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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Tendon at Hannosuke (Mar Vista, CA)


We arrived at LAX just before the noon hour. The cacophony and immensity of the airport easily dwarf those of Sea-Tac which we left a few hours before, the warm and sunny weather in Southern California being a fair exchange for Seattle’s current spate of rainstorms and relative chill. My wife’s sister and her good friend M picked us up to take us to my father-in-law’s house in the San Gabriel Valley, but not before having lunch.

M suggested ramen at one of the restaurants along West LA’s Sawtelle Blvd. An excellent idea, I thought, because this area has become a mecca of sorts for Japanese food in the last five years or so. Unfortunately, we decided to move on after a quick drive through the area didn’t reveal a single parking spot.

Not too far away, in Mar Vista, is Mitsuwa supermarket. Even here, we just barely found a parking spot on a Saturday that is the grocery shopping day for most people. Inside, throngs of shoppers and diners were flooding the food court that exclusively hosts Japanese restaurants, several of them franchises from Japan. A long line had already built up at Santouka, the chain that has ramenya throughout the Southland and elsewhere, and is on the brink of opening one in the Seattle area. A quick stroll through the area also uncovered a sushi shop (Daikichi) and Sanuki Sando Udon. What caught my eye though was a restaurant that specializes in tendon, not to be confused with connective tissue, but the Japanese word for tempura served atop a bowl of rice, a class of food called donburi.

Hannosuke started in the Nihonbashi district of Tokyo where it gained quite a following. Mitsuwa seems to be playing the role of providing space in food courts for Japanese franchises that want to expand into the American market. Such is the case for all the restaurants in the Mar Vista store. Hannosuke (the full name is Tendon Kaneko Hannosuke) currently only operates stateside at this one location. Its popularity in Japan stems from the secret sauce that is poured over the tempura. Among its offerings here are various combinations of tempura served by itself, on top of rice or with zaru soba (cold buckwheat noodles served on a bamboo tray). There is even a seafood curry. I chose the original tendon, single battered and fried pieces of shrimp and white fish, shishito pepper, a square of nori, an egg that released its still runny yolk, just like in ramen. Even if the menu also advertised kakiage (fried shredded vegetable mixture), my order came instead with a green bean. Sides included a bowl of miso soup, pickled ginger and a minuscule serving of what must be secret sauce pumped up with red chile flakes.

The best tempura is almost greaseless and its batter light and lacy, almost feathery, which takes skill to make. As Hannosuke coats its tempura with a sauce, it makes little sense to go to the trouble of performing magic with the batter. In fact, theirs is more compact, but still light and crunchy. The sauce can loosely be called teriyaki, but that wouldn’t go far enough to explain its complexity, no doubt the reason for its being “secret.” I would call it tasty. It was judiciously applied, too, which helped keep the pieces crispy. The ingredients were all fresh, including the fish. Rather than coating it entirely, the nori was half-dipped in batter and fried, which makes for a nice presentation. Enough sauce dribbled from the tempura pieces to flavor the tops of the perfectly cooked rice underneath. Overall, this was a pretty good donburi (☆☆☆).

Hannosuke
Mitsuwa Marketplace Food Court
3760 S. Centinela Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90066
310.398.2113

Black Garlic Oil Ramen at Setsuna


When I started looking for a place to have dinner after a movie, my friend KirkJ suggested Setsuna Japanese Restaurant & Bar in the Northgate area of Seattle. As a restaurant to have ramen, Setsuna fell under my radar as it is not explicitly a ramenya. If I’d read the Yelp reviews carefully, I would have been duly informed, as KirkJ had. One look at the menu on arrival was enough to convince me to give it a try, especially one called black ramen, not particularly a descriptive name, but explained on the menu as having “rich soy sauce flavor with original blackened garlic butter dressing,” apparently a specialty of northern Kyushu. The other ramen were standard, one with a shio (salt) broth, another with shoyu, and one spicy.

The black ramen arrived not only in what appeared to be an inky broth but impressively clad in a dark green, almost black bowl served on a black plastic tray, a culinary Darth Vader. The stunning presentation was not entirely dark. Poking above the surface were slices of bright green yu choy leaves, starkly contrasting bean sprouts, slices of seasoned bamboo shoots (menma), pinkish pork (kakuni), the pale yellow and milky white of the half-boiled egg (ajitsuke tamago) and fine threads of dried red chiles that looked like saffron, likely borrowed from the Koreans. Underneath were lurking ramen noodles which when lifted up provided yet more contrast against the black surroundings.

The broth was made from pork, normally brownish in color. What gives this ramen its dark hue is mayu, which is made by slowly frying garlic in oil until it turns black, then puréeing it until smooth. There must be some art involved without making the garlic bitter. It lent the broth a certain powderiness that coated the tongue, not off-putting but interesting. As ramen goes, Setsuna’s was hardly salty, almost qualifying as low-sodium. The pork broth should have been richer and more flavorful to compensate, but it was good enough. The eggy noodles were excellent with just the right amount of springiness. Rather than being slices of pork belly, there were leaner chunks, quite tasty. The half-boiled egg was perfection itself: the white was firmly set but the yolk creamy as in the best ramen, with a surprisingly pleasant sweetness. Kudos to the restaurant for offering such a compelling bowl of noodles, one I doubt you’d find anywhere else in the Seattle area, but I give it simply a “good” rating (☆☆☆), mainly because of the understated broth, a significant component of a great ramen experience.

My wife’s salmon miso dinner wasn’t bad (☆☆½), mainly marred by previously frozen salmon that hardly had miso flavoring, tempura pieces (shrimp and vegetables) that were light and crispy but oily, good miso soup, fine salad with a wasabi dressing and sliced cantaloupe.

Salmon miso dinner

Salmon miso dinner

Tempura

Tempura

Setsuna Japanese Restaurant & Bar
11204 Roosevelt Way NE
Seattle, WA 98125
206.417.3175