FANCIFUL SKEWERS The Izakaya trend comes to Portland. CREDIT REGINA DUFF JENKINS
It is easy to think of Japanese people in terms of their taste for the extreme. Yes, their TV shows are crazy hyperkinetic, their robots crazy cute, their gardens crazy simple, their pornography crazy weird. But the true Japanese genius is their affinity for blending such disparate impulses together into something compelling, harmonious, and often quite modest. Think of Bashô's perfect poem about the old pond and the leaping frog, or Yasujiro Ozu's perfect film Tokyo Story about massive intergenerational conflict negotiated with deference and near silence. At their best the Japanese make harmony out of dissonance.
So what is most pleasing about Kushiya Benkay, a sort of skewer-pub from the folks at Benkay Sushi, is the way it brings together several impulses without going too crazy about any particular one. They recreate the feel of a traditional Izakaya-style Japanese pub, but they don't obsess over authenticity. The menu focuses on skewers of meat and vegetables, both breaded (Kushikatsu) and unbreaded (Kushiyaki), avoids getting too purist about it, and diversifies with plenty of familiar sushi restaurant standards. The square space is handsome in a familiar Portland restaurant brick-wall and tin-ceiling way. But it also features an interior frame of old wooden beams, which add a touch of weathered Japanese beauty to the room. Hanging down are a few spectacular space-age chandeliers.
The miso soup is modestly appealing — tofu-free, with strong flavors of scallion and seaweed. An avocado salad served the fruit at just the right creamy-textured ripeness. It was served with a thick miso sauce, which might have been too sweet if you couldn't mix in some of the salty/chewy pile of wakame seaweed. A pile of thinly sliced cucumber added crunchy texture.
Kushiyaki skewers are traditionally prepared over a super-hot ceramic grill with a particular binchotan charcoal, lending the meat a distinctive smokiness and char. But Benkay grills its skewers with a relatively light touch, and the char did not overwhelm the meat's natural flavors. Dark meat chicken was pleasantly fatty and tender, with a nice aroma of scallion. The terrific short rib was nearly as tender, and had a bit more char. It was less chewy than the version around the corner at Miyake. A little tray of dipping sauces featured more of the sweet miso sauce, as well as a spicy/sweet red sauce that was a complex blend of peppers and sugars. There is a bit of pale green salt, made with tea.
The breaded Kushikatsu skewers look like a bit like children's food, but they can offer some more sophisticated pleasures. The breading is light, and the fry is quick, which allows the underlying ingredients to shine. The scallops were fried just enough, so they kept their salty-sea taste and just-chewy texture. A variety of fried veggies kept their juiciness and some crunchy snap.
The sushi side of the menu is straightforward, and precisely what you would expect from the folks at Benkay — good fresh sushi and nothing too flashy. The hamachi, for example, had a nice creamy texture and a subtle briny flavor. The rolls feature some thoughtful mixing of flavors and textures — a bit of crunchy/salty roe here, or a sprig of bitter herbs there.