THE DINING REPORT – BIWA

Sucking Up That Never Ending Noodle

Well, Spring is blooming in our fair city, but unlike last year at this time, Restaurant Roulette is not burgeoning and busting out at the seams with the advent of the finer weather, in fact it’s struggling mightily. I’ve tried to figure out what I might be doing wrong with the dinners, and the roster, and have decided that there really isn’t anything wrong with the restaurants I’m putting out there (okay, Eleni’s was a mistake, but tons of people came to that one, so I guess quality has nothing to do with it.) Since my restaurant selection seems fine, and I’ve had some of the best food ever since January, all I can say is that the issue must be with you guys. Hey you guys, YOU’RE SCREWING UP!!!! You’re missing out on some really excellent food, and much worthwhile conversation to boot.

A good case in point, our Leap Year dinner at Biwa (That should have drawn masses alone, a leap year dinner.) IMG_0192.JPGBiwa, like many restaurants these days that barely have reservations, has a six person minimum to have a table there and awaiting you, and I struggled incredibly just to come up with four. I don’t know if by reading the RSVP notice you thought this place might be one step up from the corner Pho shack, but if that was your interpretation of what I was describing, you could not have been more wrong. Biwa is cutting edge, exciting, and completely attractive, a gem hidden at the bottom of the hulking, looming Pine Street Theater building, staking it’s rightful corner in a building also housing the always highly praised Sympathica Dining Hall and other interesting food and non-food enterprises.

As many members of our humble group hail from elsewhere, they might not be familiar with the Pine Street Theater Building. This enormous edifice, just a few blocks from Sandy, Burnside, and MLK has hosted a variety of uses since its beginning as a Christian church, including being a Church of Scientology, and several incarnations connected to live music and performance, among them the “Pine Street Theater,” “The 9th Street Exit,” “La Luna,” and the unfortunate sounding dance club, “The Womb.” After several years of hard times and ongoing disrepair, the building was bought by a developer around 2005 and broken into many leasable spaces, Biwa now being where I’m told the 9th St. Exit was originally housed.IMG_0193.JPG The somewhat gothic Georgian architecture of this building has always inspired doom in my soul upon arrival, there’s just something about the outside of this place that has seemed the stuff of horror movies to me. I’ve continually envisioned it looming somewhere out on a dark and foggy English moor, filled with the criminally insane, werewolves, and Frankensteins having really bad hair days. If they had not chosen that fake looking computer generated thing for “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” I know it could have been filmed at the Pine Street Theater Building, there’s just something creepy about this behemoth.The inside, at least on my visits, has never matched the eeriness of the outside environs. In the 80’s, I remember attending a Halloween party at The Pine Street Theater dressed as a Volkswagon. I must say, that was the most unwieldy costume I’ve ever had. I had spent at least two weeks fashioning the yellow Beetle from of an abandoned refrigerator box, and I was quite a menace out on the dance floor, no one able to approach me within about three feet front or back without getting whacked by my hood or trunk (being in reverse locations, naturally, as it was a Beetle.) What I can’t remember, however, is how I got this ridiculous costume in my car, I’ve always had relatively small two door cars, and this was one big costume. What I do remember, though, was that there was nothing at all atmospheric about the inside of the Pine Street Theater in those days, it was totally woody and overly well-lit, with a variety of chandeliers and other cast-off lighting fixtures.

During the 90’s the building had one of its most popular phases, this time seeing many national concerts and local performances as the rock venue La Luna. By this time the outside of the building was getting pretty run down, the ancient white paint job less than attractive, and inside the place made me think of terms like dirty, skanky, and sleazy, which is probably why it was so popular as a rock and roll club. I entered twice in the late 90’s to see the British band Blur, and both times stood in the upstairs balcony, surrounded by dirt, decay, and compounded spilt beer smells. The concerts were always good, but as I was no longer a young whipper snapper, even in those days, I found the concert venue too rough and nasty for my tastes (especially as I began to hate standing up at concerts once I reached about 30 or so.) After the promoters of La Luna lost interest and closed the club, the building had many extremely unsuccessful rebirths, until its most recent conversion into offices, studios, food outlets and other commercial ventures.

Nowadays the old church is looking pretty spruced up, benefiting from a nice earthtone paint job, and while I would guess much of the upper floors of the building are largely empty, it seems to be enjoying somewhat of a renaissance again, helped by the good performances of some nice eating establishments on the ground floor, first Simpatica Dining Hall a couple of years back, and now Biwa, in its own modest but trendy way.

