In Redmond, tucked into a little shopping center in the old rail yard district, there is a little sushi place called Nara Japanese Restaurant. Brimming with personality, atmosphere and good food, the restaurant has been a local fixture for 27 years. After even a single visit, it’s not hard to see why.
From the paper lanterns to the traditional dividing walls and long sushi bar, the place looks like it would be right at home in downtown Tokyo. There are plenty of tables with comfortable chairs but the smart diner grabs a stool at the sushi bar, where they can watch the food being made and chat with the chefs.
The restaurant was founded in 1989 by the current owners, Angie Wang Chen and her husband Paul. Coming over from Taiwan in 1984, the dynamic duo worked in the restaurant industry until, five years later, they had the opportunity to open their own place. Since its inception, Nara has been a family business for the Chens, with their daughter Jessica taking up the role of manager. Any given day will have at least one of the family working behind the bar and around the restaurant.
The bar itself is the centerpiece of the place. A row of tall stools stand right up next to it and diners can see the different kinds of fish through a glass case set into the bar. Curtains and paper lanterns hang above the diners and the sound of Japanese music drifts from hidden speakers. Behind the bar stand shelves stacked with row upon row of little wooden boxes.
These boxes, as it turns out, are the traditional sake boxes. Made of pine, they are decorated in all manner of colorful ways. Some have the jersey numbers of the Seahawks players that have frequented the restaurant over the years. Others have names, such as “Sven” and “Sven’s Brother, Ole.” Some have drawings like the Husky logo. One is simply and enigmatically titled “The Horny Frenchman.”
When the sake is served, the boxes are over-filled, meant to symbolize over-filling the diner with good luck and good fortune. The pine adds a noticeable and pleasant note to the taste of the sake, and brings out the rice wine’s natural flavor. An excellent hot sake is also on the menu, served in a white ceramic bottle.
The food, of course, is the central aspect of the dining experience at Nara and it is delicious. Diners often choose to start with a bowl of miso soup. A traditional Japanese dish, the miso soup is served in a beautiful red bowl with green onions and little cubes of tofu. It is the perfect appetizer, excellent for whetting the appetite. Next, diners can choose from a truly staggering variety of dishes.
The menu selection is extremely broad, ranging across a wide variety of tastes and flavors with the sushi menu alone having 54 items. For those who don’t like sushi, the rest of the menu is equally amazing, with a choices from teriyaki and tempura to yakisoba noodles. Massive tempura shrimp are a popular entree choice for many diners, the battered shellfish pair well with a range of other dishes. The California rolls are another frequently ordered dish, well-prepared and very tasty. The menu also includes more exotic fare as well. Octopus, squid and flying fish eggs, called tako, ika and tobiko respectively are all featured on the menu. One of the most interesting options is the uni or sea urchin. Served on a bed of rice wrapped fully in a seaweed blanket, the diner can request that quail and fish eggs be added on top, creating a truly unique and flavorful dish for the adventurous palate.
With friendly staff, an enchanting atmosphere and food that just can’t be beat, Nara is a fantastic place to eat lunch or dinner. I absolutely recommend it to anybody who likes sushi in particular or good food in general.
Go try the pickled mackerel. It’s delicious.