West Seattle food: Meet Mashiko’s proprietor, sushi trailblazer

August 3, 2009 at 11:17 pm | In West Seattle news, West Seattle restaurants, West Seattle video | 32 Comments

West Seattle’s Mashiko is drawing regional attention and accolades for the recent revelation it’s about to focus on “sustainable sushi.” WSB photojournalist Christopher Boffoli had previously interviewed Mashiko proprietor Hajime Sato for this closeup look we’re sharing now:

Story, photos and video by Christopher Boffoli
Reporting for West Seattle Blog

About one in four restaurants will close or change ownership within their first year of business, according to a study cited in a 2007 issue of BusinessWeek. Over three years, that number rises to three in five. Even in the best economic times, opening a restaurant can be a risky venture.

But while the recession has taken its toll on West Seattle restaurants, cited in closures such as Ama Ama and Beato, many others continue to thrive.

This September, Mashiko will celebrate its 15th anniversary in The Junction. But ask Chef/owner Hajime Sato the secret to his success in the restaurant business, and he’s likely just to shrug his shoulders and smile. “I wish I knew the secret,” he told me recently. “Sometimes I wish I had a retail shop selling clothing. It keeps longer than sushi items.”

Watch and listen to Sato tell part of his story:

When Sato opened Mashiko in the heart of the Junction on September 1, 1994, he chose the location not as part of some artful business plan, but rather:

“To be honest with you, at the time I didn’t have that much money. It was safe. The rent was cheap and I liked the fact that it was a neighborhood.”

He knew that he didn’t want his Japanese restaurant to be in a suburban strip mall, but rather in a pedestrian-friendly business district where he could get to know the customers. He felt strongly about developing a familiarity with his patrons and was intent on attending to them with personal attention. “So many restaurant owners and chefs tend to be too broad. Trying to be fancy. Trying to be too much,” he adds, “To me every single customer is important. I try to please them one by one.”

In addition to his focus on perceiving customers as individuals, as opposed to how many covers he can grind through in a particular night, freshness of product is of paramount importance. All successful restaurants must manage carefully the formula for how many customers will come in the door on a given night and what they might order. But with an extremely perishable product like off-the-boat fresh fish, there is less margin for error. “Even after fifteen years, it is still a daily challenge to order the precise amount of fish and to be sure that it is perfectly fresh,” he says. Still, the variety and abundance of Seattle’s fish markets invigorate him. “Seasonal stuff excites me. High-quality tuna and shrimp will always be available. But otherwise the list of fresh and in-season fish changes constantly. You’ll potentially have a completely different experience if you come into Mashiko at different times of the year.”

Whereas balancing the daily orders from his fish purveyors has already been a kind of chess game, Hajime has been at work for many months on a new initiative that will only make it harder for himself but ultimately will be easier on our oceans.

Starting this month Mashiko will be blazing a trail as Seattle’s first sushi restaurant to serve only sustainable fish. He will no longer serve fish classified as “endangered” or that is not sourced through sustainable fishing practices. He says, “We need to start doing something now or we’re not going to have any sushi in ten years.”

Sato told me he doesn’t see the point of continuing to serve “exotics” if to do so will just wipe them out. But he also doesn’t see his new initiative as being only limiting. “There will be new, different kinds of fish too,” he adds. And he seems excited at the creative challenge of replacing endangered seafoods with sustainable fish of similar flavors and textures. Still, his leadership in this arena is risky in that it will require him to work with new fish species, giving up on some old favorites. And in some cases he may be sourcing from different purveyors while at the same time making the change without increasing prices.

Mashiko has consistently enjoyed critical acclaim, taking top honors in local magazines, Zagat surveys, Citysearch rankings, “best-of” lists and in customer reviews on websites like Trip Advisor and Yelp. Sato seems to have distinguished himself with a singular sense of humor and a reputation for pushing the envelope of creativity with his sushi. On his restaurant’s “Sushi Whore” website, he writes: “Believing that food is one of the most powerful languages in not only defining cultures but also in integrating them, I wanted to open a Japanese restaurant that would transcend the traditional way of presenting and thinking of food from my country.”

One look at his menu should convince you that Sato-san does things a bit differently at Mashiko. Items include Tuna on Snowshoes, Charlie’s Angel roll, and Cheesy Alligator. Chef Sato sometimes also teaches classes in sushi making at Uwajimaya. He was also featured earlier this year in CityDog Magazine, making sushi for dogs.

One of the few criticisms you might find if you scour online customer reviews of Mashiko is that some of the items on the menu can be “spendy.” But to Sato, who grew up on the industrial outskirts of Tokyo (in what he describes as the “Renton of Tokyo”) and later ate so much macaroni and cheese as a young exchange student living in Idaho that he can no longer stand the sight of it, value is important. The menu reflects a range of options, from California rolls to an omakase in which the chef surprises diners with a multi-course dinner of the freshest, most exotic selections on hand that particular day.

