The little sushi shop at 2501 Eastlake Ave. N. was hopping on Friday night as customers nodded and swayed to live jazz music while enjoying some of city's most highly esteemed sushi. Watching it all from behind his counter, chef Hiroshi Egashira smiled, savoring what may be one of the final nights of what’s become a six-year tradition.
Greg Williamson, jazz percussionist and owner of local label Pony Boy Records, was a regular customer when Egashira asked him one day, “Just what do you do?” One thing led to another and the Friday tradition of “Jazz and Sushi” at Hiroshi’s was born.
It has become enormously popular, and regular customers Wistar Kay and Melinda Iverson told me that jazz and sushi are natural partners. Both women spent many years in Japan and said the jazz scene there is very strong. The food at Hiroshi’s is the most authentic in the city, they said, and the music provided by members of Pony Boy’s stable of musicians is always top-notch.
A big fan base
Egashira came to the United States in 1990 and put down roots in Seattle. Though he’d never visited the area before, it just felt like the right fit for him, he said.
In his younger days, he was a backpacker, traveling to as many countries as possible to see all he could of the world. When the travel bug bit again, he was a little older and a little wiser, he said, and he felt he needed a marketable skill to take with him.
He decided to learn to make sushi because of its global popularity, but learning to make sushi in Japan is not a decision to be made lightly.
“It’s a very formal process,” Egashira explained. It can take anywhere from five to six years to be fully trained, and the first year, he said, is spent washing dishes and doing kitchen chores.
He spent nine years learning his trade at the well-regarded Kawashou restaurant in the Fukuoka prefecture in Japan before setting out on his own.
Egashira began his career in Seattle at Kumon on Lake Union, but his sushi didn’t remain under the radar for long. In 1994, some of his devoted regulars who worked for Boeing asked him to cater some of their events. Two years later, he opened his own catering company to meet a demand that was growing quickly.
Word got around about Hiroshi’s, and before long, his sushi was being sold at Safeco Field.
Hiroshi’s sushi is not sold at CenturyLink field, however, for the Seahawks games. “No,” Egashira said. “They asked me, but I turned them down.”
He then grinned hugely, ducked his head and pointed with both hands at his Seahawks cap. “Because I’m a fan!” he said with a laugh. “I want to go to watch the game — not to work!”
This should not have been a surprise: A Seahawks flag is tacked up in the kitchen, the entryway displays a signed helmet in a glass case and Seahawks memorabilia can be found tucked in among the family photos and awards that decorate the restaurant.
Egashira even plans his trips to Japan around the Seahawks season, saying, “I go for 10 days, but I always check their schedule first!”
It was through Hiroshi’s catering company that he developed what he describes as a “very strong connection” with the Moriguchi family, best known in Seattle as the family that founded and still runs the Uwajimaya chain.
The family asked Egashira to cater weddings, funerals and special events, and it’s no surprise that this led to a true friendship outside of the business arena.
Egashira recalled taking Uwajimaya CEO Tomoko Moriguchi Matsuno aside and gently telling him, as only a real friend can, that the sushi being sold at their market left something to be desired.
“It started as a joke,” Egashira said, laughing. The exchange, which started as nothing but good-natured ribbing, eventually led to a challenge: Could Egashira do any better?
Well, as it turns out, yes.
With so much business from his catering clients, one might wonder why Egashira opened the restaurant at all — that is, until you see him in action there. He’s everywhere: preparing sushi, talking to customers and even taking time out of his busiest night of the week to sit and talk to a reporter. The restaurant is a labor of love for a man who just enjoys people.
Saxophonist Jay Thomas summed it up well when we chatted between sets. He told me that what makes Egashira so special is that his restaurant isn’t about making money — it’s about “providing something for your community.” Thomas said he’s seen this mindset elsewhere, but rarely in the United States: “It’s about, first, doing something that you love; second, is it good for the community?”
Financial concerns are third in line for consideration, Thomas said, pointing out that after that night’s show, all the performers would get a very large meal, courtesy of Hiroshi.
In a city with few venues for live jazz, Hiroshi’s is a haven, where, for a few hours a week, these musicians can do what they love for people who love what they do.
A happy ending
Still, all good things must come to an end, and so it is with Egashira’s restaurant. The lease on the restaurant space is expiring, and Egashira has placed the restaurant up for sale.
“It could be sold tomorrow,” he said, or he could continue on a month-to-month basis through the end of next summer, but even as he said it he shook his head. “It will either be sold or it will close.”
As much as he enjoys the restaurant, Egashira knows it’s time to move on. He has been paying his son’s expenses as he prepares for life as an independent adult.
“It’s my custom. But that’s over now!” he said jovially, savoring the empty nester’s freedom.
He said he’d like to start traveling again, maybe even backpack a little, and see some new places. He’s worked hard, and he’s earned a little downtime. “I’d like to go home at 5, 6 o’clock,” he said.
Still, he can’t seem to completely give up the idea of seeing his customers on a regular basis. He’s opening a new catering kitchen in the Beacon Hill area in about two weeks (the space is complete, he told me; he’s just waiting on the final permits), and he’s toying with the idea of doing a little takeout-only lunch business.
“You never know,” he said.
He may not know exactly what the future holds, but like a good jazz musician, the best things happen when he’s off the script and improvising. The beat goes on for Egashira.
For updates and hours, visit www.hiroshis.com.
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