It might be pretty risky to think about opening a sushi bar in a town where for years, raw fish usually meant "good bait." Fortunately, for the sushi lovers of the Inland Northwest, Takara came along to alter that perception radically. The traditional Japanese cuisine-based eatery has been a Coeur d'Alene destination for 11 years now and shows no signs of tapering off.
"Business has steadily been climbing," says owner-manager Ryuhei Tanaka. "After 9/11, things weren't so good, but it picked up again about six months later."
Tanaka came to the United States from Japan twelve years ago. He learned to cook and worked in various restaurants in his native Japan, which made him highly valuable to Seattle's then-exploding sushi scene. He worked at the Takara there and when the owners decided they wanted to open a place in Coeur d'Alene, Tanaka was part of the launch crew. He ended up buying the restaurant in 1994 when the owners began feeling too spread out. Since then, he and kitchen chef Viljo Basso -- as well as the rest of the highly dedicated Takara staff -- have been slowly gaining a foothold in the largely meat-and-potatoes Inland Northwest.
"Yeah, sure, we still get a lot of people ordering chicken teriyaki, but I think people are finally getting used to sushi," says Basso. "It's funny how we're landlocked here, but with all the lakes around, people eat a lot of salmon and trout. And yet you'll still hear people say 'I don't like fish,' as a reason not to try sushi."
Sushi, if you've never had it, is a far cry from what you might imagine. Visually it's stunning. The palette is full of deep sea greens, the delicate ruddy hues of salmon and prawns, and the creamy paleness of vinegared rice or scallops. There are amazing textures as well: the translucence of ginger and cucumber, the solid meatiness of tuna and the nubbly round orbs of roe. And of course, the tastes. The powerful green wallop of wasabi, the sweetness of shrimp, the salt of tamari. Most surprising is that nothing tastes "fishy." If a sushi bar is doing its job, what you'll taste is the subtle flavors of incredibly fresh fish. You'll rarely smell anything.
"People usually go one of two ways when they're trying sushi," says Tanaka. "They'll either start with an 'easy one,' something like a California roll or a spider roll. Or they'll go straight to it and order one of the combinations. Like, 'bring it on!'"
Anything that gets patrons more "in the know" is fine with the staff, even if it means having to explain the difference between a traditional sushi bar and one that plays more to American tastes.
"Sometimes people think all sushi bars are the same. Like they'll come in saying they went to a sushi bar in Las Vegas and they'll want something they had there, like a Philly roll," says Tanaka. "That's not traditional. We try to be very traditional."
For a lot of sushi fans, half the appeal lies not just in the plate appeal but in how it gets there.
"People are often just as impressed with how to do it, the techniques," says Basso, who has recently returned to Takara after working in Seattle and attending culinary school in Portland. "It's not only the presentation but the performance."
While Takara has always had a core following, Tanaka and Basso think things are improving.
"It all comes down to having a base of people in the know," says Basso. "It's the Foodies, the people who frequent places like Brix, or this one. They're the ones who are willing to order something new and creative rather than your typical 20-pound T-bone steak and baked potato."
Publication date: 04/17/03