Former Seattle chef achieves dreams of sushi stardom
Daisuke Nakazawa told Nancy Leson earlier this year that his dream was to be the number one sushi chef in the U.S. That was when the apprentice from the inspiring film "Jiro Dreams of Sushi" was working with Shiro Kashiba in Belltown. He's pretty close to his goals now at his own restaurant, Sushi Nakazawa in New York City, which scored the exceedingly rare prize Friday of a four-star review in The New York Times. That makes it the highest-rated sushi restaurant in New York City, as the "stupendously expensive" Masa lost its "coveted fourth star" in 2011.
The review from Times critic Pete Wells was headlined "The Student Does The Master Proud," and Wells wrote that Nakazawa had served him the four "most enjoyable and eye-opening sushi meals" he had ever eaten.
"The moment-to-moment joys of eating one mouthful of sushi after another can merge into a blur of fish bliss. But almost everything Mr. Nakazawa cups in his hands and places in front of you is an event on its own. A piece of his sushi grabs control of your senses, and when it’s gone, you wish you could have it again..." Wells wrote.
"I remember precisely the dull luster of Mr. Nakazawa’s mackerel and the way its initial firmness gave way to a minor-key note of pickled fish and a major-key richness that kept building the longer I chewed. I can feel the warmth of just-poached blue shrimp from the South Pacific islands of New Caledonia, which had a flavor that was deep, clean and delicate at the same time. I can tell you about the burning-leaf smell of skipjack smoked over smoldering hay until it becomes a softer, aquatic version of aged Italian speck."
In the movie, as Leson noted, Nakazawa "famously recounted making tamago under the stern eye of Jiro Ono: months of failure, 200 rejections and, finally, approval.
"I was so happy I cried," the subtitle read."
Nakazawa's U.S. arc of success was substantially faster. On the restaurant's web site, Nakazawa's bio notes that he came to Seattle to work with Kashiba, another Jiro Ono disciple. "While in Seattle, Nakazawa developed his voice, utilizing western fish and styles while still honoring the tradition of Edomae. In the fall of 2013, Chef Nakazawa arrived in New York City to open Sushi Nakazawa on a quiet tree-lined street in the West Village. Serving what he calls ‘New York-mae’, the chef has merged all he has learned in Japan and America."
The Times "four star club" is a tiny one. Eater counted just five restaurants with the ranking earlier this year: Per Se, Le Bernadin, Jean Georges, Eleven Madison Park, and Del Posto.
Mudhoney to play at Full Tilt Ice Cream
Step aside, Cherry Garcia. Full Tilt Ice Cream has developed an ice cream flavor for storied grunge band Mudhoney, and the band -- fresh off a 25th anniversary show with Pearl Jam -- will play at the indie shop's flagship branch in White Center on Wednesday.
Justin Cline and Ann Magyar, co-owners of the hangout known for creative local flavors and pinball games, are longtime Mudhoney fans. Cline said he had a friend at Sub Pop Records who helped him get in touch with frontman Mark Arm to see if band members would be into having their own dessert. He brought down some samples, band members picked the favorite, and they wound up doing honey cinnamon with a fudge swirl. "We use Shipwreck honey, which is a hyper local honey producer here in West Seattle," Cline said.
More or less as a joke, Cline said, he then told band members that if they ever wanted to play an ice cream shop to let him know.
"A week later I got an email that said the band was into it. It's going to be a bit crazy. My wife and I just went and saw them at Key Arena and made the observation that the stage they were playing on that night was bigger than my entire store," he said.
The shop at 9629 16th Avenue SW will close at 5 p.m. to get ready, then re-open at 7 p.m. for the ice cream release party, with the concert at 8 p.m. The shop only holds 50 people, so it may be a madhouse, but the band will play in the front window and people should be able to hear from the street even if they can't get in.
"I just really love the band, and I am so glad they would do it," Cline said. (Next up? Maybe Sir Mix-a-lot? "I think we could come up with some amazing ice cream for him.")
It's a nice break for a four-branch shop that started up with a strong sense of community, helping revive a neighborhood that was getting a "bad rap," and including a range of flavors representing some of the many ethnic populations in the area.
It may be Seattle ice cream, but it's no Seattle Freeze.
Your table is not waiting, but you are: the 'no reservations' game
With just 27 seats and a chalkboard menu listing fewer than a dozen items, Blind Pig Bistro appears to be the sort of neighborhood place that wouldn’t take reservations, much less offer a tasting menu.
