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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Marukame Udon (Honolulu, HI)


The concept of customizing udon to suit your personal preference is not new. In my neck of the woods, U:Don in Seattle’s University District has been offering it for several years. Marukame Udon made a big splash in Waikiki when it opened in 2011, a udonya that copies the cafeteria-style service that made it so popular in Japan. Every time I went past the restaurant last year, there was a line of customers outside. Today was no exception when we decided to have lunch, about two dozen people ahead of us, but the line moved quickly. If every seat is occupied, the staff will thoughtfully not let any more diners inside so no one will be looking for a place to sit. In typical Japanese fashion, there are plastic replicas of the food behind the storefront to help you decide what to order. There are also large pictures above the service area, not in immediate view. The menu should be facing customers as they first enter.

marukame

You place your order when you pick up a tray, which you slide along a ribbed counter along the service area. You can choose either a small or large portion. I chose the ontama style in which a soft-boiled egg is cracked over the noodles and served in hot broth. You can also order the broth on the side, either hot (kamaage) or cold (zaru), beef served on top (niku), a lighter broth (kake), concentrated broth (bukkake), or curry. When you pick up your bowl at the end of the line, you’re given the choice of having it garnished with sliced green onions and bits of crispy tempura batter.

marukame udon

Your final choices are one or more tempura (charged by the piece) and musubi (inari, Spam or umeboshi). The tempura includes shrimp, calamari, chicken (karaage) and vegetables (asparagus, sweet potato, pumpkin, mushroom). I picked shrimp and karaage and Spam and umeboshi musubi.

The shrimp are large with a nice, crispy batter. The chicken pieces are also large, chicken thighs with the same batter. Wrapped in cellophane, the musubi were still hot. and quite good.

The rich dashi broth was somewhat salty, otherwise a fine version. I don’t know how the best udon is made, but it seems the mass production at Marukame (as well as U:Don) compromises the noodle’s texture, not as chewy as the finest I’ve had, which even includes frozen ones I can get at any Japanese supermarket. Still, the udon is good. The entire bowl rates ☆☆☆.

Marukame Udon
2310 Kuhio Ave
Honolulu, HI 96815
808.931.6000

Bento Box at I Love Sushi (Bellevue, WA)


On the Eastside, I Love Sushi is one place to get good sushi. While the chefs may not bask in the fame of the big names in Seattle, they quietly go about their business of making praiseworthy sushi which reflects extensive training in Japan, a rarity in this age of cookie-cutter sushiya. There are two locations, one on Lake Union in Seattle, the other here on Lake Bellevue. While sushi has always been the main attraction, I used to go there for excellent udon. Their broth was second to none, the noodles an example of what glorious heights they can achieve. As I said in my previous post, I was surprised to discover that the old location had been torn down to make way for new construction, only to find out later that the restaurant had moved to new digs nearby. Yesterday at lunchtime, I once again went to the new location for udon, and again, my udon lust was not to be satisfied; it is no longer served at the Bellevue location (Seattle still offers it).

I suppose I could’ve elected to have one of the lunch menu’s many sushi plates or sat at the long sushi bar that impressively overlooks the lake, but the chicken bento box called out to me. And what an impressive combination it was (☆☆☆½). Though the chicken is advertised as being grilled, it seemed simmered instead in a light dashi base hinting of a touch of lemon juice. The chicken thighs were tender, thickly cut, and served atop shredded iceberg lettuce. What sushi I did get made an appearance as four slices of a fine spicy tuna roll. Also impressive was a poke salad of very fresh tuna, yellowtail, salmon, cucumber and red onion tossed in a sesame oil dressing. As if these weren’t enough, tempura (fried in rice bran oil) of shrimp, garnet yam, kabocha and zucchini was exemplary—the batter light and crispy, almost greaseless.

I’ll have to get my udon fix elsewhere.

I Love Sushi
23 Lake Bellevue Drive
Bellevue, WA 98005
425.455.9090

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Back to Jimbo (Honolulu, HI)


One of the under-appreciated Japanese restaurants in Honolulu has to be Jimbo, which specializes in udon. The buses and people lining up in Waikiki suggests that Japanese tour companies favor Marukame Udon, which features make-your-own udon, a concept that has been picked up by U:Don in Seattle’s University District. Jimbo is located in a part of town north of Waikiki (McCully-Moiliili, on the other side of the canal) that is somewhat worn, certainly without Waikiki’s glamor and glitz. But locals know about it and could very well be glad to keep this place to themselves.

We were here before in 2010 and were looking forward to a return visit. My wife got her ume wakame udon that she had been dreaming about ever since the last visit and wasn’t the least bit disappointed this time around.

