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Editor’s note: In this monthly series, Nancy Leson introduces you to food folks you should know. They eat lunch (at one of her subject’s favorite restaurants). They talk (sometimes with their mouths full). No one leaves hungry.
Lisa Nakamura talks Orcas, uni and gnocchi with Nancy Leson
In the latest installment of her Noshing with Nancy series, Seattle Times food writer Nancy Leson sits down with jack-of-all-food-trades Lisa Nakamura.
Seattle Times food writer
Say hello to: Lisa Nakamura, the peripatetic chef known to pop up at surprising places, from South Korea (where she made her mark at the InterContinental hotel) to Orcas Island (as owner of the fine-dining restaurant Allium), to — next week, at least — Wallingford’s Miyabi 45th (2208 N. 45th St., Seattle, 206-632-4545, www.miyabi45th.com), stage-set for her sold-out Dec. 15 Gnocchi Bar pop-up.
To (mis) quote the Three Stooges: Gnoch-gnoch-gnoch? Nakamura explains that handmade gnocchi — primed with seasonal ingredients — was her No. 1 selling dish at Allium, closed in September. Now she’s back in Seattle, hot to open a casual eat-in and takeout joint centered on those popular pasta pillows — an idea that brings to my mind a mashup between Pallino Pasteria and Il Corvo. Until then, island-hopping gnocchi lovers and Miyabi pop-up wait-listers might keep an eye on www.gnocchibarseattle.com for additional pop-ups, precursors (her fingers crossed) to Gnocchi Bar, the permanent version.
Pass the Bucky?: When asked why she closed Allium — considering all the good press it got, Nakamura, 48, insists, “It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.” But (waaaah!) she missed her husband — who lived on the mainland during her three-year sojourn on Orcas. And though the hubster supported her first-time efforts as a restaurateur (read all about those in the November/December issue of “Edible Seattle” where Nakamura makes her journalistic debut), “I felt like it wasn’t fair.” And P.S., the seasonal nature of life in the San Juans doesn’t make it easy for folks trying to make a living there — whatever their calling. Which is why Nakamura penned “Bucky the Dollar Bill” (www.spreadthebucky.com) — with an intro by her former boss at The French Laundry, Thomas Keller — encouraging one and all (heed this, holiday shoppers!) to support small businesses.
Where we’re lunching: Flo Japanese Restaurant and Sake Bar (1188 106th Ave. N.E., Bellevue, 425-453-4005, www.florestaurant.com).
Why here?: “I’m always up for Japanese food,” says Nakamura. (And I never say no to sushi — especially when it’s as good as it is at this elegant Eastside oasis.) Besides, Flo has a great small-world story: On Nakamura’s first visit, she met Flo’s Hawaiian chef de cuisine Reis Llanaza, now owner of Kirkland-based Asian-fusion lunch truck, The Box (chase him at www.theboxonwheels.com). “He said he was from Hilo,” and so was she. “His mom was my sister’s high-school teacher!”
On the menu: Super-silky chawanmushi ($9) — the custard of the gods. Flo’s was afloat with shiitake mushrooms, spinach, shrimp and ginko nut. Omakase sashimi and sushi for me (my trust in the sushi chef was well-placed!). And for Nakamura, the lunch bento ($14): miso soup, rice, salad, shrimp and vegetable tempura, plus a twofer from the pick-it-yourself department: “I have to have the Saba shioyaki [grilled salted mackerel] and the agedashi tofu [deep-fried tofu]. “And just so you’ll know,” she told me, “that’s all the Japanese I know.” Just so you’ll know, she does speak French, German, kitchen Spanish and (can you say “NYOH-key”?) is learning Italian.
Sea urchin roe, love it or leave it?: “The first time I ate uni, I was in Arizona and I thought I was going to hurl,” Nakamura recalls. “I didn’t touch it for at least 20 years.” Then Nick Jones, of Lopez Island’s Jones Family Farms, showed up with a live spiny sea urchin and handed it off to the chef. “I cut it open and said: Oh my God! It was clean and buttery and didn’t taste like iodine. Wow! What a difference.” Moral of that story: If at first you don’t like uni, try it fresh, in season.
Seoul mates: After cooking in Munich and (just before Katrina hit) New Orleans, Nakamura headed to South Korea, where she found her people — literally. As a Korean adoptee raised as a Japanese-American, she says she fell hard for her hotel-chef cohort who were “just like me — very expressive, hot tempered and stubborn.” And save for the “grumpy middle-aged men” who shook their heads at the fact that she was (a) their professional superior and (b) 40 years old and unmarried, “my cooks were awesome — and culturally hilarious.” How so? They regularly persuaded her to hit the local noraebang (singing room) for Korean karaoke. There, “I’d do a half-shot of shoju and get bombed,” recalls the casual drinker, who barely touched our carafe of Harushika sake while recalling her go-to tune: Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life.” I’ll say.
OK, Seoul sister, Korean food here. Where to?: Ka Won (15004 Highway 99, Lynnwood, 425-787-6484) for pork belly saam and bulgogi. “Sometimes I go in for lunch, just to get their mandu (dumplings).”
Cheap date-night: Nakamura and her husband head to Little Saigon and Seven Star Pepper (1207 S. Jackson St., Seattle, 206-568-6446, www.sevenstarspepper.com) for Szechuan food: Must haves? “Pickled cucumbers, dan dan noodles and chong quin hot chicken.”
Mele Kalikimaka! Now, tell me, I asked the Divine Ms. N, what cookbook would make a great stocking stuffer? “Jess Thomson’s ‘Pike Place Market Recipes: 130 Ways to Bring Home Seattle’s Famous Market.’ I bought one for my sister.”
Nancy Leson: firstname.lastname@example.org