THE DINING REPORT – YAKUZA
It’s a HIT with us

Although I love it, I’ve never had too much luck co-mingling Japanese food (and especially sushi) and Restaurant Roulette. I see people in our group eat raw fish all the time, but then when sushi comes around, forget it. Do people even try sushi (especially rolls) before they reject it out of hand? Most of the time it’s just vegetables, rice, seaweed and fish, and often the fish is smoked or otherwise cooked. Okay, it’s true raw fish isn’t supposed to be ultra healthy for you, as you can never be totally sure what’s lurking, but if you can eat an entire plate of hamachi, or a bowl of ceviche, or an entire meal consisting of a raw tuna starter and basically a raw tuna main course (yes Glenda, fingers are being pointed in your direction) why isn’t the tiny portion of raw fish in a tuna roll okay compared to 20 times as much seared Ahi? Let’s face it, there seems to be some sort of brain block when it comes to sushi.

As far as our group’s history with Japanese, I think it’s pretty well non-existent or hideously bad. IMG_2481About four years ago I put Restaurant Murata on the roster in December, a place that was supposed to have wonderful sushi, but I only had one taker, so the dinner was cancelled. Also, long, long ago, when the corner of 30th and Killingsworth was just starting to get its foot in the dining door and Yakuza had just opened (I think the first Micah Camden restaurant in that area) I sent out an RSVP notice for Yakuza, but about 2 days later it got an incredibly scathing review in the Oregonian, which said the food was awful, so I put another non-Japanese restaurant in its place. So our only real Japanese outing would have to be the infamous Menji-En, surely one for the record books as far as torturous evenings in dining out, the woeful Japanese Restaurant who had no rice. Although that dinner was one of our earliest, I believe in our first 6 months, it’s one of my favorite reviews, and you can check it out here at this blog (just select sushi in the category search.)Interestingly, however, I think that was the last negative review I read on Yakuza. After that Micah Camden created a  foodie empire at the corner of 30th and Killingsworth, Yakuza, original ownership in Beast, DOC, and the ill-fated Fats English pub. Mr. Camden appears to have moved on though, seemingly investing all his energies in Little Big Burger, and while he might still own some real estate at 30th (???) Beast, DOC, and Yakuza have all moved on to different ownership, and the Fats space was purchased by the Cocotte people. Yakuza was his concept, however, and the food and drink menu still comes across very similar to how it began. I guess I mention this because I find it interesting that a restaurateur with such wide ranging interests in food and success in restaurant inception ends up throwing at all overboard for small little take-out joints with like three burgers and some fries. It must be the lure of simplified money making. Will he really be happy as a mini-burger purveyor all his life though? (It probably depends on how successful the LBB chain expansion turns out.)

Anyway, over the years I’ve been waiting for at least a couple more sushi folk to join the group as semi-regulars, so I could at least feel more secure sending out a sushi/Japanese invite. Sam had been prodding me to do sushi, but I put it off for quite awhile, as I just did not know where to go. IMG_2476I think I remember reading that Restaurant Murata finally bit it last year, and the other high-end, acclaimed sushi joint, Hiroshi, closed its Pearl District doors after probably less than a year. My favorite sushi, Yoko’s, is way too small and funky, and while places like Hama Sushi and Miso Sushi are fine for everyday sushi, they are too basic for our group. Bamboo Sushi sounds like a great place, sustainable fish, wide ranging menu, reasonable prices, but when I called to inquire about a group reservation, it turned out their policy did not work out within the parameters we need for group dining.  Miz Bones and I were discussing the subject by email a few months ago, however, and she came up with Yakuza, a place I had thought about a bit in the last year or so, as not only had it gotten much better reviews after its first year or so, but having peered inside, I knew it was a nice place, with prices that are relatively moderate to boot.

I also had more luck luring non-Japanese food fans to this dinner because as the name Yakuza Lounge implies, it’s not actually a Japanese restaurant, it was one of the first outposts in town that could be classified as an Izakaya, those little casual drinking spots that also sport nicely crafted small plates that are so popular in Japan. Suddenly Portland has several of them. And in the case of Yakuza, the menu is really more Asian-fusion-NW fresh.

