Sunday, July 23, 2006

Hot-weather dining. Nishino.

What was that I said the other day, about how in Seattle the seasons blur together, how the changes in weather are so mild I wear the same clothing all year-round? Lies, all lies. This week it has been so hot that the air is stifling in my house, without even the slightest of breezes for relief. I staggered home from the air-conditioned comfort at work, the heat slamming into me as I walk out the door. I cannot bear even the thought of trying to eat dinner in our kitchen, let alone cooking anything. Let’s go out for dinner, my mom says. Where to?

Nishino is one of my favorite restaurants in Seattle. We have been eating there since its previous incarnation as an Italian restaurant, when it was called Trattoria Carmine (I think) and there were few customers. In 1995 it became a Japanese restaurant, and in recent years it has been so busy that we frequently have trouble getting a table. I have had simple bowls of udon noodles, and I have had elaborate omakase (chef's choice) dinners, in addition to our usual variety of appetizers and a vast array of sushi. They have all been perfect. One night a few years ago, my friend S.’s mother took me there, and our omakase dinner lasted for some two or three hours, just the two of us and an endless parade of dishes. I think there were ten courses, but it is all a blur. Some dishes involved two or more kinds of seafood; I remember only that there were four kinds of tuna and at least two kinds of salmon.

The menu is a mix of traditional Japanese dishes – all excellent – and modern, what I suppose you could call fusion cuisine. You could order sushi and sashimi and tempura and bowls of noodles. There is even teriyaki available. But you would be missing out. The food is tremendously inventive and consistently superb, which is why this is one of my favorite restaurants anywhere. Saturday night, my mother and I drove the familiar road along the lake towards Madison Park (not coincidentally home to two of my other favorite restaurants), and managed to snag two seats at the sushi counter. The owner is behind the counter; he (and his wife, who greeted us as we came in) remembers my mother, asks after my father, who is still in Taipei. It is rare for my mother and I to go out to dinner together, just the two of us; the last time she was in town I was too busy, she was too jet-lagged, and her visit was too brief for anything more than thrown-together dinners at home. It has been nearly a year since we went out to a restaurant together, not since Rome, last August, and this is our chance to catch up. Settled in at the sushi bar, I tell her about the movies I saw during the recent film festival, my blog, my day at work, and we order our dinner.

There is some fried smelt marinated in sweet vinegar, cool and tangy, and then hamachi sashimi in some kind of sauce, adorned with paper-thin slices of what appears to be jalapeƱo pepper and fried garlic, the former giving a sharp bite to the sweet fish, the latter in crisp contrast to the soft texture of the sashimi, like a potato chip in a tuna-fish sandwich, only a thousand times more so; rolled up and eaten in one bite, it is a explosion of flavors in the mouth. Then comes toro, a slice of fatty tuna belly, pale and luminous atop a hand-formed oval ball of rice; it floods the senses with the richness of sweet, luxurious tuna…fat. A soft-shell crab roll appears before us on the counter; the deep-fried crab crunches against the translucent celadon slices of cucumber wrapped around the sushi. We had seen a plate handed over to the couple sitting next to us; my mother pointed to it and ordered the same without even asking what it was. It turns out to be a tangle of geoduck and wild mushrooms and asparagus, intensely flavored, tasting of the sea and of the woods all at the same time. (This is an example of Nishino’s untraditional cuisine, one of the frequently-changing specials). A bowl of somen arrives in a glass bowl of ice, sweating profusely onto the wooden counter. (Later the waitress mops up the puddles as my mother laughs at me; I suppose nothing has changed since 1985 and a waiter had to spread a fresh napkin over the mess I made all over the tablecloth at the Russian Tea Room). I stir grated ginger and finely sliced scallions into the savory dipping sauce, and the cold noodles are the perfect antidote to a hot summer evening.

All around us people are chatting with the affable sushi chef/owner, a smiling man in brightly-patterned chef's trousers. It seems that most customers tonight are regulars, gossiping with him the way only someone who eats there all the time can. A man leans over, says, I was at Matsuhisa last month; he is not even close to being as inventive as you are. The chef smiles, laughs. I have never eaten at Matsuhisa, so I will have to take his word for it. There is just enough room for one more piece of toro, like foie gras one of my favorite foods in the world. It is rich and sweet and melts gently on the tongue; I barely even have to chew. The only complaint I have is that due to the hot weather, my toro is ever so slightly headed towards room temperature, which makes it seem even fattier and more unctuous than usual, almost too much so. Still, it is the best toro I have ever eaten. (I said that last time I ate toro at Nishino). Every time I come here, I order toro, and it is unfailingly excellent, and I promise myself that I will return as soon as possible to eat more. But it never happens, and I can only wait, with longing, until the chance comes again.

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