Sushi can be intimidating and beautiful. At the same time, it can be a quick and even affordable way to eat healthy. In Portland, we are lucky enough to have a variety of sushi options to choose from representing most every piece of the spectrum. It wasn’t too long ago that there were only a few places in Portland to find decent Japanese food, let alone sushi.
A tale of two sushis
Sushi can be intimidating and beautiful. At the same time, it can be a quick and even affordable way to eat healthy. In Portland, we are lucky enough to have a variety of sushi options to choose from representing most every piece of the spectrum.
It wasn’t too long ago that there were only a few places in Portland to find decent Japanese food, let alone sushi. Over the last 10 years, as the collective palate of the city has developed, it seems each neighborhood has its own sushi house. Even grocery stores and our own cafeteria host a plethora of popular casual options.
Sushi is something it takes time to know intimately. Like espresso or wine, it can take years to truly become a connoisseur. Eat enough of the stuff, and one day you’ll wonder how a California roll made with fake crab could satisfy anyone.
One need not be an expert to enjoy sushi, however. All that’s really required is a sense of adventure.
These days even children love it–inventive, colorful rolls combine sticky rice with vegetables, tempura fried shrimp and even cream cheese. Sit at the sushi bar to get a bird’s-eye view of the chef. He’ll pat out the rice onto a bamboo mat, layering the fillings and maybe toasted seaweed on top, and roll it together until it seals. Crosswise cuts show off the beautiful interior, so there is no guesswork about what’s inside.
It’s a myth that sushi need include raw fish.
Purists go for nigiri, a finger-sized patty of rice, artfully draped with a thick ribbon of fish, or sashimi, just the fish itself.
Sushi is an example of the old saying, “You get what you pay for.” If you are on a budget, don’t expect super-high quality. Instead, stick to the basics and consider saving raw fish for a day when you can afford a splurge.
The best fish goes to the highest bidder, so when prices are high it’s not unreasonable to expect to be wowed. A few Portland sushi spots are worth the splurge.
Blue Fin Sushi has opened recently on campus, in the Broadway Building. Busy during mealtime, pull up a seat at this modern lunch counter and small plates will bustle by on a packed conveyor belt, priced from $1.25 to $3.50. Pick whatever looks good–the plates are color-coded and will be added up by your server when it is time to go.
Watch the cooks and pick what has just been made, especially if eating at off-peak hours. If you don’t see what you like, ask for it. You can get a checklist-type menu with all the options on it.
Servers are engaging, but the sushi cooks are not very approachable beyond the obligatory “Irasshaimase!” you’ll hear when walking through the door.
Rolls here are solid, and probably your best bet, but not super creative. A tempura shrimp and imitation crab roll was rolled with avocaco and unagi, river eel, and topped with the customary sweet and tangy sauce and toasted sesame seeds.
Another roll combined spicy sweet plum sauce with imitation crab, shrimp and crushed peanuts. At $2.75, it is a bargain.
Non-sushi items like potstickers and fried calamari are to be had as well, although order from the server so they come out hot and fresh.
Check out the stainless-steel automatic rice former, vaguely resembling a coffee grinder. Throw a handful of sticky sushi rice into the hopper and a perfectly formed rice patty comes out the bottom, saving the chefs precious time and wasted energy.
Take a quick walk up Broadway to Blue Fin when you need an easy dose of sushi love, not perfection. You’ll be in and out in a flash, and your wallet won’t take a big hit.
There are times when sushi is an experience, and Masu on the east side will furnish a meal not soon forgotten.
Masu has two outposts in Portland. Visit the eastside location when seeking top-notch sushi. The chef drives out to the airport each morning to pick up the fish he’s ordered, through exclusive contacts with a Los Angeles fish purveyor.
Owner Kristofor Lofgren said he is striving to expand Portland’s taste for sushi.
“A lot of people in Portland come into our restaurant and they don’t have the palate to distinguish between good fish and phenomenal fish,” Lofgren said. “We’re really trying to up the bar.”
Besides going to great lengths to get the best fish available, Masu’s kitchen crew labors to make the other elements of their food stand out in a sea of predictability. Mayonnaise for sushi rolls is made fresh daily, whisked by hand. Brioche buns for the tender Kobe beef burger are made in-house, providing a rich mop for flavorful juices.
The menu is varied, offering plenty of non-sushi options. Carefully prepared, the starters, salads and entrees are of high quality, but lack the expert hand given to the sushi. Kabocha dumplings, though a lovely radiant orange with grass-colored green onion oil, tasted as though the cook forgot the salt.
Sushi is the star of the show here, so don’t get distracted by the rest of the menu unless, well, you just don’t like sushi.
Rolls are small works of art, using perfect cuts of glistening fresh fish for every element. Prices are not cheap, but you will get your money’s worth. Portions are generous–one roll could easily make a meal, so think sharing to enable sampling.
The Clockwork Orange roll, composed of house-cured salmon, asparagus and cucumber, is topped with a tiny confetti dice of crispy salmon skin and more salmon. Some chefs would use scraps of lesser quality fish to turn into the salsa-like adornment on the top. Here it is the same stuff that turns into sashimi.
Ask the chef what’s fresh. Chances are he has gotten his hands on something you’ve never tried before. I didn’t regret trying ankimo, a bizarre-looking liver of monkfish. Neon orange and white, the liver had been poached and cut into thick slices, then drizzled with ponzu sauce and green onions. An unexpected creamy and firm texture, the flavor tasted like pungent ocean brine.
A chirashi bowl displayed the day’s offering of flawless fish atop a bed of rice, several slabs of each variety artfully separated by a thin slice of lemon or cucumber. At $19, this was large enough to make a light lunch for two people.
The eastside dining room reflects perfectly the austerity of this restaurant’s cuisine. Simple clean lines, warm wood and an abundance of black and white prevail. An extensive cocktail menu is available too, with customized versions on the classics.
The downtown location is open for dinner only, with a different menu and more of a bar feel. DJs spin tunes on Friday and Saturday, making this a hangout spot for nearby white-collar workers.
The menu is similar, though a bit less expensive, with happy hour food and drink specials.
Masu, 503-221-6278406 S.W. 13th Ave.Dinner only, daily
Masu East, 503-232-5255310 S.E. 28th Ave.Dinner dailyLunch Monday through Friday
Blue Fin Sushi 503-274-79221988 S.W. Broadway