Everything about Japonessa, a sushi cocina with locations in Bellevue and Seattle, was born from an intentional collaboration of cultures.
The name alone is an amalgamation of Japanese and Spanish words that together represent the concept of a Japanese woman (an homage to chef and part owner Billy Beach’s mother). The menu follows suit by featuring traditional Japanese food highlighted with Latin flavors and ingredients.
For example, one of their most popular sushi rolls is the Heatstroke, a tuna and salmon-based roll topped with jalapeños and cilantro. “It’s all about the combination of flavors,” says Christina Martin, managing partner. “It’s really bright and fun, both in the look and the taste.”
But the concept of merging worlds, ideas and tastes goes much deeper than the food. Reflections sat down with the group of four co-owners and culinary creatives over a delicious meal and talked about the creation of this popular sushi spot.
In 2008, Beach, a renowned local sushi chef, first approached Bellevue Club members Jason and Jinny Koh about the possibility of opening a restaurant together. They had partnered before with the Belltown restaurant Wasabi Bistro and worked well together—but Jason had reservations about the timing.
“I said no at first. It was a recession year,” Jason says. “But for two weeks I kept mulling it over; it was something I had always wanted to do. I couldn’t let it go.”
Eventually the idea of working with Beach again wore him down. “I thought, it’s time for us to open our own restaurant. This is the guy,” he says. “Billy’s work ethic and culinary talents are unparalleled. And he blends flavors like no one I’ve seen.”
Immediately, Beach went to work on the creative concept for the menu. “He uses components from everywhere that he knows work well together. He’s done that with all his venues—he uses ingredients like pickled jalapeños or spicy seared crab, and he loves spice. You can see that throughout the menu,” Martin says. “Billy is always looking to make an impact with the flavors.”
Meanwhile, Jason’s unique talents were put to use in the business side of the operation—and most enjoyable for him—the design and style of the spaces.
“We use what is called transitional design—a combination of contemporary and traditional styles in harmony,” Jason says.
In their case, they drew from both Japanese and Spanish aesthetics.
For instance, he points out that the black wood that lines the entrance of the Bellevue location is treated using an ancient Japanese process that chars the wood, coating it to protect it from fires. Juxtaposed against elegant chandeliers and sleek countertops, the look perfectly embodies the overarching concept.
From Concept to Cuisine
Much like the design, Japonessa’s fare blends these traditions and styles to create something totally unique.
On one hand, Masa Nakashima, chef and part owner, has perfected the time-honored tradition known as omakase. In Japanese “omakase” means “I’ll leave it up to you.” Nakashima was trained in Japan and has been making sushi for more than 45 years. He takes the art of omakase very seriously because “each cut of sushi, each piece of fish is different.”
His executive omakase consists of the best cuts of the best fish available in nigiri form and offers a great way to experience the pure flavors of the fish and rice.
On the other hand, the menu, including a very popular all-day happy hour, is expansive with plenty of modernized options that include tempura rolls. “I think one of the things we’re really proud of is making sushi accessible to everyone,” Martin says.
With no shortage of inspiration, they also introduce new menu items all the time. “We just added 17 new rolls to the menu,” Jason says.