Yakuza is full of clean lines, dark woods, and subtle lighting. Since there were a few of us, we were given the large communal table in the center of the room, and as the first person to sit down and try to scoot one of the benches, I can tell you, this was some quality wood (the bench seemed to weigh about 4000 lbs.) IMG_2468Although a bit unyielding on the old-folks buttocks-area toward the end of the meal, the benches weren’t overly uncomfortable to sit on. The major complication was trying to get get in and out if you weren’t sitting on the end and there were other people sitting at your sides, the hard, woody table was right in front of you, and without room to maneuver, this was a challenging proposition. I can think of places where going plop on the floor really isn’t too embarrassing, I did it at Marrakesh when we had a dinner there, and wasn’t overly mortified (of course everyone is almost sitting on the floor there anyway) but Yakuza is not the kind of place for that sort of behavior, as it’s filled with the young, beautiful, and trendy. Who wants to go reeling to the floor in front of them? Not moi and my social albatross.

This being officially a lounge, naturally we had to start with some cocktails and Sake. Most of the drinks sounded really nice, but I decided on the Pink Pepper – Aviation Gin, Pink Peppercorns, Grapefruit, Bitters, and Lime. Obviously, this would not be a drink that someone could easily whip up at home, because getting the blend of ingredients in just the perfect amounts would most likely be quite a challenge, but Yakuza did an excellent job, and it was one of the better cocktails I’ve had recently (not counting that Potted Parrot, of course, which came with a toy!) Slightly spicy, but it went down smooth.

Glenda selected a drink that I probably would not order if it was the last bit of “drinkable liquid” on Earth, the Classic – Suntory Scotch, Cognac, Antiqua, Benedictine, Bitters. IMG_2475Well, we all know her hollow leg, so I think she enjoyed it, but for a wussy drinker like myself, it just sounds SO nasty. Well, I guess that’s why I’m the designated driver and she’s the designated drinker. David was the first to arrive to Yakuza, and was sitting at the bar having some expensive Aquavit when I got there (he said it was interesting, but without the kick of Ouzo.) Obviously, no Rusty Nails on the Yakuza roster. Cora’s friend Chris, from Boston, appeared to have similar liquor inclinations to David, and when his favorite was not available, had David’s usual fall back upon drink, rum and coke.

As is natural in a place like this, several glasses and bottles of Sake were ordered. I don’t tend to do much sake these days, one of those post-Thanksgiving wine tours where I visited Sake One in Forest Grove while feeling both queasy and having a splitting headache don’t bring up the best sake associations with me. IMG_2467I must say, however, that some of the sake name translations from the Yakuza menu were quite beautiful though, you could select from Mirror of Truth, Wandering Poet, Star Filled Sky or Pure Night. The Japanese really know how to name their booze. I don’t think any of these beautifully named sakes were ordered though, instead the selections were:
Gekkeikan Nigori – Roughly Filtered with Fruity Accents – Sam’s selection, who practically vacuumed out the bottle with her tongue, she seemed to like it.
Momokawa Organic Nigori – Rich and Creamy with Hints of Coconut – Liz got this one, and seemed to like it, although I saw no tongue vacuuming happening.
Eiko Fuji – Extra Dry, Crisp, and Robust – I think David ended up with this, and wasn’t that happy, as he wanted a bottle and this was a glass.

I remember reading a story on some food website a month or so ago that discussed restaurants who, when you order, immediately tell you that the food will be coming out in the order the kitchen gets things ready, not necessarily in the order you want it, a somewhat frustrating trend in the last few years, particularly at restaurants who specialize in small plates.IMG_2470 The article did not view this trend favorably, and thought it was the sign of a lazy, rather arrogant restaurant and not the most skilled of kitchens. I have to admit that one of the first restaurants I dined at who told me our table had no control over what food we got when was Toro Bravo (as almost everyone knows a favorite of mine) but for some reason it hasn’t annoyed me as much there, as the food comes out so fast and furious, it never seems anyone is lacking anything to eat. I still find it disconcerting, however, when a restaurant basically tries to force everyone to share by just delivering dishes willy nilly, rather than making sure everyone has something at the same time. Not everyone who orders a small plate wants to share, but if they are one of the few people sitting there with food, how can they not pass it around? Okay, Glenda often manages not to share most of the time, but she makes it a point to let everyone know that this is her policy, so why should a restaurant try to contradict her desire to enjoy her own portion solo? Our group in full of kind and generous folks who often share more of their food than they eat themselves, why should a restaurant tell us we need to share everything by bringing out food in gasps?

Which is not to imply that Yakuza did any such thing. When we ordered, however, it was explained to us that the food was meant for sharing, and would be brought out in the order it was prepared, particularly as they were very full and the kitchen somewhat over-taxed.IMG_2471 Some of us (well okay, me for beginners) were rather firm in their desire, however, that they wanted their sushi roll first, and then their larger portion as their main course. I noticed Yakuza more or less headed this demand for everyone, so the salads were served first, the rolls second, and the heartier meals last. Like all of these Japanese places with the large sushi plates, however, they put all four people’s rolls on the same plate, and while the waitress initially showed us what was what, after a bit we were all confused which roll was which, especially once we passed them around the table for everyone to share.

