Back in February, the Kashiba family (of Pike Place’s famous Sushi Kashiba and its titular octogenarian chef, Shiro Kashiba) announced it was opening a Bellevue sushi restaurant for one of Kashiba’s star apprentices, chef Jun Takai. Ed Kashiba, Shiro’s son, said the opening signaled his father’s intention of leaving behind a culinary legacy in the Seattle area as he nears retirement. After substantial delays, Takai By Kashiba finally opened on September 8, offering a 22-course omakase experience with sake, wine, and tea pairings.
The well-lit space, with massive windows facing Bellevue Way, is located on the ground floor of the One88 condo building in downtown Bellevue. Along with a light-wood, nine-seat sushi counter and tables placed around the 24-seat dining room, a six-seat whiskey bar hides behind a large concrete pillar that segments the space. The Kashiba family chose the space three years ago but was delayed in opening the restaurant due to the pandemic, supply chain issues, and challenges in finding labor.
Though Ed maintains that Takai’s sushi is closer in style to his father’s than that of any other apprentice, and couldn’t tell their nigiri apart in a blind test, there are notable differences between Sushi Kashiba and Takai By Kashiba. For example, while Kashiba keeps a focus on local fish with his omakase, Takai wants to use some of his family connections to source fish from Toyosu Market in Tokyo and incorporate fish from all over the world into his omakase. Takai is also a fan of aging fish (a technique that’s been gaining popularity in Japanese sushi restaurants in the last several years, he says), while Sushi Kashiba mainly serves fresh fish.
“That’s my style,” Takai says.
It’s clear that the 50-year-old chef knows what kind of sushi he wants to make and seems confident in his vision for his first restaurant. But at the same time, he remains humble, insisting that his style is still developing and that he’s still a student. Ed says that among Shiro’s apprentices, Takai, who moved from Tokyo to Seattle in 2000 to study with the chef, has been the most respectful to his father, hand-delivering a gift to his house every New Year’s Day as a sign of respect, even after his apprenticeship was over. Another one of the apprentices in Takai’s cohort was Daisuke Nakazawa, a chef who went on to open the wildly famous Sushi Nakazawa restaurants in New York and Washington D.C. Takai, on the other hand, stayed close to Shiro, working at the Bellevue location of I Love Sushi before leaving to start Takai By Kashiba.
The omakase, which starts at $150 in the dining room and $180 for a slightly longer, more intimate experience at Takai’s sushi bar, features around 17 pieces of sushi and five items from the kitchen.
Takai’s sushi style is subtle, and he uses aging and light flavorings to bring out the best in the fish. For example, the Spanish akami bluefin tuna nigiri is aged for 12 days and marinated in soy sauce to make it meltingly tender and exploding with flavor. Meanwhile, the local geoduck is served fresh, seasoned simply with sudachi (a Japanese citrus) and salt, which brighten and complement the burrowing clam’s marine flavors.
Takai’s team includes chef Hiro Mori, a Seattle sushi veteran, and chef Masa Shida, a former Nishino chef who also has experience at Japanese kaiseki (a form of intricate Japanese seasonal cooking) restaurant. This kaiseki influence shows up in summery kitchen items like a piece of grilled belt fish topped with yuzu kosho, grated daikon, and salmon roe, served on a small plate with green maple leaves, or a jiggly green square of tofu made with fresh edamame instead of the usual dry soybeans.
“It’s so hard to find good chefs now,” Takai says, referring to the ongoing labor shortage in the restaurant industry. “I’m so lucky.”
This same dedication to traditional Japanese culture is seen in the dining room and beverage program, which is led by Harman Thabel, formerly the director of hospitality for Narisawa, a Tokyo kaiseki restaurant with two Michelin stars known for its focus on sustainability. At Takai By Kashiba, he’s putting his Japanese sake and wine certifications to use with a six-drink wine and sake pairing for the omakase, which changes every night based on what pairs best with Takai’s constantly fluctuating omakase. And for those who don’t want to drink alcohol, he offers a tea pairing with teas from Shizuoka prefecture in southeastern Japan.
To work at Narisawa, Thabel also needed to get a certification in traditional Japanese hospitality, called omotenashi, and trained Takai By Kashiba’s servers in its ways. Ed describes omotenashi as a “friendly, unassuming, kind-of-in-the-background” style of service where servers put away their individuality to become ambassadors of the chef and restaurant — a far cry from the style that’s popular at many Seattle restaurants, where servers are encouraged to express their individuality at work.
The whiskey bar, for now, remains a place for walk-in customers to order some a la carte items and to drink high-end Japanese whiskeys. In the future, Ed says he wants to start offering a smaller omakase option for those without the appetite (or budget) for 22 courses of food.
While Ed talks about his wish to continue the legacy of his father through Takai’s restaurant, ultimately, he says “it is Takai’s restaurant,” a place for the chef to develop his own style and teach the next generation, much as Shiro once did for him.