A decade ago, Biwa was where all my hip friends—who worked at hotspots like Beaker & Flask and Gruner—just had to be, especially for the revelatory late night burger and yakitori being turned out by the kitchen.
Today, neither of these restaurants exists. The obituary for Beaker & Flask was written in 2013. Gruner’s obit was published in 2015.
Consider this as both an obituary and birth announcement: Biwa is dead, long live Biwa.
At 10 years in, owners Gabe Rosen and Kina Voelz killed the Biwa that we’ve known and loved, and replaced it with two new projects that expand upon different elements that previously resided on the same menu. The old Biwa restaurant space is now home to Parasol, a casual cocktail bar with workaday Japanese dishes like udon and curry rice.
Biwa is now Biwa Izakaya, and has moved into the couple’s former 600-square-foot office in the same building. It’s now a cozy dark-wooded den with expanded sashimi, a shellfish bar, and more delicate and refined small plates.
“We designed a fun and sophisticated new omakase experience... we even brought an oden pot over from Japan,” Rosen told Portland Monthly when announcing the changes last fall. “It’s more carefully orchestrated. More wow and drama, more of a dance piece.”
Like any dance not expertly performed, the new Biwa Izakaya has some thrilling lifts and some tricky missteps. Some of the old favorites are still there—like the yukke, their OG tartare with Korean flavors, and the grilled rice balls of yore. But much is new.
Yakitori, formerly a foundation of the Biwa menu, has disappeared from both Biwa Izakaya and Parasol. At Biwa Izakaya, the former freewheeling omakase service where your server picked your dishes has been replaced by a set course for the night.
A recent February omakase ($55 per person) tapped into some charming bites, like a chawanmushi egg custard served in the shell with roe sprinkled on top, its flavors all light and brine. Likewise, a gorgeous shellfish plate, with firm king crab, homey smoked mussels, six oysters, and two fat shrimp curled like pin-up models with mermaid tails on ice.
But many experiences varied—the sashimi plate was gorgeous to behold, but a geoduck served raw “chowder style” was flat in a creamy sauce with flecks of bacon, while a slightly seared albacore with tiny lemon slices was sturdy and sublime.
Service was muddled; our server failed to ask if we wanted more water or drinks on several visits, and he didn’t know much about what was coming out beyond the basics. Also, if you or your date suffer from any mobility issues, plan to sit at the bar—the high benches packed tightly against tall tables were precarious to slide into, and sitting for the multi-course meal was tiring on the old butt cheeks.
The quality and care is there, however, and I can’t wait to return for some winter comfort of oden with braised meat and vegetables. Parasol Bar, with its counter service and fantastic drinks, seems to be more dialed in than its refined neighbor after four months in action.
Parasol retains that basement feel where drinking and munching are encouraged, just like using your fingers to hold a dish called only “the ribs” ($8)—super tender twice cooked pork with just the right hit of spices. On a trip before a recent Blazers game, we ordered the gyoza ($5) twice because one each for our four-person party wasn’t enough.
Drinks are miles above most Asian-style cocktail bars, probably because they don’t hew solely to Asian ingredients. The desperado ($11), is a savory mix of Buffalo Trace bourbon, punt y mes and mole bitters, while the gimlet ($8), with Aviation gin, lime and ginger, compliments the salty soy-based snacks without being obvious.
On one trip, the udon was slightly over-reduced and was headed toward too salty, but the noodles were perfectly cooked and the $2 extra for an egg and tanuki “fried bits” made it a solid $8 bowl of soup. The $10 plate of mild Japanese curry topped with a juicy-crisp tonkatsu patty is enough to fill anyone up on the cheap. But I’d be loathe to miss one of the better okonomiyaki ($7), the savory Japanese pancake with pork belly and cabbage, served with a healthy topping of bonito flake, waving away in the heat waves put off by the cake.
The old Biwa was beloved by those who had been here for years, but Rosen and Voelz have met big new competition in their decade in business—notably the monstrously popular (and monstrously overpriced) Afuri Izakaya less than a half mile away.
I’m tempted to mourn the loss of the old Biwa, with its high-end fare mixing it up with the street food, consumed under the dim paper lights with friends. Instead, I choose to celebrate its continuation.