Since David had gotten there a bit earlier and had a drink at the bar, he had scoped out the menu with the staff to find out what to order. Their first recommendation was the Cucumber Salad (Cucumber, Avocado, Sesame, Togarashi.) It was a relatively large plate of cucumber sliced in small wedges and had a sesame oil dressing that was just right, not overpowering like so often sesame oil can be. Freah tasting, and really good.

Glenda had the second salad on the Yakuza menu, Kale (Shaved Kale, Shallots, Lemon, Edamame.) Glenda, not exactly what you would call a fan of all things Asian (food and culture only, I’m sure she likes the people just fine) immediately asked for a fork, as after all, this is America!IMG_2469 (Just kidding, she certainly did not say that! If you don’t tend to eat Asian food though, you probably can’t manage chopsticks that well, especially on a finely shredded salad.) Actually, as the meal went along I think we all wished for a fork (Sam might have been the exception) as these were the skinniest, slickest, roundest, hardest to use chopsticks ever (high-end and authentic I’m sure.) Several times people were thwarted in their eating until they stabbed their object.

Probably the hardest item to manage with these “sticks of torture”  was another of the staff recommendations for David, the Chilled Soba (Soba Noodle, Pickled Carrot, Wasabi, Soy Dipping Sauce.) These were not big noodles, and they were slippery as well, so when David passed the noodles around to be tasted, good luck grabbing any. He seemed to like them though, those he didn’t have to slurp off the front of his shirt.

Also on his roster- Poke (Ahi Tuna, Avocado, Cilantro, Ginger, Calabrian Pepper.) Another item he was really glad he ordered, basically a ceviche with ginger thrown in, perhaps to make it seem somewhat Asian.

Somewhere around here our co-mingled plate of rolls showed up, which was rather an interesting situation, since Yakuza only has five rolls on the menu, but the four of us who wanted rolls somehow managed to each order something different without planning it that way.

Here’s what we had …

Rolls
Spicy Tuna – Minced Ahi Tuna, Cucumber, Kaiware
Yakuza Roll – Crispy Japanese Eggplant, Seasonal Vegetables
Dungeness Crab – Dungeness Crab, Avocado, Crème Fraiche
Pear Jalapeño – Minced Yellowtail, Asian Pear, Avocado, Jalapeño (no jalapeno, Sam didn’t want it.)

As I mentioned previously, after we each grabbed a couple slices of the roll we ordered, and one piece of each of the other three rolls, we passed the plate around the table, and after that who know which roll was which.IMG_2473 I suppose since it was a major ingredient, Sam’s Pear roll probably might have been a bit more distinctive had it actually contained the pepper, but if it was at all like David’s Spicy Tuna Roll, it would not have been overly spicy. I think most of us agreed that Liz picked the winner, the Yakuza Roll, as there was some sort of grilled vegetable on the top that was really rich and delicious (perhaps a mushroom??) Good enough rolls, but not particularly out of the ordinary or outstanding.

There was one special “entree” this evening, and as they only had one portion left, Cora made sure to snag it. My memory is dwindling with each passing second, but I’m pretty sure it was Yellow Tail  Collar, a cut of fish I’ve been reading that chefs prize highly for both tenderness and richness of flavor (high fat content.) Totally delicious and buttery, Cora was ecstatic she grabbed the last order for our table to share.

IMG_2480I had lured Glenda to Yakuza telling her they had things which I thought would suit her palate, like Seared Duck Breast, but of course they had removed it from the menu and she had to find something else. Luckily the Steak (Dry Aged Hanger Steak, Kale Raab, Morel Butter) wasn’t too much of a deviation from something she might order, so I didn’t feel like a total fraud. Liz also had the steak, and said it was good, but outshined by several of the other items at the table that she would have rather had. I thought the portion looked a tad meager, and like it was mostly greenery.

The item that really overwhelmed everything else at the table was the Yakuza Burger (with Chevre, Shoestring Potatoes, House Catsup, Spicy Mayo.) Over the last 2-3 years many places have been promoted as having great burgin P-town, Gruner, Little Bird, Le Pigeon, and Yakuza is always mentioned with the elite. IMG_2478I’ve had a few of the fancier burgers around town, and my usual feeling is either, yeah, it’s okay or whoa, this is hard to eat. I also tend to be of the opinion that size doesn’t mean that much, it’s the sharpness of the cheese (hmm, maybe this is why I can’t get a date.) I used to love the burger at the sadly departed Echo (Man, that was such a good place for the first three years or so, it’s too bad it was kind of wiped-out by the explosion of great dining in Portland, especially in NE.) The Echo burger wasn’t gigantic, but it had some wonderfully sharp cheddar cheese on the top that made it delicious.

