Friday, March 21, 2014

restaurant notes. the neighborhood phenomenon.

My family has been dining at Nishino since it opened, in 1995. Before that it was an Italian restaurant called Trattoria Carmine; one day we came to dinner and found an affable Japanese couple running a sushi restaurant in its place. For eighteen years now they have anchored a small strip mall off the intersection where Lake Washington Boulevard crosses Madison and heads into the Arboretum. Continue on eastwards, towards Lake Washington, and the neighborhood becomes leafier, grander, wealthier. To your left, a golf course/residential community called Broadmoor - once spoofed on ALMOST LIVE! - sprawls in all its manicured glory behind high brick walls as you get closer to the water.

The women of Madison Park are groomed and affluent-looking; they wear diamond engagement rings (of a reasonably moderate size, chosen by husbands at the beginning of lucrative careers) and diamond studs (the 20th anniversary upgrade, they are each twice the size of the aforementioned diamond rings). They play tennis, and their sport-jacket-wearing husbands play golf. And Nishino is their canteen, their neighborhood joint, their local diner, their clubhouse. There are parents with their preteens on school nights and couples on date nights and friends having a relaxing dinner together, letting their hair down now the kids have grown and gone. I have never spent any amount of time around WASPs, but watching the occupants of Madison Park greet each other over dinner seems to come pretty close to how I imagine them.

In the years since my parents moved back to Taipei, dinner at Nishino has just been with one parent or the other, so we now eat at the sushi bar instead of in the raised dining room. The restaurant has modern paintings on the walls and the light is a sort of peachy glow, all the better to smooth out crow’s-feet and minimize that Botox shine and illuminate the freshly highlighted and coiffed heads that are busy air-kissing across the tables. Every time I come here, I notice two things: the owner recognizes almost every single person who comes in the door, including my parents, and at least half the people in the dining room know each other. Another thing I’ve noticed: the sushi chefs are busily making boxes upon boxes of sushi takeout in-between serving us our perfect nigiri.

Since Nishino opened, more than eighteen years ago, I have never seen it not busy. It is always mostly, if not completely, full. Before we started dining mostly at the sushi bar, we sometimes couldn’t even get a table. This is extraordinary, because it is not an inexpensive place, and yet it is the most neighborhoodiest neighborhood joint I have ever seen in the entire city of Seattle. Tatsu Nishino chose to open his restaurant in a neighborhood where its inhabitants have both a great deal of money and a considerable sense of community, and also he and his wife remember and treasure their customers. This sense of community between the owners and their customers, and also between their customers themselves, this is what has kept them alive and thriving for almost twenty years. It’s the most amazing thing.

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