Like every sushi chef, Hideaki Taneda wields several knives that have specific purposes. He stores his in wooden sheaths on racks mounted on the wall behind the white birch counter at his restaurant, Taneda Sushi in Kaiseki. One that he uses during service is a knife he’s had since he was a teenager. Its slender wooden handle has a slight hollow that just fits his palm. At the finish of one of his omakase feasts, he held it up to show diners how decades of honing have shortened its narrow blade by several inches.
Taneda, who turned 50 last year, is not a natural showman like some sushi chefs, but he has break-out moments. Earlier in the meal, he’d brandished a whole tuna collar, hoisting it shoulder high, as if it were the Stanley Cup, to illustrate where the cheek he’d just served us came from. He’s reserved but quick to smile, focused on his work but observant. He recognized a pair of returning customers, remembered which fish they were fondest of, and even what they like to drink.
Of course, when your sushi bar only has nine seats, it’s easier to keep track of such minutiae. Taneda’s restaurant is not only small, it’s deliberately hard to find. He’s not courting walk-ins. No sidewalk signage reveals its off-Broadway existence. The modest, glass-fronted restaurant sits deep inside the retail alley adjacent to the long-running Hana Restaurant, opposite a smoke shop, next to a barber. Once you find it, you’ll feel compelled to return, like salmon swimming home. Taneda belongs in the pantheon of Seattle’s best sushi bars.
Reservations are essential for this omakase-only experience. With dinner jazz playing in the background, the chef choreographs his own edible mixtape: interspersing sushi and sashimi with composed plates of small bites modeled on the more formal kaiseki tradition that has roots in the Japanese tea ceremony. Taneda’s menu of more than two dozen “courses” unspools over nearly two hours. The quality warrants the cost — $100 before beverages, tax, and 20 percent service charge. So does the quantity. You won’t leave hungry — or thirsty. If you enjoy sake, consider extending the omakase idea and let the chef select three sakes from his stash. Only some are printed on the beverage list. Three generous glasses cost $35.
Fish comes from Japan and elsewhere. An appetizer trio (sakizuke) included sweet and sour Okinawa seaweed; tofu topped with wasabi and Hokkaido uni; and tiny, whole Alaskan ice fish tangled into a tempura-fried ball. (Those teensy black specks are their eyes.)
The wasabi is fresh, the silken tofu is housemade, so is the soy sauce. That elegant brew accompanied sashimi: a plump, sweet Hokkaido scallop, two kinds of bluefin (from Spain and Japan), and isaki, known more prosaically as threeline grunt. But don’t expect to get either soy sauce or wasabi with nigiri. The chef applies his own basting sauces and flavor accents to each exquisite piece, none longer than my thumb. He dots horse mackerel (aji) with minced ginger and green onion, jolts scorched golden sea bream (kinmadai) with yuzukosho and grates lemon over charred barracuda (kamasu). He blends his sushi rice with fermented sake curd vinegar as well as rice vinegar, creating an extra dimension of flavor.
Uni — often from Hokkaido, but also from Boston when in season — made repeat appearances during the meal. The sweet, musky sea urchin was served gunkan-style in a tall nori wrap, tucked beneath raw Canadian shrimp as nigiri, and by itself over rice on a half-rolled sheet of warm, crackling nori.
Local smelt highlighted a collection of little bites called Hassun, which in kaiseki tradition ideally reflects the season. It seemed rather seasonless, but every item was carefully executed. The sumptuous array included braised octopus, eggplant in dashi, mountain yam and edamame cake, tamago-wrapped eel, pressed mackerel sushi, seared bluefin tuna, and monkfish liver with yuzu curd.
Shiizakana, another concept borrowed from kaiseki, signifies a substantial plate. That certainly describes a set piece comprising snow-crab soup with a taro and sweet-potato dumpling; a chunk of miso-grilled black cod; and a bite-sized pickled daikon roll filled with coho salmon.
Diners watched as Taneda smoked king salmon over hay in a clay pot and grilled whole fillets of saltwater eel (anago) on a small brazier. The eel was so fragile he didn’t dare set the bites down but put a piece directly into each diner’s hand. Tuna cheek, almost as delicate, was torched alongside charcoal pieces to give it smoky intrigue. Various fat-marbled parts of the tuna belly preceded the cheek: akame, chutoro and otoro melted slightly from just the warmth of the rice and his hands.
A cup of abalone broth fortified with dashi came early in the meal. Toward the end there was steamed abalone with its liver, both sweetened with mirin. Last bites included a hand roll filled with minced raw tuna cheek and daikon pickle, plus two styles of the customary tamago. Dashimaki is the light, sweetened rolled omelet familiar to Americans; atsuyaki is a denser, traditional Japanese version made here with shrimp, scallops, rice and mountain yam potato.
Taneda grew up in Japan’s Miyazaki Prefecture and trained in Tokyo restaurants after culinary school. He cooked at the City Club of Tokyo and on cruise ships before settling in Seattle 16 years ago and becoming executive chef at I Love Sushi and a founder of Fremont Bowl. He’s assisted here by chef Ryoji Aoki. Taneda’s wife, Naoko, a homemaker until now, and their two teenage children, handle serving and dishwashing. Their restaurant is a special place, worth seeking out if you love sushi.
Taneda Sushi in Kaiseki ★★★
219 Broadway E., Capitol Hill
Hours: Tuesday-Sunday 5-10:30 p.m.
Prices: $$$$ (omakase $100 and up)
Drinks: sake, beer, wine
Service: polite, inconspicuous
Credit cards: all major
Access: ramp available at entrance; building restrooms not fully wheelchair accessible