Proof of Seattle's embrace of sushi is not just in the number but in the variety of restaurants that serve it.
In Seattle people eat sushi in traditional, old-school places (Maneki), high-end boutique’y places (Chiso), elegant neighborhood joints (Kisaku), family-friendly emporiums (I Love Sushi), buffets (Blue Fin), holes in the wall (Musashi), hipster hangouts (Umi, Ohana and Wasabi Bistro in Belltown), conveyer-belt or kaiten sushi feed lots (Genki and Blue C), eco-conscious concerns (Mashiko), and at least a few other categories I am probably forgetting.
The California roll, that original American sushi invention, is sold in QFC, Sea-Tac airport, and Safeco Field. Seattle is one of a handful of cities with a significant Japanese-American heritage, which used to be a meaningful indicator of the quality and amount of sushi served in a town. But that distinction hardly matters anymore, the food is so ubiquitous. Most of the sushi joints in New York are run by Central American, Korean, and Chinese immigrants, and also serve Thai and Korean food to draw a larger audience.
Sushi is no longer a Japanese-American thing, if it ever was. About 35 years ago, when sushi was a rare delicacy in America, Japanese chefs in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo started making sushi and adapted it for Americans, mostly by constructing increasingly elaborate rolls to please diners. And for the most part, that’s still how sushi works in the U.S.
Among the types of sushi eateries in Seattle (150 are listed in Yelp alone), few if any are like Cutting Board, chef Akiyoshi Saito’s relatively new place on South Airport Way. It is, generally speaking, a dive (a label some are logically uncomfortable with when it comes to raw meat), in that it’s simply adorned, relatively small, and inauspiciously located on a busy, industrial street.
Cutting Board does not fit neatly into any existing category of sushi restaurant. It is not an old, established place. It is not a chic, happy-hour destination. It is not a neighborhood hangout since, with all due respect, this part of Georgetown isn’t really a neighborhood yet. Employees from the area frequent the place for lunch, but the density of employment is not such that the restaurant qualifies as a businessman’s hangout. Cutting Board is not home to any particular scene like the nearby Stellar Pizza or The Corson Building, that fanciful Shangri-La, swingers club of food, only a few hundred feet and around the corner from Cutting Board.
Saito, the former chef at Wasabi Bistro, chose the location mostly because he could not afford to set up shop in a more gentrified neighborhood, and rent in Georgetown is still relatively cheap. He took a space that once housed the Kurry King restaurant, next to a tattoo parlor.
Georgetown is still speckled with dubious-looking motels and dominated by light industry, companies that make or distribute measuring instruments, fasteners, garden statuary, compressed gases, and construction equipment. The urban landscape in Georgetown looks incongruous and untamed and seems to discriminate against nothing, no matter how seedy or how fancy.
At Cutting Board sushi is the main draw, but Saito also serves bento, curry, and yakisoba. Customers line up to order at the counter before seating themselves and menus are written in English and Japanese. Utensils, napkins, plastic cups, and a water dispenser are also part of the self-serve format.
Saito, however, will bring your order to you, served on elegant, Japanese dinnerware. The food, upon first sight, departs from its fast-food surroundings. The cut and quality of fish is as good as any in town.
The omakase or chef’s selection of sushi ($18) and sashimi ($20) included generous slices of the usual assortment of tuna, snapper, salmon, and yellowtail, as well as surf clam, raw scallop, and the more unusual raw shrimp and sea-urchin — a typically expensive item that costs $5-$10 a la carte in most sushi restaurants.
The feature attraction at Cutting Board is the rolls — more than 60 of them — named for prefectures in Japan. Each one contains an item relevant to the prefecture it is named after. For example, the Aomori roll, which contains apple, salmon, cream cheese, and avocado, is named after Aomori prefecture, perhaps the best-known apple growing region in Japan.
The most expensive is the Tokyo roll ($12.50) with crab, shrimp tempura, and grilled eel. Most rolls are well under $10, and simple rolls like tuna and California rolls are $3. One of the restaurant’s most popular is the Shizuoka roll ($9.50) with tempura shrimp, spicy tuna, shiso leaf, and eel, named after Saito’s home region, about 100 miles south of Tokyo.
Saito's distinctive rolls may be driving business for the Georgetown restaurant. “The first year here was very slow,” said Saito, “but it’s getting better all the time.”
From a marketing standpoint, sushi rolls are the best way to drum up business in a Japanese restaurant, although elaborate rolls are virtually unheard of in Japan, where diners stick to eating sushi in traditional ways, as nigiri or sashimi. In Japan, rolls are simple and usually limited to either tuna or cucumber. When Japanese people eat fancy rolls, they usually do it as tourists in the U.S.
“Rolls are not typical Japanese cuisine,” said Saito, who is now a permanent U.S. resident.
And the name? For conventional reasons, Saito thought about coining his restaurant “Saito,” but one already existed in Seattle. So did the name, “Aki,” and “Yoshi” seemed overused.
Stuck for a catchy name, he came upon the answer unceremoniously, knife in hand, while slicing fish in the kitchen. “I was making sushi and I thought, ‘oh, cutting board,’” Saito said.
He once answered a call from someone shopping for a cutting board three inches in thickness.
“Sorry, this is a Japanese restaurant,” he explained.
If you go: Cutting Board at 5503 Airport Way South. Open 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m., Monday through Friday; open 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday; closed Sundays and every second Wednesday of the month. 206-767-8075.