Paradise Lost, Paradise Burning


Not to be smart-alecky, but wild fires in the West are now a hot topic.

I haven’t personally seen one, but they’ve affected my life here in the Pacific Northwest, enough to make me worry about the future. A year ago, I was looking forward to spending some time again at Whistler in British Columbia. Fresh air. Unparalleled mountain scenery. Beautiful forests. While the area is famous for its winter sports, there is a different experience altogether after snow melt. I’d only been there once before (in July 2011) when wildflowers were everywhere and miles of hiking trails were open. Surrounded by mountains on all sides, Whistler-Blackcomb is a spectacular part of Cascadia, roughly a two-hour drive north of Vancouver.

It was a bummer therefore that last September, in all our time at Whistler, the skies were shrouded in smoke from wild fires burning in British Columbia. It started out as brown haze on the horizon but visibility got progressively worse each day. It was not unlike fog where objects not more than 100 feet away appeared hazy, except the air had a brownish tint and the temperatures were warm. After the first day, my wife and I couldn’t take hikes to higher elevations because of health warnings.

That summer of 2017, wild fires in California were making headlines. Washington and Oregon had their share, including the Eagle Creek fire that devastated the Columbia River Gorge (top image from katu.com). Seattle for the first time I can remember suffered under smoky skies for the better part of August and into September.

In August of this year, when we went to Lake Chelan to visit friends, a pall of unhealthy, stagnant air hung over the glacial lake. Smoke from a local forest fire was to blame.

After I got back home from Chelan, I never saw blue sky for two weeks. Local health advisories were issued to stay indoors if possible, avoid physical activity outside. Two consecutive summers of polluted air might be seen as the beginning of a trend. The consensus is that fires of immense scale and their resulting dirty air are the ‘new normal.’ For many days this summer, Seattle’s air quality was routinely worse than Beijing’s, the AQI as much as five times more severe. Global warming is taking its toll here as elsewhere on the planet. Normally thought of as a wet, verdant corner of the U.S., Washington is becoming hotter and drier. For four consecutive summers that I can recollect, we’ve hardly had a rainy day from May through September, shocking when compared to when I moved here in 1979. Those days recall Mark Twain’s alleged quip, “The pleasantest winter I ever spent was one summer on Puget Sound.” The precipitation in the ’80s was more like endless days of drizzle, now superseded by heavier rains funneled into fewer months. The difference between then and now, a span of nearly thirty years, is dramatic. Snow today is practically a no-show.

On my own property, I’ve noticed telltale changes. Two Western hemlock trees died this year because of prolonged drought over the years. Western red cedar, in my mind the more iconic conifer in the Northwest than Douglas fir, is struggling. Under ideal conditions, they can live over a thousand years. For several years in a row, they’ve shown signs of exhaustion. On every branch, one or more sprays die, not only on my specimens but everywhere I look. With current trends and repeated stress, is it any wonder I think they’ll be lucky to make it another ten years or so?

By late summer, a high fire danger was declared on 95 percent of Washington state. In the past, this was unheard of. So instead of rejoicing in the splendor of our vast, green forests, I now worry that in the not-too-distant future, climate change will turn them into gigantic kindling that will fuel ever larger, more uncontrollable fires and forever change the paradise that I’ve come to love and cherish. Summertime in the Northwest has always been something to looked forward to, but nowadays it fills me with a little dread.

Update (11-19-2018): I’m speechless about the how the title of this post seems to refer to the Paradise fires that are currently burning in California. I hope readers didn’t expect any coverage about this tragic event that underscores the fear implicit in my writing. And if this weren’t accidental enough, only a week before the fire started, my wife and I were in Oroville, only 20 miles south of Paradise. When I was fueling up my car in Chico, which is even closer to Paradise, a young man noticed my Washington State plates, wondered if it was raining there and rued how dry it was in Chico. Now, I feel even worse. 

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Shizuku, Portland’s Significant Japanese Restaurant


Four years ago, I lunched at Chef Naoko Bento Café, a Japanese restaurant on the edge of Portland’s downtown district. The storefront was unremarkable like the surroundings. Interstate 405 was practically its western border. On my visit, a semi-truck parked just outside blocked sunlight from lighting the interior. The atmosphere inside was a lot more pleasant. The interior was cramped though. Customers sat at the few tables spaced close to each other. At one of them, a diner sat near enough to my wife and me to be almost sitting at ours; we wound up having a nice conversation with her. But the food sang, made by the creative mind and skillful hands of owner and chef Naoko Tamura using organic and natural, mostly locally sourced ingredients. It was here I had my first taste of food (chicken) marinated in shio koji.

In 2016 Tamura-san engaged the services of world-famous Japanese architect Kengo Kuma to redesign and expand the interior to something more formal. The result was a complete transformation. Officially opened in December 2016, the restaurant was renamed Shizuku. Gone is the feel of a neighborhood cafe. There is a minimalist makeover, the most striking additions being ceiling hangings made to look like sudare (bamboo screens) and a raised platform with a table where diners could sit seiza-style (legs folded under one’s thighs), surrounded on two sides by a rock garden (top image).

‘Sudare’ ceiling hangings

With renovation came menu changes. Dinner is now prix fixe omakase-style, Thursdays-Saturdays only. The makunouchi (bento box) meals that used to be served at Chef Naoko for lunch and dinner are no more, replaced by lunch trays, donburi and udon, served at lunch only, Wednesdays-Saturdays.

My wife and I were in Portland for three days for family reasons. One of our dining stops had to include Shizuku. We chose lunch over dinner because of economy.

The quality has not changed. Popularly a chicken dish, Shizuku’s tatsuta-age was made with battered and fried Oregon rock cod. The fish, tasty enough from marinade, perked up with an untraditional dipping sauce of bird’s-eye chiles and lemon juice.

Oregon red rock cod tatsuta-age lunch tray (shredded cabbage, wakame and green onions)

Udon has always been one of Chef Naoko’s specialties. It’s probable that the then Chef Naoko Café and now Shizuku has the best in the city. The noodles are freshly made with perfect substance and chew. Chicken, dried bonito and kombu form the basis of the broth. The one that filled Prawn Tempura Udon was subtly flavored with hints of lemon peel. A superb batter, light, crispy and not in the least greasy, coated the tempura, served on the side.

Prawn tempura udon with kale, wakame and green onions

It’s gratifying to experience firsthand that Tamura-san is still at the top of her game. Based on the menu changes for Shizuku, she has the opportunity to demonstrate her creativity and skill even more, especially with omakase. Her calling card is the imaginative and deliberate use of fresh, unadulterated, untreated and vetted local ingredients in traditional Japanese cooking (for example, visible rolled oats from Bob’s Red Mill, based in nearby Milwaukie, fleck the tonkatsu batter). She’s a bold experimenter, like when she makes miso from ingredients other than white soy beans. Aside from Ota Farms tofu (also in Portland), she makes her own from hazelnuts. Tamura-san reminds me of our own local Japanese chef, Mutsuko Soma, who’s made quite a reputation for herself in Seattle, not to mention being named a 2018 James Beard Award semi-finalist. Her soba is the stuff of legend.

As for that lone raised platform and table in the corner, you won’t find me sitting there, beautiful as it is in its Japanese austerity, not only because I can’t sit with my feet beneath my butt for very long but more importantly, I don’t like to stand out as if sitting on a pedestal. Still, I’ll be back at Shizuku again whenever I’m in town.

Shizuku by Chef Naoko
1237 SW Jefferson St
Portland, OR 97201
(503) 227-4136

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