Ume Wakame Udon

Ume Wakame Udon

For me, the memory of their wonderful nabeyaki udon tugged at me, but one of the chef’s specialties on the menu was Japanese curry nabeyaki udon, which I felt I at least had to try. I like curry udon in general, but was hesitant about ordering it tonight for one big reason. It would overwhelm Jimbo’s wonderful broth. And it did. Yet, Jimbo’s was a very good version, served in a very hot iron bowl with shiitake, baby bok choy, nappa, broccolini, shredded carrot, snow peas, kamaboko and a raw egg that gets cooked by the piping hot liquid. A good broth is hard to keep down; it shone through the curry with its substantial umami. On the side came single pieces of excellently made shrimp and sweet potato tempura, a welcome change since our last visit when they were served in the bowl, the batter soaking up and softening in the broth. Any respectable udon restaurant should have excellent noodles. The udon at Jimbo is made in-house by a dedicated chef and it shows. They have a unique al dente texture, having a slippery and soft surface but firm interior chewiness that characterizes the best of them. To make their dashi, Jimbo imports its dried bonito (katsuobushi) directly from Japan.

Curry Nabeyaki Udon

Curry Nabeyaki Udon

Our dinner at Jimbo was a happy return visit.

Disappointment on My Return Visit (March 2016)

I hate when the food changes at your favorite restaurants. I’d been to Jimbo twice before, and I loved their nabeyaki udon. The noodles were wonderfully chewy and the broth soul-satisfyingly rich and flavorful. The current disappointing version consists of oddly cut noodles (thinly rectangular in cross-section) and while starting out firm, they quickly became soft. These were not the noodles I had in the past. And the broth? It had none of the smoky and umami-deep flavor of my memories, having transformed into a thinner version of the original. I’ve discovered since that other recent reviewers apparently felt the same. Something has changed in the kitchen. I will not be going back. Marukame now has a better udon.

Jimbo
1936 S King St # 103
Honolulu
808.947.2211
 

 

Lunch at U:Don (Seattle, WA)


Niku-udon-oroshi udon with a side of tempura shrimp

When foodies talk about Japanese soup noodles, they usually think of ramen, arguably the most popular kind found all over Japan. Not as well known outside Japan is a different type of soup noodle, also of Chinese origin, that is widely popular, called udon. The wheat noodle is thick-cut and the very best freshly-made versions have an unmistakably chewy texture that fans seek when judging the noodle’s quality. My wife and I were mightily impressed with the udon served by Jimbo in Honolulu, not only for its superior noodle but its rich, smoky broth of Hokkaido origin.

U:Don opened in the University District not too long ago, part of a trend toward make-your-own noodle soups that is making an appearance both in Japan and here. Its name is almost an ideograph since the colon and capitalized D are supposed to represent a happy face. For happy customers?
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Jimbo (Honolulu, HI)


Honolulu has several excellent Japanese noodle shops. Ramen and saimin garner the lion’s share of devotion. But udon deserves as much attention, especially those served at Jimbo. Made in the Hokkaido style (according to the waiter), the broth is rich, luscious, slightly smoky from specially imported katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes). We were told that one chef makes the broth and another, the udon; one in the evening, the other in the morning. The noodles have a soft, velvety exterior over a firmer, chewier middle. Though there are other Japanese entrées on the menu, the udon is likely the star of the restaurant.

The nabeyaki udon ($14.70), served in a traditional nabe, comes piping hot. I burnt the palate of my mouth. The tempura consisted of a single prawn and a Japanese eggplant, both wonderfully flavorful. The batters retain their crispiness unless you let them sit in the dashi too long. Thoughtfully, an empty bowl is provided if you decide to rescue the tempura. Rounding out the ingredients is a single piece of kamaboko, sliced baby bok choy and negi, snow peas, spinach, napa, dried shiitake, raw egg and fuki. As good as these additions are, you could argue that they almost take your attention away from noodles and broth.

Nabeyaki

Nabeyaki

The ume wakame udon ($11.40) is an impressive combination. The ume flesh, which the restaurant bothers to scrape from whole umeboshi and mince, lends an interesting tartness to the dashi and provides a nice contrast to the rich broth. A few slices of negi onion are sprinkled on top.

Ume wakame udon

Ume wakame udon

For an extra charge, you can order different sizes of udon, large or skinny. Also for extra, you can substitute soba. The skinny noodles in my wife’s order were very good, though they didn’t have quite the same texture as the regular. All these variations are handmade at the restaurant.  On hot summer days, you can also order many of the udon dishes cold.

A popular dish for slime fans is natto bukkake udon. It comes in a dark broth with the ultimate combination of natto, okra, daikon oroshi and nori. I’m surprised grated satoimo wasn’t included. The waiter said that the natto is particularly odoriferous, a big asset for natto lovers. Hmm, maybe on another visit.

Jimbo is another restaurant that is dedicated to offering an unparalleled experience by making everything from scratch and using the best ingredients. The waiter also indicated that most of the ingredients are flown in directly from Japan. The udon prices are definitely higher than you’d normally pay elsewhere, but with udon this good, you don’t really care.

Jimbo
1936 S King St # 103
Honolulu
808.947.2211