IMG_0190.JPGBiwa, in the basement of Pine Street, has a really pleasant dining space of two narrow eating areas separated by the entrance, and an open kitchen and bar joining the two areas along the far wall. The lighting is extremely dark, most provided by dim lantern-like lights and tiny candles on the tables (yes, menu distress was ahead.) The look is mostly wood and concrete, with somewhat of a modernistic Asian Simplicity theme. Since it’s in the basement, it would be interesting to know just how much the space lightens up during bright summer evenings, as there are a few relatively large windows.

Pam and I arrived somewhat early, and told the hostess we no longer had need for our table for six (again, the reservation minimum.) Luckily, right at that time a table for four opened right next to where we were standing, so we were good to go, as no one else was there to claim it. While waiting for our other two dinees to join us, we perused the cocktail menu, in my case an impossible task, as it was so dark, and the menu was on dark gold paper with tiny type. As usual, Pam was wearing glasses, so I had to ask her to read every item on the cocktail menu for me (after all, that’s what friends are for, isn’t it? Reading liquor lists to you, what really says friendship in a more bright and fuzzy way, may I ask?) Probably some of the help at Biwa thought I was just plain illiterate.

Pam and I were actually somewhat surprised to see that Biwa even had a hard liquor license, we had thought we were only going to have the choice of beer, wine, and sake. All the drinks were pretty weird, I had something called a Chu-Hai, and that was made with a Korean grain alcohol and orange soda, and had no kick whatsoever. All of Pam’s alcohol requests were greated with big NOs by the waitress, as they only had the few liquors mentioned on the bottom of the drink menu, no Boones Ferry Strawberry Delight, no MD 20-20, no NightTrain (tee hee, Pam’s drink requests involved obscure alcohols like Tequila and Rum.) Finally she settled for a gin and soda, as they also had no tonic. By now we were already on the waitress’ good side, her shooting dagger look branding us “middle-aged trouble makers.”

Next, the third person in our group arrived, L_n_e (letters removed to protect the litigeous.) L_n_e could barely put half a butt-check in her chair before the waitress came looking for her drink order, and when asked for a description of a couple of the bottles of beer on the menu (there was no beer on tap) was met with a blank look like perhaps she was asking aforementioned server to describe items found inside her own colon (better there than someone else’s colon, I always say.) Still more blank stares when L_n_e asked if any of the beers were microbrews, Oregon-like, or even when I inquired which one tasted the least like pee (okay, so I don’t like beer, but this was really getting quite exasperating.) When the beer arrived, a very strange brand, L_n_e was quite unhappy to see the glass placed over the top, as she has this weird thing about not enjoying the dust, dirt, sneeze residue and other microbes that used to me frolicking on the outside of her bottle now partying inside her glass. When she asked for another glass, more blank stares and dagger shots for all.

By now “the new guy” had arrived, Rod, high school English teacher and No Po dweller. (Sorry Rod, there aren’t enough letters in your name to delete any, and I don’t want you to have the misfortune of other group members thinking your name might be “Red.”) IMG_0188.JPGThis was Rod’s first RR dinner, and I could tell he is a dynamic and exciting diner both by his choice of first RR dinner to attend and by the interesting items he ordered for his meal. Incredibly, Rod is from the Portland/Metro area, so this meant that on this evening there were three Natives, and only one Californian. I really cannot remember another dinner where there were fewer transplants than natives (which is generally okie dokie with me, you out of staters are interesting folk, I would not trade you for a slew of Eastern Oregonites.) Rod settled in two twitches before being approached about his drink order, and saved additional eyeball dagger shooting by just having water.

If you like trying all kinds of little things, Biwa has a great menu, a collection of items that reminded me of Asian tapas. IMG_0180.JPGIf you like cold items, you can have oysters on the half shell, raw yellowfish tuna, seaweed salad, or Japanese mushroom salad. Hot snacks include a slow cooked daikon radish with silver sauce and crab, Korean griddle cake with octopus, long simmered pork belly, and steamed clams with sake and chili threads. Many interesting skewer type items are available as well, including grilled oysters, chicken liver, chicken heart, grilled garlic, eggplant, and “wonderful pork belly.

“L_n_e started off the selection process by asking for an order of that night’s special, breaded Calamari (every restaurant just has to get on that fried Calamari bandwagon I guess.) At least she attempted to do this, but for some reason on this evening, L_n_e ‘s talking and the waitress’ comprehension were not in sync, not at all helped by the overly aggressive music. Finally L_n_e got frustrated enough at the waitress not hearing her that she said she would do all her ordering through me (just call me foghorn mouth.) The waitress mumbled something about not hearing well on one side of her head, but all awkwardness and miscomprehension could have been avoided had the waitress just come to our end of the table if she could not hear what was being said down there (no such problems with my blasting tones.)

