Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Eating out. Nishino.

It's wet and cold and rainy out, and I'm hungry, and we can't decide where to go for dinner. In the mad dash to the car (again, it's raining) I drop my box of chocolate on the wet pavement and bags of chocolate-covered cherries go everywhere. (In the darkness I almost don't notice my black book - full of notes and phone numbers, but not *those* kind of phone numbers - on the ground and snatch it up just in time). It does not bode well for the evening ahead. But we don't feel like cheeseburgers at Quinn's or pizza at Via Tribunali or pasta at La Spiga or twee little bites at Licorous (and I know better than to suggest Café Presse) and at first we head to downtown and Thai food, which has its own problems, what with the traffic and parking lots that say SORRY, LOT FULL and the multitudes of last-minute shoppers (and I am smug because all my presents are bought if not wrapped) and finally C. says, let's go somewhere that has parking.

Names scroll by in my head as I think of a place to go, like the tumblers in a combination lock as your fingers turn the knob past one number to the next. Anything at University Village will have the same parking problem as downtown, or, god forbid, Bellevue. Nishino, perhaps, in Madison Park. We drive up back the hill as I toss other names in the air - Dinette, but C. doesn't like things on toast; Coastal Kitchen, but it's hard to find parking - but ultimately, I've already made up my mind. Nishino has its own parking lot. And I want Japanese food, even if I don't know it yet. It feels strange to be here without my parents - the still-charming owners don't recognize me alone - but I have eaten there so many times it is still like returning to something familiar.

I order the unagi and the toro and a few different kinds of rolls; I ask for tempura and broiled hamachi collars and miso soup. Hot tea and miso soup warm us, and I am caught off-guard by the soup, which has a deeper, more complex flavor than the kind of miso soup you get in other restaurants or from instant packets bought at the supermarket. The sushi rolls - spicy tuna and house special - are good enough but not particularly interesting; the unagi is spectacular, as usual. They broil the eel just before making the sushi, so it comes to the table still warm and crisp around the edges. As always, the toro is better than anywhere else, like the unagi. One piece per person is just enough, one taste of that wondrously fatty tuna belly to excite the tastebuds, fill the senses.

The tempura is fine, but the grilled hamachi collars are even better, the meat rich and fatty and falling away from the elongated plates of bone with gleaming stretches of skin hiding pockets of unctuous flesh. I wish I could eat more, but I am full. I tell C. that the restaurant is the quietest I've ever seen it, with a handful of tables still open. We turn down dessert, and head out the door. Instead of turning left to the twisting lakeside road that lead to the old house where I grew up, we go straight, straight down Madison. I have been eating at Nishino for a long time, I tell C., since it was an Italian restaurant called Trattoria Carmine. It has been Nishino for twelve years now, and it is always busy.

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