Dinner at Sushi By Scratch Restaurants’ new 10-seat Downtown Seattle sushi bar feels closer to an immersive theatrical performance than a meal. Participants in each of three seatings over the course of the night ring a doorbell on a nearly unmarked door on the ground floor of a high-rise apartment building, then walk into a small bar with no windows and all-black walls, lit only by a mass of purple paper lanterns and spot-lighted bottles of Japanese whiskey.
Philip Frankland Lee, the chef-owner of the restaurant group (which received a Michelin star in California) describes each of the three seatings in a night at his restaurant as a “show” (he was a touring drummer before he was a chef). And he builds up tension before the meal with classical string music and a small, invigorating cocktail of whiskey, sake, lime, and a powerful hit of ginger — before ushering guests to a similarly decorated room next door for the main act: 16 courses of sushi.
As a white man who grew up in Los Angeles, Lee has a different background than most sushi chefs. So instead of trying to replicate sushi bars in Japan, he draws on the flavors from his childhood, eschewing tradition for authenticity with dishes like his famous hamachi nigiri brushed with sweet corn and dusted with sourdough crumbs. This unfettered pursuit of deliciousness has some good results. The following four dishes are highlights from the current omakase.
Lee’s Shima Aji (striped jack) nigiri is his spiciest course, made with what he calls a “Fresno chili yuzu kosho,” and which tastes like a spicy yuzu kosho, but is not made with the techniques normally used to make the fermented citrus condiment.
Lee prefers to call things by what they taste like, not how they’re made, and often breaks from tradition to make things easier. “Nothing I do is hard,” he says. For consistency across his restaurant group, which spans climates as disparate as southern Florida and the Pacific Northwest Lee’s yuzu kosho is not fermented, and is simply made with blackened, steamed, peeled, and de-seeded Fresno chilis, ground in a mortar and pestle with salt, brown sugar, and yuzu juice into a paste that’s painted onto the fish — leaving an even layer of balanced heat.
As diners get seated at the sushi bar, one of Lee’s chefs is carefully scooping gelatinous meat out of decapitated prawn heads, part of the process for the Vancouver spot prawn nigiri. Once scooped, the head meat is roasted, ground in a mortar and pestle, and layered under the raw body of the prawn. The nigiri is then brushed with olive oil, dusted with salt made with matcha, mushrooms, and kelp, then finished with house-made soy sauce, lemon Balinese sea salt, and wasabi (the real kind, ground fresh from the root for each course).
With a sip of mushroomy Mana 1751 sake, the bite is rich, earthy, and tender — a powerful umami bomb. Lee says he made the dish to marry the tender texture of raw prawns and the superior flavor of roasted head meat, creating a dish with the best elements of both.
The akami (lean tuna) nigiri was one of three courses made with Baja bluefin tuna in the omakase. While the otoro (belly meat) course was luxurious and buttery, in the akami, the clean, oceanic flavor of the fish shines — gently coaxed out with six days of aging. It’s then frozen, thawed until relaxed, and finished with salt, soy sauce, and wasabi.
While many lower-tier sushi restaurants serve unseasoned fish with a side soy sauce and wasabi, Lee says salt opens up the tastebuds in a way that soy sauce never can and is crucial to a good piece of nigiri.
Lee’s bone marrow course, frankly, looks initially like a piece of raw beef fat in the dim light of the sushi bar. But the texture is that of room-temperature butter, just spreadable on a piece of toast but not yet melting. To achieve this texture, Lee roasts beef bones, lets them rest (keeping the fat in the bone), carves the marrow out, re-roasts the marrow in the bones, freezes the bones, roasts them again, then cools them (and the marrow) until it is sliceable. The beefy, buttery bite of rice and marrow is perfect with a glass of whiskey.