When the calamari arrived it was okay, but not great, it seemed awfully crispy and brown for such tiny pieces, and the spicy citrus sauce wasn’t the best accompaniment I’ve ever had. We all had a few noshes though, so thank you L_n_e for that, as I always like horning in on everyone’s tentacles where possible. I had the Asian Pear salad which was a bit too plain, just crispy slivers or Asian Pear, arugula, and a so-so sweetish dressing. Pretty small and lacking excitement for $7.

IMG_0179.JPGPam was in quite a devil may care mood, and decided to have both yukke and kimchi as starters, which she shared with all of us (the was a big night for sharing.) Believe it or not, the Yukke just wasn’t that much to my tastes (yukke is raw Korean beef ((tartare)) with sesame oil and raw quail egg.) I guess this proves I like my beef at least 5% cooked, especially since in this ground raw version all I could taste was sesame, a flavor I like mostly when trapped inside seeds, instead of as oil. Sure, the beef was really tender, but as it was chopped to a frenzy, murder to eat with chopsticks (the only utensils provided.) This also was true for the raw quail egg, which Pam ended up plopping in the middle of the table (you try eating a small raw egg with chopsticks and see how well you do.) The Kimchi was quite hot and crunchy for my tastes, but Pam and Rod both seemed to enjoy it. I’m just not that big a kimchi fan I suppose, having been on the wrong end of Kimchi breath many, many times in my youthful college days as a sandwich delivery person (we provided sandwiches for many small Korean shops in downtown Portland.)IMG_0182.JPG

Rod really had the two prettiest small plates, the grilled skewers of miso scallops and also shishito peppers. The peppers were really lovely, little green peppers that fit about eight on a skewer and were slightly charred and very mild. We all tried at least one and thought them really good. I didn’t try the tiny scallops, which Rod said were delicious, although he kindly offered to share them with all of us, I just can’t bring myself to steal a man’s scallops, they are just too precious.IMG_0185.JPG

About the time the slurpy soups were arriving, my other small plate showed up, the Kalbi, (Korean Short Ribs.) I’ve always loved these incredibly rich but difficult to eat little gems, and was completely blown away when I saw the gigantic size of the portion (as it turned out, L_n_e had ordered them too, and they had put both portions on the same plate, probably getting back at her for that extra beer glass she asked for.) Even as two portions it was extremely ample, especially at only $5.00 per portion. Korean Short Ribs are one of those things that many restaurants seem to do quite well, Hawaiian restaurants always have them, and even the ones you get at Trader Joe’s already marinaded to grill at home are pretty good. These were probably the best ones I have had yet, however, the sauce was just perfect. The only problem, as always, is how to eat the cotton pickin’ things without making a big mess. They are always those tiny thin pieces with those large, sharp bones, so you really have to grab them in your hand and gnaw the meat off to avoid your tongue getting impaled on a jutting bone. The minute you lay a digit on them them, though, you become a total glue ball, so sticky and greasy. Such an eating conundrum. Why, oh why?

Sometime, in the middle of all this gnashing and gnawing, owner dude sauntered over, I suppose making the rounds of his domain. I always think it’s nice when owners mingle a bit (although this guy seemed more like an owner/owner, rather than an owner/chef, and I prefer taking to the person who is actually sweating out the vittles,) but as usual, it’s pretty awkward. They always say something like “how is your food?” Just once I want to see someone yell out “this swill is utter crap!!!” Of course we all said, “oh, very good.” Actually I don’t think I said much at all audibly legible, as by now I might have had a noodle lodged up my nose. But more on that delightful phenomenon soon! I think young trendy owner fellow also asked “what brings you here?,” another of my favorite questions in this situation. Oh, I don’t know, what usually brings people to restaurants? Personally I just go out to restaurants in hopes of finding some semi-fresh gum under the tables (just so you know, I DON”T CHEW GUM!) What a question though. I really don’t mean to pick on this particular guy, he seemed sincere enough in his tasteful, yoga practicing, BMW driving, Saks and Diesel shopping kind of way, and he was certainly the friendliest person we encountered at Biwa. I just don’t know how to deal with people of authority when I’m trying to eat broth and tapeworm sized noodles with chopsticks.IMG_0187.JPG

Because the truth must come out. I am not a noodle person. I AM A NOODLE NITWIT!!! I have never been good at dealing with noodles in public, so I really do not order them. I am noodle-needy. When I was growing up, my family did not eat spaghetti, so I never learned to deal with long stringy objects (except for my own hair, of course.) Sure, I eat pasta all the time, but not linguine or fettuccine (penne, give me penne, it’s easy to eat.) When I’m at home and have long and stringy noodles, I whack them into bits before even attempting it. I never learned the twirly trick with a fork and a spoon, and there’s really no way to wrap or twirl a noodle the diameter of a pencil and the length of a lasso anyway.

