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Yakitori in Seattle: Does Kushibar Fill the Void?

Kushibar is a relatively new (opened in September 2008) Belltown restaurant and bar that aspires to serve Japanese street food. I admire Kushibar’s owner, Steven Han, for trying to add something new to the Seattle food scene. The main bone I have to pick is with the yakitori. One of my favorite places to eat in the Los Angeles area is the Shin Sen Gumi Yakitori Restaurant in Gardena for delicious Hakata-style yakitori. Although Seattle has some restaurants that serve yakitori, it hasn’t had an authentic Japanese yakitori bar like Shin Sen Gumi -- a noisy, raucous place with shouted greetings by, and shouted exchanges between, the chefs and wait staff, a not-so-quiet background of Japanese pop music, and an energy level that is 15 on a scale of 1 to 10. So I was excited when I heard that Kushibar was modeled after a traditional yakitori bar and prepared yakitori in the traditional Japanese manner. By “traditional manner” I mean a long, narrow grill filled with Japanese white Bincho-tan charcoal made from Ubame oak, with the intensity of the heat controlled by hand-fanning. Alas, despite the use of Bincho-tan charcoal, the yakitori at Kushibar isn’t good. Chicken livers were overcooked and mushy. Chicken gizzards and beef tongue were likewise overcooked. Dark-meat chicken was over-sauced and mediocre at best. The chicken hearts were the best of the yakitori I sampled, but were surprisingly flavorless, a far cry from the chicken hearts at Shin Sen Gumi. The best dishes I had at Kushibar were the buta kimchi, a spicy tofu and pork stir fry, gyu tataki, barely seared beef with vinegar and ginger, and a scaled-down version of the classic Japanese winter dish, oden. In the middle of the ranking were a kimchi nabe with udon noodles served in a cast-iron pot and okonomiyaki, sort of a Japanese pizza. All in all, the dishes at Kushibar ranged from “good” (the buta kimchee, gyu tataki, and the oden), to “okay” (the kimchee nabe and the okonomiyaki), to “bad” (the yakitori). None of the dishes rocked my world. Will it ever be possible to get first-rate yakitori in Seattle?

I give Kushibar high marks for a menu that offers many traditional Japanese dishes that are not widely available elsewhere in Seattle, like oden, kimchi nabe, and okonomiyaki. I have had better versions at non-Seattle Japanese restaurants, but I suppose half a loaf is better than none. The yakitori, however, was a huge disappointment. It has occurred to me that at Shin Sen Gumi and at other authentically Japanese restaurants, like Wa Dining Okan in San Diego, the overwhelming majority of the patrons are Japanese, with just a few non-Japanese customers thrown in the mix. At all of the Japanese restaurants I’ve been to in Seattle so far, the mix is just the opposite – predominantly non-Japanese customers. So perhaps the difference in the “authenticity” of both the ambience and the food of these non-Seattle restaurants and the Seattle restaurants merely reflects the differences in the desires and comfort levels between predominantly Japanese and predominantly non-Japanese clienteles. Demand controls supply.

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  1. Thank you, Tom, for saving me from trying Kushibar.

    Another thread on chowhound made it sound quite promising, but given your obvious familiarity with Shin-Sen-Gumi Yakitori in Gardena (one of our very favourite restaurants -- we periodically drive down from home in the SF Bay Area to LA for a weekend of Japanese food: Shin-Sen-Gumi Yakitori, Ramen and Sukiyaki; Gaja Moc Okonomiyaki) and appreciation thereof, I immediately know the basis of your review is sound. While I am sad that there is no good option up here in Seattle where I am at the moment, I would rather know in advance.

    I was unable to find yakitori superior to Shin-Sen-Gumi in Japan (though we did not find many places to try in the short time we were there). I yearn for yakitori as good as Shin-Sen-Gumi (or even half as good!) in the SF Bay Area. When I had the honour of meeting the president of Shin-Sen-Gumi, I asked him to *please* open restaurants up where we live, but I suspect he wants to keep it local and not stretch things too thin.

    I wish I could find some really good hatsu and kawa, maybe some enoki bacon, grilled potato with bernaise sauce, etc. Oh, and kani koroke. Mmm. It's a good thing I was in LA only a couple of weeks ago or I'd really be jonesing.

    1 Reply
    1. re: mavjop

      If you ever get down to San Diego, I can recommend Yakitori Yakyudori. It is the first overseas branch of a restaurant in Nagoya, Japan, and serves Nagoya-style yakitori, rather than the Hakata-style yakitori served at Shin Sen Gumi, in which the yakitori is always accompanied by yuzu kosho (yuzu zest blended with chili peppers and salt), sudare sauce, and chopped cabbage. Despite the differences between Yakyudori and Shin Sen Gumi, both in atmosphere and food, the yakitori at Yakyudori is very high quality. If some Seattle Chowhound wants to earn my undying admiration, he or she will tell me about a great yakitori restaurant in Seattle that I’ve overlooked.

