ensued. The unendingly nice server turned out to be the owner's sister, and when her dad tried to give her a caterpillar roll that didn't have salmon-roe eyeballs and shrimp antennae, she made him add them before taking it to its destined table.
I had my favorite piece of fish of all three places here, a lemony, almost sweet, super-rich ono (aka escolar), and I only had it because the sushi chef told me I should. Left to his own devices, he also made a simple but balanced, above-par roll: saba, shiso, and pickled ginger.
There's less to say about O'shan Sushi—no tree, regular toilets—but it seems like a very fine place to become a regular to me.