Maneki - Japanese Restaurant
304 6th Ave S
Seattle WA 98104
Open for a Hundred Years and Counting
By: Steve G
That's how long Maneki has been around. It's truly withstood the test of time. Surviving two World Wars, Japanese internment, and the arrival of a large assortment of new trendy restaurants in Seattle, Maneki is one of those hard to find places that reminds me of an underground izakaya joint (Japanese bar/pub with la carte ordering). While it may not be the most luxurious or the most trendy restaurant, Maneki more than makes up for it with good food and a rich history. It has easily established itself as one of the best places in the International District for sushi and Japanese food. (For more Japanese izakaya, you may wish to try Wann in Belltown.)
As you walk up the small hill leading to the entrance, the only thing that tips you off to Maneki's location is a small wooden sign that simply says "Maneki Open." Without it, most newcomers would probably assume it is part of the old Panama Hotel on south Main Street. After you walk through the door and head right, you're treated to a myriad of newspaper clippings and magazine articles either about the restaurant or important local Japanese-American news events from over the years.
Reservations are recommended unless you don't mind waiting quite a while for a table to open up. Maneki has three tatami rooms that can each seat up to ten people, but also has more conventional tables available for those simply going for the food and not the full Japanese experience. The space is a little small, so be prepared for a tight fit when dining here. Luckily for us, someone canceled their reservation so we were able to slide into one of the tatami rooms. Otherwise, we would have been waiting for a long time to get a seat with our party of five.
Maneki is what I would call an izakaya style restaurant--the menu offers many items that wouldn't necessarily work as entrees by themselves, but combined with other dishes like sushi or tempura can make a great meal (think Japanese tapas). Most of the items at Maneki cost around $8-9, and diners should understand that many of the items are la carte. For those with a mighty hunger, I'd recommend going for one of their dinner plates on the first few pages of the menu as they come with a bowl of miso soup and small cup of sunomono.
The service here can be a mixed bag of sorts depending on the day. Luckily for us, our food came out at a reasonable pace though there were a few moments when we felt a little neglected. I put the blame squarely on the fact that we were seated in the tatami room. Aside from that the food was delivered fairly quickly to our table, though some items took longer to arrive than others.
The black cod miso collar was a new item to me, as I've had the popular hamachi (yellowtail) version of this dish, but never with black cod. The Japanese prize the collars for the fatty cheek meat, so with the already fatty black cod, this dish was lavishly fatty and oily. The miso provided a layer of saltiness that helped tone down the richness, but it was still so decadent that I accidentally referred to it as a "dessert" in my notes. Be forewarned that there are plenty of fish bones to pick through with this dish.
Maneki does a good job on the pork gyoza, with tightly wrapped skin, ginger infused meat and crisp sear to the skin. Those with a preference for Chinese style dumplings may find the skin too thin on Japanese style gyozas however, so take note that these are different.
Bryan and I shared an oyster rice hot pot known as kamameshi. This is a simple style of cooking that involves a small metal pot, rice and other ingredients. The rice turned out moist, fluffy and also infused with oyster flavorings. While not a complex dish, the presentation is cute and it is fun to share.
Maneki has been one of my favorite spots for Japanese food for a long time. If you're a fan of oysters, the oysters miso Rockefeller is a can't miss with its smooth and creamy miso paste and very large oysters. Each order comes with about 4-5 pieces but it's sure to be gone very quickly once it gets to your table. The salmon broiled in foil pouch doesn't sound like the most appealing dish, but its like the stepbrother of the oyster dish using the same miso paste as it's being broiled. As I stated before, this dish isn't meant as a full on entree, but if mixed in with other dishes e.g. tempura or sushi, it really makes for a fine meal. Those who like tart flavors should really enjoy the ume roll with its pickled plum paste, though it was a little bit harsh for my tastes. Maneki really delivers on good food and none of the nonsense that you'll find at newer, more upscale places like Wasabi Bistro.
Maneki, with its tasty food and comfortable setting is easily one of my favorite Japanese restaurants in Seattle. Best of all, whenever I go to Maneki, I always seem to discover new little dishes to try. For example, take the ume roll--now I won't say that I disliked these rolls, but they can definitely be filed under the "acquired taste" category because of their startling tart and vinegar-like flavors. It's probably best to share these rolls since after only a couple, I was satiated.
Wanting something more traditional, I also ordered a plate of vegetable tempura. Although veggie tempura is fairly ordinary Japanese fare, it's still possible for someone to execute it poorly by frying at the incorrect temperature, not allowing tempura to drain oil or using stale veggies. However, I'm happy to report that the tempura at Maneki was light, tasty, and didn't leave a gallon of oil on your hands. And with a tip of the hat to seasonality, the dish included some tasty tempura kale.
For our main entree, Grant and I shared the Oyster Rice Hot Pot. Presented in a charming cast iron crucible, the hot pot included rice and a very generous portion of scrumptious cooked oysters that lacked that rubbery quality of raw oysters. The rice, layered underneath the shellfish, soaked up some of oyster's flavor resulting in a fresh and tasty medley of flavors.
Maneki is different from most other Japanese restaurants in town--unlike the ubiquitous strip mall teriyaki joints or chic sushi bars, this feels more like a trip your Japanese grandma's house--cozy and lived in (for 100 years, as Steve noted), and with the slightly worn tatami mats, Japanese dolls and waving "welcome cats" (maneki neko) feels homey and organic.
I ordered one of my favorite Japanese dishes, the pickled plum paste-filled ume roll. It was most enjoyable here, with just the right balance of rice to ume paste, which is important--too little and the roll tastes like plain rice, too much and the pickle taste is overwhelming. I especially like that ume was even offered here, since most places don't.
I was also pleasantly surprised that shabu shabu was on the menu--again it is a less common sight in restaurants than the usual favorites like tempura and sushi. But here it was, and utterly delicious to boot. Made with greens, thinly sliced beef, tofu, green onion tops and a bit of imitation crab in a mild broth, served in a small cast iron pot, with a gingery, oniony dipping sauce on the side, it was similar to sukiyaki except with a milder broth. It was wonderfully satisfying and warming, and the dipping sauce had an great tasty, unique flavor.
I love this place, and I think that if you live in Seattle for any length of time, you must come here. It's an institution. It is truly one of a kind, and not to be missed.