the little clay pot was hand formed, its top painted with multi-colored stripes. with the top removed, a rush of warm, bacony breath is emitted, and the custard jiggles just slightly.
but the magic of the little pot doesn’t really reveal itself until you get an eggy spoonful to your mouth. the custard sits on your tongue for just a moment, velvety and so much more than soft, then melts into liquid so easily its actual existence seems questionable. the flavor is exquisitely mild, vaguely smoky (though bacon-free) and a touch sweet. the steamed egg, mostly whites, is almost fluid in its softness and rivers of delicate broth run through it. a shrimp is suspended here, a piece of chicken or shiitake there. the whole dish has a gentleness to it, as though your body will hardly have to make an effort to digest it.
this is the chawan-mushi, just one of the wonders in a meal at shiro’s, the namesake restaurant of the man who opened seattle’s first sushi bar in 1967.
though we’d have been willing to wait, two seats happened to be open at the sushi bar upon arrival. not only that, but shiro himself was eating at the bar. the chefs, jolly and chatty behind the low wall of silver or pink filets, joked about how nervous they were with the boss there.
as making selections from the menu was clearly going to be a brutal game of elimination (how do you choose between monkfish liver paté and a baked giant clam?), we opted for the $60 set menu.
the adventure began with a football shaped plate with a three distinct fish arrangements. jellyfish and cucumber were tossed with a mildly creamy, mildly sesame sauce. it was a pleasant surprise to find that this jellyfish was far less gummy than some i’d had just down the street recently. in fact, it had a near-crunch and was approximately the same texture as the cucumber.
squid and tobiko were in the middle, while a broiled shishamo (smelt), its top half laid upon its lower, took the right side of the plate. it was smoky and had almost a jerky quality, though far more tender.
a sashimi plate contained the high quality versions of expected sushi bar standards. each fish was subtly accompanied by an accent piece; the salmon got a mini lemon lemon slice, the tuna a leaf of shiso, the mackerel miniature radish sprouts, each flavor contrasting with its fish in just the right way.
the sushi bar is animated, the thumping heart of the restaurant. two firefighters from california next to us banter with the sushi chefs, insisting they can’t eat (or afford) any more, then quickly, weakly, relent with the appearance of another fish they’ve never heard of. with each arrival, the words “soy sauce” or “no soy sauce” are exchanged, the chefs’ way of making clear which fish are enhanced by salt, and which are obscured by it.
and yet, with the first bite of black cod kasuzuke, i may as well have been alone, my attention was so diverted. this is shiro’s signature dish, whose recipe was once published in the new york times, the dish that is on every tasting menu the restaurant offers, the one that nearly caused me physical pain it made me so happy.
the fish had a gentle sweet soy marinade, yet the cooking is the enchanted part. it’s officially called merely “broiled” but it’s hard to comprehend that there’s not something far more complicated that makes the skin a bit crisp while the flesh is creamy, buttery, and butter flavored, and seems to liquefy in your mouth. if i loose my teeth in old age, this is what i will want to eat.
in a blind tasting, i don’t know that i’d recognize this as fish. its texture is too silken, utterly lacking in fibrous bits, and void of all fishiness. and just down the bar was the creator, laughing over sake, chopsticks in hand, eyebrows so animated they were nearly vertical, completely unaware of the joy his food was causing me.
it’s nearly the end of the meal and i am fully to capacity, when sushi begins to fly over the bar. spanish mackerel from japan. geoduck. hawaiian fish. puget sound fish. a slice of smoky, bonito topped salmon that had seen an instant of hot pan was so crimson i half expected it to dye my fingers pink. i eventually gave up, and i think it was only because the chefs could see the sushi building up on my plate that they ended the frenzy. it is hard to imagine anyone consuming the 80 or 100 dollar menus.
dessert, thankfully, was a bowl of fruit.