Grouchy Chef - Mukilteo, Washington

Hit dinner last night with a group of old coworkers, as we try to do once or twice a year, since no longer sharing the place of employment. This group an eclectic, intelligent, fun loving gang - very cool folks to know and occasionally hang out with. Sometimes we do lunch, other times dinner. This time, dinner it was.

For this event, someone suggested the Grouchy Chef, a somewhat infamous place due to the one man show that owns and runs it. Think of a real life Soup Nazi - if you're a Seinfeld fan - you know what I'm referring to. If not, well - let's just say this guy, Chef Matsumoto, has been known to throw people out of his restaurant for not following his rules. Rules? Yes, many posted on signs throughout the place. No standing by door, sit on bench. No toasting with the glasses. No men in women's restroom, etc.

The place only sits about 20 people, reservations only, and don't dare to be late. To have this group of friends arrive somewhere on time, it must be serious. Before we went in, asked my pals was this serious or just a schtick. Oh no, he's serious, very interesting guy runs the place. Also turns out a few of 'em have been here before, including one who's a regular and even assisted in setting up the sound system after a move between locations.

So we're in, as they say. I should also mention, the place sits inside an industrial type building, off the main road. Not exactly the usual restaurant setup. My pal who is the regular, has witnessed people being asked to leave the premises due to agitating the chef, or breaking some of his rules. This outta be interesting.

I also later discover another one of my work pals knew him a bit via some martial arts training by a family member. Turns out, Chef Matsumoto is also a very high level martial arts master. I guess you really don't wanna piss him off.

Our 7:00 PM reservation hits and we're inside, sitting on the bench as instructed, then led to our table by the chef himself. He really runs the entire place singlehanded. The interior is clean and sparse, casually fancy - nice. At each seat is a binder with a menu inside, in a few languages. On top of the binder, a printed page informing people not to toast with the expensive water glasses. The chef then verbally informs us the linen napkins are for your lap only, to protect your clothes - not for wiping your mouth or nose. The paper napkins are for that. If you need to blow your nose, you must leave the table. I'm thinking is this for real? Apparently so.

What the place is known for, besides the above mentioned fun facts, is the amazing food he serves at super reasonable prices. Super foodie I'm not, but we're talking a four course gourmet meal for around $20. Plus no tipping. A large jar is available to donate something to cancer research instead of a tip, if you wish. The menu only contains a few items and according to my friends, all of it is great.

After you decide on what to eat, the party lines up to the counter, where Chef Matsumoto takes your order. You then stack the menu and "toasting glass warning info" sheet on the counter. And from what I guess is a Japanese culture thing, you don't directly hand him the money - it's placed in a tray on the counter - along with the change he returns. And yes, this is a cash only deal. The whole process really had the Seinfeld Soup Nazi schtick running through my head.

In short order, the chef is bringing out the first course - yes, soup. Like I mentioned, full blown foodie I'm not, but I don't exactly live on junk food either. The soup was spectacular. And I don't even know what kind it was. I thought about licking the bowl clean, but thought for sure I'd wind up out in the parking lot - banned for life - waiting for my friends to finish dinner, while laughing at my misfortune of incurring the wrath of Chef Matsumoto.

After the insanely good soup, a killer small salad, mixed with pieces of fruit and two small slices of bread. Followed by the main dish, in my case, grilled shrimp with risotto cakes - with some sort mouth watering sauce dribbled over it. Damn, that was good. Pal Scott offered a piece of his steak - impressive as well. Finally, dessert included - a plate with small samples of chocolate mousse cake and other sweets. Not exactly large portions, not the intent here, but a pretty amazing meal for under $20. Not easy to top that. Even without rules.

By the time we were half done, we had the whole place to ourselves. Cool setup. The "No Photography" rule was even broken, with the chef himself manning the camera for a group shot. Not my camera however, so no actual proof offered. He also chatted a bit with some of the gang after the meal. A fun night. According to my pals, the chef was in a good mood. We all finished our meals safe and sound...

I got a kick out of the whole shindig. How many times have you gone out to eat, to be served so so food, by overly friendly folks? Plenty I'm sure. Well, this is the opposite. Amazing food served by an apparently eccentric guy, who takes his craft very seriously, who expects the rules of his house to be followed. As payback, a memorable meal at a bargain price. It seems plenty of his regulars and fans agree. The online feedback - good and bad - as in being tossed out of the place, are pretty entertaining to read.

The fact that he runs the entire place alone, almost puts this into the performance art category. Certainly a different experience then hitting the local Red Lobster. Food critic I'm not, but enough of an experience to bump my usual bike fluff off the blog for a post.

I plan to return, this time with my lovely wife, sans the kids. I've already given her the rundown of the rules required to sample and enjoy this place. It's something out of the ordinary, and that's always a good thing.