Accessibility is important to Sato as well. Those who are unfamiliar with Japanese cuisine and sushi might be intimidated when visiting Mashiko for the first time. He says, “Sushi chefs can sometimes be intimidating.” But he says the most important things are to relax, to be open-minded and to feel free to ask questions. “Whether you are new to sushi or have been eating it for 20 years, feel free to ask me if you have a question,” he says. “I am the expert. Just ask me.” Chef Sato also goes to great lengths to train his staff to be conversant in the dishes they are serving: “I train my staff a lot, maybe more than they want sometimes.”

Mashiko is one of those restaurants whose personality and physical space belie its probable rank at the very top of Seattle’s restaurants. You won’t find white linen, valet parking and table-side service of flaming desserts. The restaurant doesn’t even have the audacity to be located on a prominent corner but is instead tucked snugly into the center of its block on California. Instead Chef Sato’s restaurant forgoes pretension in favor of supreme freshness, flavors and textures that are confounding in their ability to be so complex and yet so elegant in their simplicity.

In a way it references the particular way that Japan’s cities can be so frenetic while still possessing an inherent sense of order and calm. The creativity of his sushi is right up there with the most superlative sushi you’ll find in places like New York, LA and Japan. But the place comes across as just another small, neighborhood restaurant in a manner demonstrating that Chef Sato has perhaps tapped into that particular Seattle vernacular of quiet excellence, laid-back demeanor and an intelligent sense of humor.

32 Comments

  1. Very well put together story and vid!

    .

    Thanks, Christopher and WSB!

    .

    Mike

    Comment by miws — 7:47 am August 4, 2009 #

  2. Hajime serves the best sushi in town. We used to eat there at least every other week until it became a moral crisis to do so. We are so ready to become weekly diners again! We are thrilled with his decision to help save our oceans! Rock on Hajime! Your so far ahead of the curve! We can hardly wait to see what his creative and dedicated restaurant serve up…SUSHI WHORES FOR THE FUTURE!

    Comment by Grazer — 9:33 am August 4, 2009 #

  3. he is amazing. we had an incredible meal there last saturday, so fresh, made all the better knowing about his pledge to sustainability. what a rock star

    Comment by Andrea — 9:49 am August 4, 2009 #

  4. Oh man, I could totally go for some yummy Mashiko sushi now! What a great, great feature Christopher and way to go Mr. Sato! I have loved Mashiko’s sushi for years, and now there’s even more reason to frequent there as they work towards bettering what is in our oceans in the future. Yeah for Sushi Whores!

    Comment by andrea — 9:57 am August 4, 2009 #

  5. Thanks you for covering this. Sustainability and quality fish don’t always go hand in hand, certainly not as much as you might think they would (for example, see Seattle Fish Company, which sells both wonderfully fresh wild items alongside terribly overfished species like Chilean Sea Bass).
    .
    Wonderful that Mashiko is charting this new course. Even more wonderful that it’s utterly delicious. And do try the black cod nigiri!

    Comment by Sage — 11:07 am August 4, 2009 #

  6. Thanks for reading everyone! I’m happy to be a part of getting the word out about Sato-san’s new initiative. I know he has been working on it for a long time now and has had scores of meetings with sustainable fish experts and aquariums in California and Washington. I’m in New York City at the moment and last night attended a screening of a very powerful new documentary called ‘The Cove’ about a Bottlenose dolphin capture and killing program in Taiji, Japan that was shocking. It only underscores the notion of how we’ve taken too much out of the ocean for too long and as early as a few decades from now can possibly be at a point where we’ve fished out our oceans to the point at which they will not recover. Sato-San’s push for sustainability has come not a moment too soon. I hope he sets an example for others.

    Comment by cjboffoli — 12:30 pm August 4, 2009 #

  7. Great writeup, thanks!

    Christopher, I’ve really enjoyed reading your write-ups on Mashiko & Swinery. Here’s hoping to see your contributions on the blog more often!

    Comment by west seattle golfer — 12:38 pm August 4, 2009 #

  8. I wish I could get my heart into Mashiko. My family had some outstanding meals there soon after it opened. But then I went one weeknight with my daughter, who loves sushi, all kinds. She was five at the time, and very well-behaved, as she has always been. We ordered promptly, and waited. For close to 30 minutes, no server came anywhere near our table, which is a trick in such a small place. After 45 minutes, I caught a server before she disappeared in back and let her know we had not been served, and that my daughter was getting hungry. Her reply: “We have some friends of the chef here tonight and I am not sure when you will get your order.” Of course, we left, and have never returned. I am usually willing to give a restaurant another chance, but this was too much.

