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.