Last weekend I realized that my blood mercury levels were getting dangerously low and I was in dire need of raw fish. Tucked away on a steep hillside just off of Jackson on Sixth Avenue South in the International District you will find Maneki, the oldest sushi bar in Seattle. The place is a venerable institution, and you can sense the age when you enter the narrow front hallway cluttered with kitchsy japanese décor and an endless parade of framed magazine covers representing decades worth of write-ups. You will probably have plenty of time to contemplate those magazines since Maneki is wildly popular and nearly always packed. Don’t even bother on a Friday night if you don’t have a reservation. We’re talking hours of waiting, and even with a reservation, you’re still going to wait. You can also expect a dubious glance from owner Jean Nakayama, as she measures your worthiness and finds you wanting. Entrance into Maneki is a privilege and don’t you forget it.
You’re best bet is probably going to be getting a crew together and reserving a tatami room. It’s more fun that way anyhow. So kick off your shoes and slide onto the ancient pillows in your own private screened room and order up some sake (I’ll have ice-cold Kurosawa, please). I usually like to start with a bowl of edamame, which is particularly good at Maneki – the bright green baby soybeans are never oversteamed or oversalted. The miso soup is exactly what you would expect, executed in a very traditional fashion (ultra-tiny cubes of tofu, lots of scallions and a couple errant pieces of wakame kelp). I’m also fond of the gyoza – the homemade, thinly wrapped potstickers filled with shrimp and pork are delicate and buttery and served with a side of lemon.
While Maneki has a huge menu that runs the gamut of japanese cuisine from tenzaru soba to avocado ponzu, I almost always go for the sushi. As you would expect from a restaurant that is over 100 years old, this is hardly glamor sushi. I think the most exotic thing on offer is a spider roll. Definitely not the place to indulge in omakase. Despite the minimalist approach (or maybe because of it), the preparation is always flawless, the uramaki is rolled perfectly and the sushi rice is textbook. Everything is pretty classic, almost archetypal, with the exception of the spicy tuna roll which I’m pretty sure is unique to Maneki. First of all, it’s really spicy. Secondly, the tuna is minced beyond recognition and mixed with togarashi chili powder so you wind up with this bright red blast of fiery fish paste. Mayonnaise is completely eschewed, which is just fine with me. Like I said, I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Also unique to Maneki: scallions, scallions everywhere. I hope you like green onions, because they are chopped on top of everything.
The cuts of fish served on nigiri are very long and thin, almost twice the length of the pressed sushi rice they are draped over. The special rotates seasonally, and on this particular visit they had spanish mackerel on the board so I ordered it up. I enjoy the intensely fishy and oily texture of the saba, but it’s not for everyone. On the other hand, I thought a piece of yellowtail was too fishy, and tasted off (which is unfortunate, because hamachi is my very favorite sushi fish). Also not so good: the smoked salmon nigiri. We did a side-by-side comparison between the fresh salmon and the smoked salmon, and while the fresh fish tasted clean and velvety, the smoked version was rubbery and almost tasted like it had been injected with liquid smoke. I won’t be getting that again.
But despite the occasional hiccup, I’m really happy Maneki has survived for as long as it has. It has that timeless, neighborhood feeling. And in fact, earlier this year Maneki was honored with an America’s Classics Award by the James Beard Foundation. It’s not hard to understand why. I loves me some lucky cat.