    Comment by Max — 1:17 pm August 4, 2009 #

  9. I agree with what Max said. I’ve had great meals at Mashiko’s but after the 3rd time in a row when the service failed with waits as long as 1.5 hours and little communication from the wait staff on what appeared to be not so busy nights, I gave up and have not returned. I tell my food-loving friends the same thing over and over: great food, terrible service. Suggestion: give waiting customers beepers, teach the wait staff to look at who’s waiting, actually use the wait list.

    Comment by andmore — 1:53 pm August 4, 2009 #

  10. I’m with you Max. I really want to like the place because they actually have decent sushi. But they just don’t care about their customers. The service is terrible. It’s probably the only restaurant on earth to charge 10% more for takeout orders. I’ve been telling people to avoid this place. As for myself, I’d rather drive to Queen Anne or Belltown for sushi.

    Comment by Simon — 2:06 pm August 4, 2009 #

  11. Mashiko is, hands-down, the epicenter of my culinary universe. I have been going there since 1997, and it was part of my decision to move to West Seattle back then. While I have had my own issues with the table service over the years, I just chalk it up to the challenges faced by an independent business owner who has some staffing challenges.

    I feel very privileged to have known Hajime and the folks who have worked at Mashiko, as well as all of the new friends I’ve met at the sushi bar.

    Comment by MLJ — 2:46 pm August 4, 2009 #

  12. thanks for planting a mashiko’s craving while i am away in michigan visiting family right now! when i return! i agree about the poor service however the sushi is worth it to me, i just have to know to expect a wait.

    Comment by lina — 3:15 pm August 4, 2009 #

  13. There is no better place to go for sushi on the planet, but try to go there on an off-night to avoid the crowd.

    Comment by wseye — 3:31 pm August 4, 2009 #

  14. The quality of the sushi is excellent. Mr Sato is a good person.

    For the service issues–if there is no seat at the sushi bar area, use self denial and go eat somewhere else. The only solution that works for me, and cuts out the bizarre wait staff/front desk person stuff.

    Unfortunately there is very rarely a vacancy at the sushi bar.

    Comment by Gina — 3:41 pm August 4, 2009 #

  15. Bad service. Terrible sushi. Sorry but that’s my experience.

    Comment by DWP — 3:47 pm August 4, 2009 #

  16. I love the food, but I am also not a fan of their “service”. I’ve gone, sat at the sushi bar and still been ignored. Two seats next to us were empty, but evidently a couple regulars were coming in so their spots were all set up and water was waiting for them. While my water right next to them was empty. The sushi chefs chatted with a couple people at the end of the bar and barely glanced at our direction.

    Comment by BG — 4:55 pm August 4, 2009 #

  17. We’ve tried several times but have never gotten past the arrogant staff.
    The last time, we called first and were told there was seating for our party.
    We rushed to arrive ten minutes later.
    And were told, “there is a 1 1/2 hour wait.”
    Still haven’t tried the food.

    Comment by nuluwhore — 6:10 pm August 4, 2009 #

  18. i for one really love the sushi at mashiko, and by moving toward sustainability, i am encouraged to eat there more often. so kudos on those fronts.
    .
    on the other hand, i too have been perplexed and annoyed at the service. actually, i’ve never been bothered by the [virtual] front desk stuff, it’s rather usually about sitting down and waiting forever for a menu or a beer or whatever, and to add insult to injury, a waitperson apologizing for this poor service throughout the meal. (it’s ok to apologize once perhaps, but to continually forget about a table is BAD!) i get that pretty much every time i come. that said, the waitstaff IS very knowledgeable, and i’ve never had a problem on that front. perhaps they need another waiter or perhaps they need better organization . . . i don’t know.
    .
    the great sushi compensates for bad service to a point for me, but only to a point, and i can see where others would find it unforgiveable.

    Comment by bridge to somewhere — 6:54 pm August 4, 2009 #

  19. oh, and i should have added: great article.

    Comment by bridge to somewhere — 7:05 pm August 4, 2009 #

  20. wow.. It’s really amazing to me to read some of the comments. I’ve been a regular since 1997. Never ONCE have I had ‘bad’ service’. Maybe a litle slow, from time to time on an insanely busy, but nothing a little sake didn’t ease..and I’m never in a hurry at sushi time.

    as to the ‘takeout’ charge. From what I understand..as popularity and crowds increased, more and more people were ordering take-out via phone, and it was causing the in-house clientel to suffer long waits, etc. I completey support Mashiko’s decision to seriously curtail the to-go side of the business for the most part. Makes the in-house experience much better.

    and, yes..Sitting at the sushi bar is the best. But..I’ve always found the wait staff amazingly knowledgeable..A number of them have been there a very long time.

    ..and..I’m THRILLED to try the new direction and see what Hajime comes up with!!!!!