But the two-year-old Eastlake eatery announced this week they now accept reservations, plus they’ve made their popular whole-menu tasting option more attractive: the 8 to10-plate shareable feast is priced at $35-$45 per person.
The news got me wondering anew why some restaurants take reservations, while others—to the annoyance of many diners, me included—don’t.
Blind Pig's chef/owner Charles Walpole says he’s thinking of his customers. “The idea at this point is, how can we be better, how can we grow. Taking reservations is one way we can improve service. It’s asking a lot to ask people to come in and not have a table waiting.”
He’s also thinking long term. In 2014 he plans to transform the adjacent Eastlake Teryiyaki into a 35-seat bar and lounge. The two storefronts will be connected but have separate names and menus.
The reason many small restaurants don’t take reservations, says Walpole, is largely a staffing issue. “It requires managing the tables, calling and confirming the reservations. We have a bigger staff and a stronger team. We feel we can do it now and do it right.”
Trevor Greenwood says about two years after opening the first Cantinetta restaurant in Wallingford, he considered taking reservations in a limited way because of customer complaints. Instead, he has held to a no-reservation policy for parties fewer than six at the Wallingford Cantinetta and in Bellevue, as well as at the much smaller Bar Cantinetta in Madison Valley.
Not having to hold tables for reservations brings a certain energy to a restaurant, Greenwood believes. “As a neighborhood restaurant, I like the idea of ‘come as you are and we’ll take care of you.’ Often it’s only a 15-minute wait and I hope our hosts make people comfortable. We try to be accommodating. We encourage people to call when they are coming in. We try to guide them if they are looking for a specific time. We’ll put them on a waitlist if we have one.”
The restaurateurs I talked to agree that not taking reservations is more profitable.You don’t run the risk of empty seats because of no-shows, or last minute cancellations, or having customers occupy tables far longer than calculated. But that works best when you have a steady stream of customers willing to wait, or to dine very early, or very late—a scenario that a hot, new place might enjoy every night but more mature establishments may only experience on weekends.
“We were one of the first to make people wait,” says Ethan Stowell of two restaurants he opened in 2008--Tavolata and How to Cook a Wolf. Neither took reservations at first, but the policy changed after about a year. Demand was still high but one day Stowell ran into a former steady customer who lived two blocks away from How to Cook a Wolf. He said he had stopped coming in because he couldn’t make a reservation and didn’t want to eat at five o’clock.
Taking reservations became a core value rather than a dollar thing for Stowell. “It’s not very hospitable not to take them. If we’re a neighborhood restaurant we want the neighbors to come. We want to still be here in ten years with a solid profitable business.”
All of Stowell’s restaurants (except Ballard Pizza Co.) take reservations. “If you’re a dinner time house, and people order drinks or a bottle of wine, it’s a dining experience. People are spending big money. It warrants being able to make a reservation,” he says.
Still he wishes more customers would recognize the complexities involved for the restaurant. “We don’t want people to wait but they should cut us some slack.” (The trio who sat for more than four hours at Rione XIII---he’s thinking of you.)
Renee Erickson, proprietor of two restaurants notorious for long wait times, believes more people get to eat in a restaurant that doesn’t take reservations, like her Ballard oyster bar, The Walrus and the Carpenter. Her newest restaurant, The Whale Wins, accepts a very limited number each night, but getting one is tough because they keep two-thirds of the restaurant available for walk-ins.
If you manage to snag one of four nightly slots via The Whale Wins’ website, you’ll see this reservation policy: “Unless otherwise agreed, we allow the following times for all parties: parties of two to four - 2 hours; parties of five to six - 2 ½ hours; parties of 6 or more - 3 hours.
This doesn’t mean they ask people to leave when their time is up, Erickson says. “We hope people will honor the time limit and realize that if we are offering reservations, there will be people coming in behind them. The policy acknowledges that.”
Taking reservations is an art, she admits, and something they are still experimenting with. “We are sort of learning people have different expectations and time frames. We learned a lot from Walrus to [The Whale Wins]. Table turns are much longer. Even the weather affects timing; when it’s colder people don’t want to leave."
Her goal is to fill seats. “The more people you get into your restaurant the more likely you’ll survive,” says Erickson. “But we don’t want it to be torture for people, that’s for sure.”
