If you caught the first four episodes of Food Network’s new “Iron Chef Gauntlet,” you witnessed the plucky performance of 27-year-old Seattle chef Shota Nakajima, who held on until last Sunday. In episode two, after proving ham-handed with ham, he swiftly rebounded, vanquishing James Beard Award-winning Cleveland chef Jonathan Sawyer with a trio of dishes that paired seafood with the mandatory surprise ingredient — bananas. Week three found him once again in the “Secret Ingredient Showdown,” tenderizing octopus by whacking it with a sake bottle. He dazzled the judges with his resourcefulness as he did things like pickling and frying octopus suckers and pairing salmon roe with bananas. In the end, he couldn’t beat Stephanie Izard’s chicken liver ice cream.
Nakajima’s willingness to take chances and to pivot when necessary serves him well here at home, too. The Bellevue-raised chef launched his first restaurant, Naka, two years ago, after training at Japan’s Tsuji Culinary Arts School, apprenticing with Michelin-starred chef Yasuhiko Sakamoto in Osaka, and working in Seattle under chef Taichi Kitamura at Sushi Kappo Tamura. Naka was an ambitious attempt to showcase Japan’s formal kaiseki style of dining, but the concept was restrictive. Customers were limited to fixed-price tasting menus of the chef’s choosing, priced at $75-$170 per person. A more casual, and often more successful menu was available in the bar and lounge, but seating there was limited.
When Naka struggled to fill enough seats on a regular basis, Nakajima didn’t let ego get in the way of good business sense. He smartly repositioned the restaurant to be less rigid and more affordable — in short, more in tune with the neighborhood. Where Naka was a once-in-a-while splurge, it’s easy to imagine its successor, Adana, becoming a once- or even twice-a-week habit for dining-and-drinking enthusiasts not yet making six-figure salaries.
April’s card had several standouts. Katsuobushi (shaved dried bonito flakes) waggled in the heat rising from caramelized Brussels sprouts and pork belly. Supremely light and dainty tempura consisted of okra and tiny, silvery shira-uo (also called icefish). A whole smelt was fried, lightly pickled and surrounded with spring onions.
As seen on TV, Nakajima has an affinity for seafood. Pea vines and skinny stalks of charred asparagus escorted a grilled ling cod fillet ringed with a purée of asparagus and sesame oil. Clams steamed in butter and sake amounted to a spring fling with fiddleheads, ramps and fava beans joining the frolic; maitake mushrooms subbed for the promised morels.
On the meat side, a soft, pork-and-cheddar meatball is doused in tomato-sweetened gravy. Turkey tail is braised with turnips in a soy-dashi broth pumped up with black garlic. Duck breast is cooked sous vide then seared. The result is uniformly rare and remarkably tender with fried duck-skin cracklings, candied pecans and sansho pepper contributing significant panache to the finished dish.
All of these are on the dinner menu, which encourages diners to choose three courses (from a roster of nine) for $37 (the chef’s lucky number). It’s just a suggestion. In fact, there are no rules. Diners can order as few or as many dishes as they want. They can also order from the dinner menu in the lounge or from the bar menu in the dining room.
The bar menu includes a few Naka holdovers. Fried chicken tatsuta is one. Those crisp, boneless morsels, hinting of ginger and soy, are still terrific. So is the katsu pork sandwich. A thick cutlet, breaded and fried, is topped with cabbage slaw and pressed between slices of soft, white bread that reminded me of Wonder Bread, just as the slaw’s tangy-sweet sauce recalled the ketchup and mayo combo my mother used to call “French dressing.”
The bar and lounge now seats 32 in comfortable parsons chairs with plush blue-gray upholstery. Beverage director Dustin Haarstad curated a cocktail list that showcases highballs, a popular way to enjoy whiskey in Japan. Think tall spritzers made with whiskey or shochu topped off with Perrier, brightened with a touch of citrus and served on the rocks. They go very well with the food.