I was a bit skeptical about Yakuza’s burger at first, as I figured it would be weirdified with some unusual Asian influence of flavors. Also, the cheese was Chevre, and musty tasting cheeses and me are rarely on the same page (I like my cheese from really BIG animals, not those that baa or bleat.) I was skeptical, but it sounded like it would be nice and filling, and I was trying to save a bit of money this evening, as we’ve had some less than cheap dinners toward the end of summer. I was rather frightened when I saw the Yakuza Burger though, as it was so thick, and we all know about my tiny, delicate mouth (Hey, big things can come out of small orifices.) Sam attacked hers like a Jaguar though, so it didn’t seem like a totally hopeless ordeal. Trepidation aside, this was a great burger. Although thick, the meat was extremely high quality and tender, so not at all hard to chew. Also, it was expertly cooked to rare, so that stopped you from having to chomp on a big, dry hunk of meat.The homemade catsup and spicy mayo were just perfect (and the two things I like best on my burger) and while the shoestring potatoes on top were few and not overly distinctive, they did add a nice crunchy texture. As for that Chevre, it was mild and barely goat-i-fied, just adding a creamy richness and tang, not that bitting taste that often makes me shrink away from non-cow cheeses. I noticed that Little Big Burger uses Chevre from Rogue Creamery on their mini burgers, and since Micah Camden was originally head honcho at Yakuza, it made me think that Yakuza might also use the goat cheeses from Rogue Creamery, as they actually have a world wide reputation for quality cheese. Maybe that’s why I thought this chevre was acceptable, it’s some of the best made.

IMG_2477We actually had four Yakuza Burgers at the table, I had mine, Cora and Sam split one, and Chris had one as well. We all seemed to agree it was probably the best burger we had ever had, and as Chris shared 1/2 of his with David and Liz and I also gave them portions, they also got to revel in the burger fest, and thought it was wonderful. The only hold-out was Glenda, who did not taste. Our Glenda, I guess she’s not a burger lover, but more of a wienie gal.

Cora had ordered one more thing and could not figure out why it had not arrived, the Chevre Tempura (Caramelized Onions, Honey, Aged Balsamic.) It turns out it was the rather odd thing we were eating last, which we thought the waitress said was the Chef’s Tempura, a special dessert. IMG_2485This is one problem with Yakuza, although the volume of the music might be fine in a hot and happening bar, it was a bit too loud and modern for fine dining, and we could not not hear each other or the waitress sometimes. It is the Yakuza Lounge though, and full of young, beautiful types (luckily they let me in too) so how can you complain?IMG_2479 None of us were too fond of the chevre tempura though, especially when we found out it was the closest thing they had to dessert, and while Glenda said we could get another order to go around, we were pretty lukewarm on that idea. In the end the majority of us ended up going to the Pix on Williams afterward, as some wanted dessert, and some wanted another drink, and that was the one place I could think of that wasn’t too far away that did both.

There was very little we ordered at Yakuza that someone or almost everyone didn’t think was really tasty. Almost all of us said they would go back, given the opportunity (well, not Chris, but Boston’s kind of a far commute) and I can’t wait to be given the opportunity to have another burger. The decor and atmosphere were first rate, and it seems like a great (albeit busy) place to drop in for a drink and a snack. The service was decent, sort of off and on friendly, others perhaps more warm than our primary waitress, but our water glasses sat empty after the first glass, not something I want to experience when I’m gobbling wasabi (another minor complaint, we were given the tiniest portion of wasabi imaginable for four orders of rolls, really not even enough wasabi for one roll as far as I’m concerned. We could not ask for more, however, as no servers seemed to be around until all four rolls were consumed, sadly wasabi-feeble.

Scant wasabi, empty water glasses, only average service, and hernia-inducing benches are about it for the complaint file though. We held our breath all evening, but luckily the Japanese mafia stayed away on this Friday, and no one found a nasty old fish head under their chair. Yakuza doesn’t have the most extensive menu out there, but everything we tried (except for the chevre tempura) was worth eating and interesting. And really, does Yakuza really need to serve anything besides that burger and maybe a couple of those sushi rolls? Not in my book (although a little more water would be nice next time.)

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