As a travel and food writer based in the Northwest, I’m oftens asked where visitors should eat in Portland, Oregon. I never hesitate to send them to Bamboo Sushi on NW 23rd, my favorite for its creative sushi and green ethic. Now, Kristopfor Lofgren, the high-tech genius and environmentalist behind Bamboo, has opened a new location in the up-and-coming North Portland Alberta neighborhood and this Japanese style bistro is a hit.
RFT Editor Anne Weaver and I were invited to a “sneak taste” at the Alberta location, a pre-fixe menu of sushi and bistro items paired with selections from their extensive saki collection. We were impressed with what we found.
Walk into the Alberta Bamboo Sushi and you might think you’ve entered a Japanese bistro in a back alley in Tokyo. It’s rustic with plenty of thick, dark wood, old saki casks, and Japanese cooking implements adding to the feel. While the restaurant features a small sushi bar, most of the space is occupied by booths and small, four-person tables. The culinary emphasis is not just on sushi, but also on traditional items you’d find in a casual bistro in Japan.
Green Ethic Continues
Like other Bamboo Sushi locations in Portland, this one features all non-GMO and pesticide-free products. They use Tamashiki rice and traditional red Japanese vinegar, the highest quality. And the entire restaurant is carbon neutral.
Perhaps most importantly, the restaurant supports Lofgren’s campaign to replant sea grass, much of which has been lost to coastal development. Sea grass, he tells us in his introductory remarks, is especially good at handling excess carbon in the atmosphere and can help prevent coastal erosion, especially important with global warming. It also provides habitat and food for young fish and migratory bird. In fact, Bamboo’s sea grass project has planted a swath of sea grass from Mexico to Canada to help migratory birds, including along California’s extensive Sacramento Delta.
Paired with Saki
We start our meal with two cocktails: Tokyo Mist, a mule made with soyu with Meyer lemon saki and ginger beer and an herbal Jim Henson with gin, cucumber, and ginger. When I request a non-alcoholic beverage, the bar manager brings me a virgin equivalent of the Tokyo Mist that’s both refreshing and gingery.
The amuse bouche is sunomo with himo. This traditional cucumber salad features shredded rather than sliced cucumbers; chewy, briny mantel of scallop with a lilt of fresh horseradish; and fresh ginger tossed with a light vinegar. While I prefer sliced cucumbers because it preserves the crispness of the vegetable better, this sunomono was still a nice start.
The first course is albacore ceviche on a scallop with red onion, avocado, cilantro, and chilies finely chopped. This deliciously simple dish celebrates the uber-freshness of the seafood with the cilantro offering a bit of herbal freshness and the chilies providing a little heat.
This refreshing seafood bite is paired with a light, easy-to-drink hakutsury junmai ginjo “white crane” saki that’s smooth as silk.
Next come a trio of dressed veggie salads (aemono): gome ae, spicy grilled asparagus salad and seaweed tossed with sanbaizu. The spinach salad with finely chopped peanuts tastes like a nutty, sweet bite of peanut butter; the asparagus salad features thinly sliced and grilled asparagus with paper thin, sweet-hot peppers; and the third is a wet, salty pile of seaweed. While the first two salad-bites are tasty, the mass of dark seaweed is too briny and astringent and feels like chewing on wet rubber bands. The purpose of the seaweed is to cleanse the palate, but judging from the many piles of seaweed left on the plate, my negative reaction is shared.
The salads are paired with ‘forgotten fortune” saki, an unusual saki made from heritage rice that a woman brewer in Japan brought back from extinction. It is light and easy to drink and pairs perfectly with the salads.
Our third course is a four-piece set of sparklingly fresh nigiri sushi. The shiso lemon sea bream is tender and fresh with the fish accented by shreds of lemon zest and the herbal tang of shisho, a type of Japanese basil. The bright red tuna is rich and satisfying and comes served with hon wasabi and nikiri, a fortified soy sauce. The ORA king salmon, which comes from New Zealand, is the essence of deliciousness. And, finally, the hiramasa, a briny mackerel that has a stronger flavor than the other offerings, is served with grated ginger and chive that balances the salty fishiness.
The sushi course comes paired with “black bull” saki, a full bodied beverage with floral overtones that stands up well to the nigiri.
Just when we thought nothing could top the sushi course, out come mussels with coconut and spring veggies, little black jewels swathed in a cloud of coconut cream. The mussels, cold steamed in saki, and accompanied by thinly cut veggies—green garlic, Oregon wild onions, and fiddleheads and sweet-hot chilies—sit atop a soft, silky swath of coconut cream. We greedily sop up every bite of the chewy mussels and cream, wishing only that we had a spoon to ensure no dregs are left on the plate.
Our mussels come with “subtle dreamy” saki, a thin, hot saki that is, indeed, subtly dreamy.
Next comes St. Helen hangar steak with mushrooms and karashi sauce, slices of uber-tender rare beef that’s been beautifully seared on the outside. The beef is seasoned with soy and mirin which gives it even more flavor. For me, the karashi mustard sauce overwhelmed the dish and I was grateful that it was served on the side. However, adding just a touch of the sauce is satisfying. The morel mushrooms adds a smoky note to the dish.
The beef comes paired with “god of war” saki, a big, earthy, classic saki. It’s a sturdy drink that holds up well to the bold, beef, mushroom, and mustard flavors.
Dessert, our sixth course, consists of a boudino, a sea salt caramel whiskey custard served with house-made caramel and topped with little sea salt crystals. The custard is ultra-silky and not overly sweet with the flavor of whiskey adding satisfying depth and complexity.
It comes with a traditional cedar cask saki, the only saki we feel doesn’t pair as well as it should with the boudino. However, after we finished the custard and the saki has time to warm up, it proves a surprisingly satisfying finish to genuinely wonderful meal. –
Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor, Photos Anne Weaver, RFT Editor