I think I would have been happier just ordering the little snacky things and skewers, but this was a noodle palace, supposedly THE noodle palace like no other, so I agreed to go along with the masses, even though I knew the truth would come out, that I’m noodle-challenged. There was certainly much oohing and aahing at the table when the gigantic, heavy, cork-coastered eathenware pots (complete with lids) of broths and noodles arrived. They were so pretty, and huge. Rod actually had the “Tofu Hotpot” for his main dish, and whether he ever found any noodles in the bottom, I never heard. I know there was a hot pot involved though, and tofu, and broth, and maybe seaweed, mushrooms, and ??? I think he liked it though, although I don’t think he finished it, none of us finished our broths, they were so big, it was like trying to consume a toilet bowl full of liquid (that’s me, always searching for the most beautiful, picturesque allusion to make.)

L_n_e and Pam both decided to have the house Ramen, which I had been reading for months is exceptional, and here is served in a “secret pork broth” with the choice of add-ins like egg, chinese bbq pork, or shitake mushrooms. Both said it was mmm mmm good, but certainly not as fascinating as my noodle nightmare. I selected the top of the line “Udon Nabayaki,” described as “udon simmered with chicken, vegetable and egg.” IMG_0184.JPGI must say it was a beautiful creation, certainly the prettiest thing at the table, the composition of egg, seaweed, tofu and mushrooms really lovely, all floating on top. Those noodles, however, were complete monsters! They really were squarish, at least 1/4 inch in diameter, and 16″-20″ long. Just try to suck that up if you’re bad with noodles.

Everytime someone looked my way (usually Rod, since I knew him the least) I had this long dangly rope hanging out of my face and still submerged partially in my bowl, they were so long. And as the Udon were so dense, they had quite a bit of elasticity, and I couldn’t just break them into hunks or lop them off below chin level. These suckers were industrial strength. The only tools we were given were chopsticks and those weird Asian flat plastic spoon dealies, so that hardly lessened my struggles either. I really needed scissors and a large plastic scoop! I was making such a spectacle, Pam and L_n_e both wanted to try some of my udon, but ended up only sharing one noodle, because of the size. I was so traumatized, I don’t even remember eating the egg, although I do remember the seaweed floaties, mushrooms, and overly ripe tofu. I keep mentioning how “earthy” the tofu was, and finally L_n_e asked if she could try some, but sadly by this time, it was all gone, as it was one of the easiest objects to get ahold of and shove in my yaw.The broth was really good, I was just a bit exhausted after all my noodle wrangling, so only took about 10 slurps with my funny little spoon and gave up. Most of the floaties were gone anyway, except for some Loch Ness Noodles lurking bottomside. Besides, I was the last one still eating, and I hate that, I’m more of the food inhaling type, and if I’m dragging behind, it’s always a sign of a difficult struggle with a food item (often a big sloppy sandwich, another food enemy in my book of public eating.)

Everyone liked the food at Biwa, and thought it a great and interesting place. The food arrived promptly, and service was actually good, just extremely COLD. It was relatively obvious from the beginning we were not “the chosen people”, but we probably could not have been, as we were just not young and hip enough (no obvious piercings, tattoos, or earlobes stretched to jump rope proportions.) But at least the waitress was not artificial, which I really take marks off for. And while the glacier melted a few drops before tip time, (how surprising,) no happy gush of emotion ever came our way. Oh well, it’s not something I take major marks off for, it kind of fit in with the urban modernism that places like Biwa radiate. And we did have good conversation at our table, we were of extremely homogeneous ages and interests on this evening, so talked much about subjects like movies and music and well-endowed wildlife (a recap from the past,) although our “political rabble-rousers” were missing on this evening (god, I love those people,) so for once there was no political discussion. We did linger about 30 minutes after the dinner though, just talking, which is always easier when dinners don’t linger over the three hour mark. So although we were few, our experience was many.

A final comment, as you all know, I always like to check out the restrooms to give me a little extra perspective on whether restaurants really go that extra mile for their patrons ( Thatch on Broadway, about 1000 miles.) IMG_0191.JPGI really don’t know how responsible Biwa is for their restroom, as it is in rather a central hallway outside of the restaurant, so it might be a shared Pine Street bathroom. I must say this was one gritty industrial restroom, right down to the gigantic holes in the concrete walls. It was modern gritty though, not really filling station filthy gritty, just rough around the edge, and really brightly lit. It was lacking in toilet paper, however, three stalls being empty, only my stall having a multitude of two rolls!! So although Pam and I were on opposite ends of the stalls, we played hail Mary toilet paper pass, and scored the equivalent of a Toilet Bowl Touchdown! I’m just glad I could spare a square.

Advertisements