Any of you who have kept up with this blog or my other work with the Arkansas Times know that I’m quite a skeptic of fusion cuisine, which can often be a cover for a chef who knows just a little about cooking in several traditions but has mastered none. It’s the sort of thing that has resulted in Guy Fieri shoving pulled pork inside a nori roll, which is a crime against sushi and barbecue all in one. That’s not to say that all fusion is terrible — on the contrary, Little Rock’s most popular food truck, The Southern Gourmasian, sports a playful and well-executed menu of dishes that bounce back and forth between Southern and Asian flavors, ingredients, and techniques. So when Jess and I stopped outside of Japonessa in downtown Seattle and saw the restaurant described as a “sushi cocina,” I really had to worry that we’d be in for some sort of strange Spanish/sushi hybrid that would please no one. After two meals at the place, however, I can happily report that Japonessa is more sushi than Spanish, but with just enough love given to the flavor accents and fresh tastes of Spanish cuisine to add just the right amount of nuance to the food. And the sushi? Top notch — and forgive the flash photography; it was a night time meal in a dark restaurant.
We stuck to some basic things on our first visit to Japonessa: a plate of nigiri featuring salmon, tuna, yellowtail, and red snapper along with a spicy tuna roll. The spicy tuna was fresh and had a nice kick to it, but really wasn’t any different than any version of the same we’ve had in numerous sushi joints. The nigiri (my favorites) were lovely, with a thick, fresh slice of glistening fish resting atop a small bed of still-slightly-warm rice. The flavor of each fish was spectacular, from the slightly gamey and wild taste of the salmon to the buttery tuna to the clean and firm snapper. Each piece was quite enjoyable, and since it was happy hour, the plate didn’t hit our wallets hard at all.
We got our first taste of Spanish influence with the Mexican Ninja roll, a spicy roll full of tuna wrapped in various types of fish and shrimp and topped with green onions. I was extremely skeptical of such a thing, but our server insisted that it was one of their best rolls, and I’ll give him credit on a good recommendation. Spicy, tangy, and with a bittersweet kick from the green onions, this roll burned our mouths and delighted our tongues. As with the nigiri, the fish was nice and fresh — and the sushi chef wasn’t shy with the portions, either. There was almost too much flavor going on with this one, but I can’t be disappointed in how the whole package turned out — it was definitely a lot of flavor packed in every bite.
For our second meal at Japonessa, we started again with an old classic, the Spider Roll, and were treated to a very tasty tempura-battered soft-shell crab wrapped in rice and nori. The crab was still piping hot from the fryer, and unlike some spider rolls that are all crunch and no taste, this one had a wonderful sweetness to it that was only accentuated by the crisp batter. We also ordered a salad of mixed greens, and while a salad is a salad, the ginger dressing on this one was quite good. The highlight of this meal — and indeed, of my whole Japonessa experience, was a dish that prepared steamed monkfish liver three ways: with crab, scallop sashimi, and salmon roe, each served on a slice of cucumber in a small pool of ponzu. The liver was soft and creamy, with a consistency between a firm liver mousse and foie gras. The flavor was slightly fishy with just a hint of liver richness, and while Jess wasn’t a fan of this one at all, it was love at first bite for me. The crab and salmon roe versions were both very good, but that scallop sashimi bite goes down as one of the best things I’ve ever eaten: briny, sweet scallop, sliced thin and resting just right on top of the firm, unctuous liver, the whole thing brought together by the fresh crunch of cucumber and the pure umami tang of the sauce. It’s a must-try, and something I hope I get to eat again.
Japonessa Sushi Cocina is located at 1400 1st Avenue in Seattle. Service was very attentive and friendly, and everyone was quite knowledgeable about their menu and willing to recommend a favorite.