I worry because it means so much to me. I'm sure you know what I mean. You know when you go to a restaurant and have an incredible experience, but for various reasons (none of them so good that you have any excuse to stay away for so long) you just don't make it back. For months. Such was the case with Yakuza Lounge here in Portland's northeast side. I had my first experience with my friend DOR (read the post here) last October. If you'll remember it was such an out of control meal we ended up with their burger for dessert. Good times! So after my rave to w about that dinner she has had it on her agenda. Due to recent extenuating circumstances involving pregnancy, birth, infancy and all the nasty bits that entails, we hadn't the chance to go until last night, when, thanks to that liberating army of one we call "babysitter Amy", date night was locked and loaded, and Yakuza was the target.
Yakuza is owner Micah Camden's take on a Japanese izakaya, or drinking bar, where the plates are small and meant to be washed down with copious beverage. I love walking into the cozy, cool, low-slung dining room, with two and four tops along the walls and communal tables spread in the middle of the room, with the bar and kitchen in the rear left corner. The menu has a definite Japanese bent, while not adhering that strictly to the Asian tradition. I mean, there is a burger, right?. Divided into four sections...Salad; Signature Dishes; Signature Sashimi; and House Rolls...I am once again finding myself wanting everything. But reason, in the form of my lovely wife w sitting across from me, prevails. So we start in first with a glass of Cava for w (is it from Germany as the menu says?) and a Ginger Fizz for me, which was a bitey combination of fresh ginger, vodka, lime, simple syrup, and prosecco that would have gone from good to great if it had been served colder. Then the parade of plates commenced, starting with their beautiful Scallop Tempura ($9- pic above), a gorgeous and delicious plate of scallop surrounded by a frizz of shredded filo, sitting atop a spicy cream sauce with nori. This is pretty spectacular, a rare dish that tastes as good as it looks. The sauce provides the perfect counterpoint to the crunchy filo and rich scallop encased within. Following that was their Soba Noodles ($7- pic right), which was perfect simplicity. Cool soft soba noodles with bits of ginger to wake up your palate, a scattering of green onion, a sprinkling of toasted black sesame seeds, bits of nori, and a snappy ponzu sauce lightly dressing the whole dish. Really good and almost palate cleansing in its freshness. Also landing on the table about the same time was the Sashimi Trio ($16- pic left), which comprised beautifully plated and very fresh and clean tuna, hamachi, and salmon with a light Thai chili sauce and tobiko. Sashimi this good is something I could eat endlessly. Luckily we had other options coming at us.
After that auspicious start our most friendly waiter, after refreshing us both with glasses of Cameron Winery "Giovanni" Pinot Bianco ($8 per, and the perfect wine with their food, IMO), brought out the next round. To table was the Dynamite ($10- pic left), which was described as Dungeness crab, apple, celery root, and tobiko. We were expecting a salad of some sort. What we got instead, and ate with zero complaint and much gusto, was a hot pile of shredded fresh crab (very generously portioned) that had been mixed with the other ingredients. The slightly crisped exterior played beautifully with the sweet crab. In fact, tat is what struck me most about the whole meal at Yakuza. Camden and his kitchen staff seem to really have a handle on texture, and how important that is to a satisfying meal. Soft with crunchy; sweet with tart; hot ginger countered by cool, soft soba. It is really impressive and no mean feat when you sit back and take notice. Understanding that, and a perfect edible illustration of that concept, was our next two plates: the Shrimp Roll ($10), a sushi house style roll of tempura shrimp, avocado, that same spicy sauce that under laid the scallops and tobiko. Again with the texture thing: spicy sauce and the crunch of tempura batter around fat, sweet, tender shrimp; and the Yakuza Roll ($9- pic right), a really eye opening and palate pleasing combination of fried, grilled Japanese eggplant and "assorted vegetables" (as the menu says). The smoky charred eggplant, all softly cooked, succulent and sitting astride a crunchy underpinning of cucumbers and carrots held together with a nori wrapper and superbly cooked sushi rice. Then, because of the impression it made on me the first time, I couldn't leave without the taste of the Yakuza Burger ($12) in my mouth. Once again, this piled high beauty was so satisfying. The grilled, hand-formed patty (and I'm not sure where they get it) was very clean tasting, cooked perfectly medium rare, and layered with rich chevre, shoestring potatoes, a zippy house made ketchup, all cuddled in between what seemed like a brioche style sesame bun. This is still easily one of the best burgers in town. The surprising thing was that we saw at least two tables who looked to having burgers and nothing else with their drinks. How do they do tat? Where does that self-control come from? Most importantly, I hope to god it isn't contagious!
As we were getting ready to leave, I mentioned, and w agreed, that this would be a perfect place to take people from out of town for a casual, fun, sure to be satisfying dinner, and to give them what feels like a truly Portland dining experience. Eight months between visits, and just as good as I remember. Kudos to Camden for keeping this part of his mini-empire firmly on course. Rest assured it won't take me eight more months to get back!