    ..but, when it comes to the food, there is simply none better, INCLUDING a trip to Nobu in London. Sat there the whole meal..thinking Mashiko was better.

    Comment by grr — 7:10 pm August 4, 2009 #

  21. I’m surprised to see some of the comments here. I have been in for meals on numerous occasions and have aways been very impressed by the service, especially the extent to which the staff is knowledgeable about the obscure ingredients and techniques with some of the dishes. With that said I recommended Mashiko to some very serious foodie friends a while back and they did not have the same experience as I have always had.
    .
    Before I had the chance to meet Sato-San for this story I had heard rumors that he was intimidating and brusque. Actually, I approached the interview with a bit of trepidation. So the first few times I went in to Mashiko I actually steered clear of the bar. But I was delightfully surprised to discover that Haijime is actually a very warm and generous person with a great sense of humor. This sentiment was echoed by some other chefs with whom I spoke about him while doing this story. The rumors couldn’t have been more wrong.
    .
    I suspect he will read the comments here and take them very seriously for what they are: valuable critical feedback. No restaurant will be able to please everyone. But my sense with this chef/owner is that he cares deeply about his customers and will work to remedy these issues when brought to his attention.

    Comment by cjboffoli — 8:31 pm August 4, 2009 #

  22. I appreciate Chris’s article and his comments. I think Sato is an artist and I really enjoyed my meals there. And it seems his heart is in the right place. I am frankly sad to hear my experience is not unusual – I was hoping that things had changed. (I last ate there over 10 years ago.) But there is more to running a restaurant than being an artist with food and an engaging interview. Sato would be well-advised to turn the management over to someone who knows how to run a staff. Unless, of course, things are running as he wants them to, in which case, oh well….

    Comment by Max — 8:59 pm August 4, 2009 #

  23. First off – great article.

    Second – I love the sushi at Mashiko’s. I have had slow service, but never any that would keep me away or even that sticks out as being horribly bad. We have had to wait for a table, but it’s understood – it’s very small. They do have a webcam so if you live close enough you can always check to see if there is room at the bar before you go!

    Comment by Yumpears — 9:21 pm August 4, 2009 #

  24. At last, a sushi restaurant that finally gets it! Now I don’t have to pass by *every* sushi restaurant with an unsatisfied longing. Come September I’ll be going inside instead of passing by. Thank you, Sato-san, for doing the right thing! And thanks, again, to Christopher Boffoli and WSB for excellent and in-depth coverage of our local restaurants.

    Comment by AboutTime — 10:25 am August 5, 2009 #

  25. Awesome article! I’ve had slow service, but never “bad” service. And anyone who says the sushi itself is bad is just plain wrong.

    Comment by viilagegreen — 10:59 am August 5, 2009 #

  26. I wonder how many of these “bad” service complaints are from recent experiences. The last time we had anything approaching “bad” service had to have been almost 10 years ago. Long waits, yes, but that’s what happens when everybody wants to eat at Mashiko at the same time. It’s a small place, and I think that’s due to Hajime’s commitment to quality. Once we’ve been seated, we’ve usually gotten excellent service, occasionally slow, but never bad. The food is ALWAYS excellent. Whoever said it was terrible must have a financial interest in one of the competitors down the street.

    Comment by KBear — 11:28 am August 5, 2009 #

  27. My wife and I ate there over 2 years ago and have no been back since. Why? Our server was rude and ignored us in favor of other larger parties there. It also took an hour to receive our (very average tasting) 2 rolls and miso soup. Ridiculous! I don’t understand all the hype this place has gotten.

    Comment by JBL — 2:12 pm August 5, 2009 #

  28. Christopher, if you ever want to lead a party of people to Mashiko, I volunteer. I like sea urchin. And I would like to see the good side of Mashiko.

    Comment by Giina — 5:36 pm August 5, 2009 #

  29. hey kbear, by the logic of your last sentence, might i infer your *positive* feedback of mashiko means you’ve a financial interest there? ;-)

    Comment by bridge to somewhere — 6:21 pm August 6, 2009 #

  30. Where is “the Junction”?

    Comment by kim — 11:02 pm August 6, 2009 #

  31. “Downtown West Seattle.” Aka West Seattle Junction. Oldtimers call it Alaska Junction because, as opposed to Admiral Junction (Admiral/California) or Morgan Junction (Fauntleroy/California/Morgan), it centers on Alaska/California. The main business district. Are you new? In which case, welcome!

    Comment by WSB — 11:07 pm August 6, 2009 #

  32. new to this site, followed the link from a facebook post. I am a MAJOR SUSHI FAN! I don’t get over to West Seattle much, but love an outing. It is so much closer timewise than people think. I live near Woodland Park Zoo, so 99 to West Seattle is a hop, skip and jump….

    Comment by kim — 8:45 pm August 7, 2009 #

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