Slowly but surely, the organic and natural food movement is making inroads into the restaurant business. This trend is a good one, especially for those of us who dine out. Personally, I buy organic for home cooking whenever I can, so you could say it’s a challenge whenever I eat out. As it stands now, there isn’t a whole lot of choice, more so when you’re on the road. For some people, there isn’t a choice. As a child in Japan, Naoko Tamura had severe reactions, including becoming seriously ill, to food that wasn’t natural, organic and free of additives or pesticides. This was the reason her mother became a leading proponent of natural food in Japan and opened Tokyo’s first organic restaurant, where Tamura trained.
After additional instruction in Europe, Tamura now runs her eponymous restaurant in downtown Portland. So it comes as no surprise that she should offer healthy Japanese cooking.
We headed here as soon as we arrived in Portland, based on recommendations from a friend. The restaurant occupies a small space, some tables set so close to each other that they seem almost communal. In fact, we struck up a conversation with a diner who was seated next to us.
In the corner on a blackboard was a list of Chef Naoko’s food sources, a practice that is becoming more common as some restaurants try to become more transparent about where they get their ingredients. The lunch menu only has 11 items but supplemented by a specials list. Bento boxes are the apparent specialties, which was enough to steer us in that direction.
The lacquer boxes, which are traditional, had five partitions. The smallest held a square of Ota tofu, made locally with non-GMO soy beans and no chemicals, topped with a squirt of sweetened, house-made miso sauce. The largest section was filled with a choice of steamed brown rice or brown/white rice mixture, sprinkled with toasted black sesame seeds. Occupying another partition was a salad—mixed greens, sliced raw beet, shaved carrot, barley grains, and hijiki (a kind of sea vegetable) lightly dressed with a ginger vinaigrette. The fourth section contained a combination of a slice of cold red bell pepper tempura, tamagoyaki (grilled egg) and chard goma-ae (blanched chard with ground sesame seed sauce). The last compartment is reserved for the main course, in my case, pork tonkatsu and my wife’s, shio koji chicken.
The tonkatsu (☆☆☆☆) was simply perfect, moist pork cutlet coated in crispy batter with very little grease and studded with what looked like oatmeal flakes, and complemented by an excellent house-made tonkatsu sauce, the finest example of this preparation I’ve had since Tonkatsu Ginza Bairin in Honolulu. Chef Naoko sources the pork from Carlton Farms, a natural pork slaughterhouse based in Oregon, which we’ve noticed also supplies The Whale Wins and Pestle Rock in Seattle.
Shio koji has long been used in Japan to make miso, soy sauce and sake, basically a rice mash made from the addition of a benign mold that causes the rice to ferment with salt and water, becoming rich in enzymes in the process. More recently, it’s been used by chefs by itself as a sauce to add umami punch to foods. The kitchen added it to chicken thigh nuggets, sourced from Kookoolan Farms, then grilled the chicken for a savory but understated result (☆☆☆½).
The seasonings here can best be described as unobtrusive and accented, sure-handed enough to let the natural flavors of the food shine through, which are supported by Chef Naoko’s insistence on using the freshest and natural of ingredients. Every item is simply prepared, nothing that is too salty, sweet or otherwise assertive. As my wife pointed out, everything was in balance. You leave with the feeling that you ate well and healthfully.
The only complaint I had was the parking space in front of the restaurant, which apparently is reserved for semis making local deliveries. Two of them occupied the space during our meal and blocked the natural light, never mind the unpleasant view.
Chef Naoko Bento Café
1237 SW Jefferson St
Portland, OR 97201