On occasions like Father’s Day, or on days we want to make special for reasons of our own choosing, my daughter Olivia and I have a place to eat, a relatively new place that, for us, is really the reincarnation of an old place.
We went to the Bluefin restaurant for her last birthday, when she turned 12. A few months ago, to celebrate an early dismissal from school, we had lunch at Bluefin just to celebrate the extra few hours the day gave us. We ate there the day she returned from a school retreat, the antidote for the awful food she was served at camp. Like a soldier returning home from battle, she showered, changed, fixed her hair, and asked for Bluefin.
Olivia spent Memorial Day weekend away from her parents, with friends at a cabin near Hood Canal. When she returned, we went to Bluefin as if to mark the reunion.
For moments big and small, Bluefin seems to have become our place, our ritual.
Bluefin is an Asian buffet in Northgate Mall almost identical to Todai, an international franchise that used to have two outlets in Seattle, Redmond, and Portland before they closed. The concept has been around for a few decades at least, used by other restaurants in other places: all-you-can-eat Japanese, Chinese, and Korean food, including sushi.
Olivia and I have eaten lots of food together in lots of restaurants in lots of cities, and those memories make up many of the landmarks on the map of our relationship. There is the first time, four years ago, she had Spam musubi in Hawaii; she has been addicted to Spam ever since. There was the summer I introduced her to Tito’s Tacos in Culver City, the one restaurant in the world we can claim to have both eaten in as children. It was my favorite place to go when I was her age, and I would have been a little sad if she didn’t love it too. Luckily, she did.
Olivia often eats with me for purposes of this column, and while she does not love everything I throw her way, she is a game dining companion who can be coaxed to try an above-average number of unfamiliar foods, although she has plenty of inexplicable food prohibitions typical of kids her age. She doesn’t like spicy food, or highly acidic food. She avoids or treads lightly on tomato sauce, avocados, pickles, hot peppers. She won’t eat rabbit, because rabbits are cute.
We strategize often to try foods new to her, African food for example. But the refrain of our eating life is Bluefin, and for years before it, Todai (which still operates in other countries and a few states). We once wondered how many states we could claim to have eaten a meal at Todai — we were up to four before the local franchises closed — and reasoned we could probably add at least a few more in the coming years. We still might.
The food at Todai and Bluefin cannot be taken too seriously, which is why the place works. The food is always decent, often good, but never great. The dishes change often enough to present surprises now and then. Bluefin’s strength, for us, is its emotional reliability. It is like raiding grandma’s kitchen.
Eating at Bluefin, and eating out in general, is increasingly becoming our thing as Olivia gets older. She and I have had other “things” over the years that have come and gone. For a good year or so, it was “Daddy games,” an assortment of games that were not really games that involved me throwing, launching, or spinning her when she was small. Later on, we had our impromptu, ongoing, discussions about history, a kind of kindergarten-dinner-lecture series she requested this way: “Daddy, can we have one of our talks?” It was always about either war or slavery.
Starting at age seven, for three years, we made a ritual out of reading together every Harry Potter book. We took up chess, and later skiing. Those two activities remain in the constellation of our relationship, while the spinning games have disappeared forever, and the discussions of human degradation seem to have run their course.
I should mention that Olivia is the only child her mother and I have, and that for almost as long as Olivia can remember her mother and I have not lived together. The arrangement is not ideal, but has some benefits for Olivia, who, more often than not, gets her mother’s or her father’s full attention.
A mother’s status is bestowed at birth, hers to lose; a father’s status has to be earned, his to win. A mother is required to be involved in a child’s life; a father is praised if he is involved. Fathers sometime walk away, we hear. It is never admired, but it is allowed.
Often, when I tell people I am not married to Olivia’s mother, people ask me, “Oh, does your daughter live with you?” in a way that has always puzzled me a little bit. Would they ask the same of her mother? The question seems to imagine a father who merely visits his child, as if she were a good friend or a close relative. I tell them she does live with me. “Half the time.”
When you have to share time with your daughter, you savor it even more. I sometimes view my relationship with Olivia as a finite collection of moments, whose end and size neither of us truly have control over past today.
Increasingly, eating out is the way we collect those moments. We started young with places she was only faintly aware of, the Puerto Rican diner on the corner, the Peruvian-Chinese diner — we lived in Brooklyn back then — that she knew as “the place with the fish tank and the green spaghetti.”
We started on Todai at about age 7, because buffets, as all kids know, are fun. The buffet is an equalizer, making grown-ups out of the kids, and kids out of the grown-ups. Olivia approached the stations of food the way she approached a new playground. Menus mean little to a child, but she could make a whole night of picking from open platters of food. She tried food from those platters she would not have thought to try from a menu. Todai was her food training ground, the place she developed her taste for sushi. By the time she was in fifth grade, she had probably eaten an amount I had taken 28 years to consume.
At Bluefin, we always start with the sushi and sashimi. Whether lunch or dinner, Bluefin serves the most common forms of nigiri (tuna, salmon, mackerel, squid, yellowtail, snapper), a few kinds of sashimi (usually tuna and salmon), a tuna poke salad, and an assortment of rolls, which I usually pass up but Olivia likes.
Dinner ($28 during the week, $30 on the weekend) is much more expensive than lunch ($18 and $16) at Bluefin. Olivia, because she is just about five feet tall, pays half the amount. The main difference between lunch and dinner is the addition of snow crab and raw oysters, making lunch a relative bargain if you’re not in love with crab.
Olivia has a process. She starts with sushi, moves on to fruit, and then to hot entrees. We are both keen on Japanese style chicken wings, and Korean beef.
Olivia sticks to certain dishes I am indifferent to, like teriyaki chicken, potstickers, and udon soup. She avoids the Korean vegetables, soups, and the kimchi. She has not yet developed, and may never develop, a liking for hot food or fermented food.
The customers at Bluefin almost always include a significant number of Asians. The dishes (their quality aside) are reasonably authentic and distinct, given the range they cover. Bluefin’s mapo tofu contains Chinese pickles and Sichuan peppercorns. The Korean food is not watered down. Bluefin once served dried fish and tofu soup, something even some Korean restaurants don’t have.
Eating at Bluefin, I am reminded of the variety of food available to this generation of kids, in both stores and restaurants. Once-exotic fruits like mangoes, kiwis, and Asian pears are commonplace. Sushi is everywhere and going out for Thai food (almost unheard of in my childhood) is routine. Yesterday’s egg foo young and wonton soup, are today’s phad tai and tom yum gai. Sunday mornings at dim sum are as common as Sundays at the pancake house.
I’ve met plenty of kids her age on whom this precious variety is wasted, kids who will eat only food that is white or beige, kids who are vegetarians but don’t like vegetables. With eaters like that in mind, I am grateful for Olivia.
The past year, she ate beef tendon, empanadas, roasted goat, and chicken adobo. She ate asparagus in scallion sauce and, for the first time in her life, enjoyed asparagus.
This summer, I have in mind a roasted pork and broccoli rabe sandwich I bet she will like, her love of pork taking the broccoli rabe along for the ride. And with some luck, we might make it to Fairfax, Virginia, where a Todai still operates.
If you go: Bluefin Sushi & Seafood Buffet, 401 NE Northgate Way, 206-367-0115, www.bluefinseattle.com. Open for lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, 11:30-3 Saturday and Sunday. Open for dinner 5:30-9 p.m. Monday-Friday, 5-9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.