Il Corvo chef bringing Roman-style pizza to Pioneer Square
The couple behind the most Italian lunch in Seattle is adding on a new Pioneer Square restaurant with a new specialty. Mike Easton, chef-owner of Il Corvo Pasta, and wife and business partner Victoria, are planning a Roman-style street pizza place to be called Pizzeria Gabbiano. They plan to open the restaurant at 2nd and Main in late spring, working with an 150-year-old starter and daily batches of hand-pulled mozzarella.
Describing the pizzas he'd like to create, Easton wrote about "the depth of flavor, the chew, and the overall satisfaction" that diners might find at Rome's Campo De Fiore. He described a dough that wasn't just about simplicity and quality of ingredients, but also about the time it takes to allow natural fermentation over a period of days, to develop flavors from wild yeasts, to allow starches to break down to sugars, to mix and knead by hand. After all that, he wrote, "now caramelize those sugars in a 650 degree oven, letting the bright acidity of the tomato embrace the milky richness of the hand made mozzarella, and you have in many peoples’ opinion, some of the best pizza in the world...And a pizza we will be striving to emulate at Pizzeria Gabbiano."
The setup sounds like a pizza version of the astoundingly good, reasonably priced, and creative cuisine coming out of Il Corvo each day. That busy business is one of the places I name when people ask where to eat with just one day in Seattle, and it's triumphed over far pricier and fancier joints on recent awards lists.
Still, adding a second restaurant seemed like a big move for a chef who once scaled down to a cash-only, lunch-only operation (the original Il Corvo on the Pike Place Market hill climb) to have more time with his wife and daughter. Even when moving to Pioneer Square last year, he made it clear he wanted to stay away from big bank loans and endless hours and other potential traps of expansion.
Turns out he's still keeping it small, in that respect. The couple is using personal savings for the project, has one silent private investor, and is also well on the way to raising $20,000 to $35,000 in loans from Community Sourced Capital, a crowd-sourced funding business recently founded in Seattle -- which is also headquartered in Pioneer Square. (What did we say about the neighborhood?) Unlike Kickstarter projects, which offer gratitude and various rewards in exchange for donations, the CSP funding is an actual loan, where investors will be repaid, though with zero interest. It's neither a donation nor an investment, the CSP site says, it's "a right-sized mechanism for moving money to a business in your community while still getting paid back." Other food-related projects among its early successes include a $12,000 industrial juicer for a Long Beach cranberry farm, $6,900 in equipment for Delicatus deli in Pioneer Square, $15,050 in cheese-making equipment for Willapa Hills Cheese, and more than $20,000 to expand the Stockbox project serving grocery neighborhood deserts.
Kickstarter campaigns have been quite successful for both big and small local food projects (like this and this and this, just for starters,) so I wondered why Easton didn't go that route, or seek out a few investors with deeper pockets. I also wondered what made him want to take on a second restaurant at all, jumping to that next level of restaurant ownership where you're no longer always cooking on the line. On that, Easton wrote me that:
"My head is full of restaurant ideas and plans, much more so than I actually have time for. But the more Il Corvo has become a smooth sailing ship, the more time I've been able to make time to daydream. Daydreaming leads to investigating the possibilities, and sometimes that investigation opens doors for you. I've really wanted to do this pizza place for the about past 10 years, and the right opportunity finally presented itself. As far as time management goes, I will have one of my most trusted employees and friends, Johannes Heitzeberg, running the operation, he has worked with me over the past 5 years and 3 different restaurants. He's been there since the beginning of Il Corvo and is up for the task." The restaurants will be easier to manage being so close together, he noted, and he also lives just 5 blocks away.
As far as the financing, these were his thoughts:
"We were very picky about the type of, and $$ amount we would bring an investor in for. We didn't like the idea of somebody with deep pockets funding the lion's share of our restaurant, then demanding a say in how it works (they always do). We chose CSC because we really liked the fact that it is a local grass-roots kind of company. I never really liked the "free money" in trade for gifts and special treatment aspect of Kickstarter, not to mention it can be a tax nightmare.
"A community sourced loan, that we are responsible for paying back, puts a certain amount of validity in our business plan. It puts realistic expectations on the recipient to do a good job and run a good business. I feel much better about that, than counting on the kickstarter good-will alone, and as they always say: There is no such thing as a free lunch."
True. With the precedent he's set, though, I'm expecting an affordable and very good one.