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October 14, 2008 at 11:30 AM

Sushi chefs: Thanks for sharing

On Sunday afternoon I was enjoying the sunshine through the window, listening to Lynne Rossetto Kasper on the radio and knee-deep in clean-up mode — already two hours into clearing out that hellhole disguised as my home office. And that’s when my husband, who’d been doing chores all day, walked in with a load of laundry in his arms and said the magic words: “Wanna go to Taka Sushi tonight?” He didn’t have to ask twice.

“Maybe we’ll see that guy again,” said Nate, as we drove to Lynnwood later that evening. He wasn’t talking about Taka-san, who’s always behind the sushi bar and quick to proffer the kid’s favorite snack — fried mackerel bones. He was referring to a fellow named Michael, for whom Sunday supper at Taka is a weekly gig.

And sure enough there was Michael, holding down a corner seat at the sushi bar next to a couple we’d seen the last time we’d shown up on a Sunday night. Which makes this the “Cheers” of sushi bars, at least as far as we’re concerned. Right down to the sake-fueled discussion Michael said took place on a recent Sunday, when he and the guy at his elbow this week disagreed on the political viewpoints of a certain White House contender. Apparently, they weren’t on chatting terms by the time my clan and I grabbed the last three seats at the sushi bar, settling in for another fabulous meal.

There’s something to be said for becoming a regular at a sushi bar: and I’ve certainly said it before. When you’re a regular, you don’t have to tell the chef about your preference for mackerel bones (Nate), hamachi and surf clam (Mac) and the fatty pieces (me): he knows. It’s nice to know a little bit about your favorite sushi chef in return, and I’ve make it a point to learn about mine.

Taka is a proud Okinawan, has a taste for oldies-but-goodies when it comes to popular music (hello, Karen Carpenter!) and loves a good karaoke bar. Nakano-san at Kisaku near Green Lake (our other family favorite) lives in Shoreline, has two kids and shares my adoration for Korean food. And Saito-san (whose Belltown sushi bar, Saito’s [update: since closed], is my gotta-go default when I’m alone) happily defers to his wife, Anita, when it comes to business decisions, is always on the lookout for a more intimate space to do said-business (I’ve been threatening to drag him to Taka for years to show him how it’s done) and is always willing to share a good piece of gossip — as long as I’ve got one in return (I usually do).

Spend enough time at a sushi bar and chances are you’ll soon be treated like a V.I.P. (Important aside: You’re probably thinking, “Sure, Nance! You write about restaurants for a living! Of course they treat you that way!” But the truth is, sushi chefs treated me that way long before I became a food writer and restauant critic, and I regularly get that treatment today dining anonymously by showing the love: asking questions like, “How’s the uni tonight?” and noting, “Whoa! This ankimo is amazing!)

As a V.I.P. (or even as a friendly newcomer) you might find yourself eating the occasional complimentary treat — an act of kindness that is de rigueur for de reg-u-lar. And I’ve been known to pay it back in kind: with a fresh lobe of salmon roe straight off a friend’s fishing boat; a bottle of expensive soy sauce imported from Japan or, as was the case at the end of crabbing season this year, a fresh Dungeness captured by Nate and driven directly from the trap to Taka as pay-back for all those mackerel bones.

Of course, being Taka-san, he did what any self-respecting sushi chef would do. He passed it over to his wife, Elaine (who’s been working the stove since his long-time cook retired), had her clean it and cook it, and offered it back as a pair of gunkan sushi — topped with squid-ink tobiko:

If you’re wondering where the second piece of sushi went, no, I didn’t eat it. I insisted Taka enjoy it himself. And he did. Perhaps that’s why, on Sunday, as our most excellent meal came to a close, Taka pulled out a jar of his magic stash:

It was homemade plum wine, aged for two years till the plums were boozily bloated. Ladling his precious gift into pretty sake glasses, he added a plum to each:

And his Sunday-night regulars offered a plum in return: a hearty thanks, coupled with the Japanese version of that old “Cheers” cheer: “Kanpai!”

So, inquiring minds want to know: who’s your favorite sushi chef?

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