    2. Next time you're back in Southern CA, you might consider Torihei. I enjoy them more than Shin Sen Gumi. You'll need reservations since this is one of the few restaurants that has a waiting line BEFORE they open on Fridays & Saturdays. http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/602793

      And to keep this SEA chowish, I'll add that I recently returned from there only to be disappointed by Blue C Sushi and underwhelmed by Boom Noodle (but wowed by Elliotts!). =) http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/652265

      6 Replies
      1. re: OCAnn

        As you probably know from all my posts about Elliott's, I'm a huge fan of the oyster bar there and a very frequent patron. For future reference, beware of the happy hour specials. The price is amazingly cheap, but you will be limited to one or two house-selected oysters, and they are sometimes far from the best available. My recommended strategy is to order a dozen oysters at full price selected by Anthony, the head oysterman, as the best of what's available, including the happy hour special oysters, and see how much you like the happy hour oysters compared to others. If the happy hour specials suit your fancy, then by all means save the money and go for them.

        I do know about Torihei and am anxious to go there on my next trip to Los Angeles, especially for the Kyoto-style oden and Hanpen fish cake, in addition to the yakitori. I’m also anxious to go to the newly reopened and renamed Izakaya Bincho in Redondo Beach, despite the fact that the City of Redondo Beach shut down its charcoal grill, and hence its yakitori, because of complaints about the smoke from neighboring businesses. I’m only sorry that I missed the yakitori there before they were shut down.

        1. re: Tom Armitage

          I'm quite impressed with how you have a pulse on LA eats! I look forward to your review. No doubt, that you will enjoy Torihei. I particularly recommend the hanjuku egg (boiled egg w/soft center) topped w/salmon roe. (And unfortunately, b/c I LOVE Torihei, I haven't had the chance to eat @ Izakaya Bincho.)

          And yes, I did research the PNW boards and took your good advice on having the oysterguy (not sure if it was Anthony or not) pick them out for us. Thank you for your informative & helpful posts!

          1. re: OCAnn

            Regarding my “pulse on LA eats,” I lived in San Pedro and worked in Hollywood (Childrens Hospital at Sunset & Vermont) from March 1993 through March 2008, when I retired and moved to Seattle. In the late 1990s, just after Jim Leff started Chowhound.com, I discovered the website and began posting, mostly but not exclusively on the Los Angeles board. At one point, when I checked, I had more than 1,000 posts. Jonathan Gold was another active poster in those early days. Sometime in the early 2000s, my free time got chewed up by the demands of my job and time spent commuting (my wife had moved to Seattle and I flew up there most weekends), and my Chowhound posts tapered off significantly. Now that I’m retired, I’m slowly beginning to post on Chowhound more frequently, most often on the Pacific Northwest Board, but on other boards as well. I was recently flattered by a reference to me on the Los Angeles Board as “Tom Armitage of the LA Hall of Fame.” And, as you noted, I still enjoy following the food scene in Los Angeles. BTW, I enjoy your posts and you are on my “People I’m Reading” list.

            1. re: Tom Armitage

              Interesting! =) Mr OCAnn presently works in San Pedro (for the last couple years), but doesn't get out for lunch much. I have my own plans to retire (in 20 years) and move up north (either SJC or SEA)...both locations fortunately have great eats and family connections.

              My favourite memory of SEA is that that is where I became a Chowhound. I used Zagat (still do, but not as much) to lunch @ Salumi. Sitting at the communal table, chatting w/the folks around me, one gentlemen suggested I follow Chowhound. That was five years ago. =)

              1. re: OCAnn

                Armandino Batali and I are friends, and before he retired, I used to hang out at Salumi and enjoyed long talks with him about food and other things. Who knows, maybe the "gentleman" who suggested following Chowhound at the communal table was me. I'll have to figure out a way to get my e-mail address to you so we can continue our conversation via a direct link.

                1. re: Tom Armitage

                  P.S. for OCAnn: Since I use my real name on Chowhound, my information, including my e-mail address, isn't hard to find. You can, for example, access my information on Facebook under my full name, "Thomas Carleton Armitage."

      2. Tom, how late does Kushibar stay open? It looks like the kind of place that would be popular late at night for eating and drinking. We are still looking at various late night dining options after 10:00pm on our Friday night arrival and it is a short walk from out hotel.

        The things I've read about Kushibar sound promising, yakitori, kushiyaki, ramen, nabeyaki udon, grilled fish, etc. I know you don't consider Kushibar on par to the best places in LA but it still looks interesting, so just wondering if it is worth considering. Thanks.

        1 Reply
        1. re: curiousgeo

          Kushibar is open from 4:00 pm to 2:00 am, making it a late-night hang. My first visit there was with a local chef, and so we got there after he had finished up at his restaurant, around 11:30 p.m. The chef at Kushibar, Billy Beach, has lots of experience and generally enjoys a good reputation, so I was surprised that I wasn’t more favorably impressed with his yakitori and many of his other dishes. Other reviews of Kushibar have been mixed, generally falling in the ho-hum category. Aside from the skewers of grilled meats, seafood, and veggies, there are other offerings, some of which were pretty good, although overall even the non-grilled items were spotty in quality. The spicy oyster nabe with udon noodles, kimchee, and oysters was pretty tasty. The oden with burdock-stuffed fishcake was likewise good, as was the tako poke. You can also get a decent okonomiyaki here – not the best I’ve ever had, but within the acceptable range.