Bush Garden is a dinosaur of a Japanese restaurant, tucked inside the Smart Park on Southwest Morrison Street, near Pioneer Square. They used to do a brisk business with visiting Japanese businessmen and tourists, before Delta canceled all direct flights from Portland to Tokyo. But despite the loss of this clientele, the restaurant prospers as a purveyor of hard-to-find Japanese delicacies and some pretty high quality sushi.
The Garden's greatest claim to fame, though, is the availability of Tatami table dining. You know, where you shed your uncomfortable, nasty-smelling John Fluevogs and plunge your supple legs down beneath the table platform (it's ideal for playing footsy). Kimono-clad waitresses, some of whom have been here since the first Bush administration, are knowledgeable and attentive, and eager to explain some of the more obscure menu choices.
From the extensive list of hot and cold appetizers, I chose the shredded mountain potato over raw tuna, broiled taro balls with plum sauce, and deep-fried oysters. All were well executed, particularly the tender oysters, which had a more pungent oyster flavor than other versions I've tried around town. The mountain potato may be too exotic for some, as it was slimy and looked like an alien life form. But I enjoyed it.
The enormous Beef Teriyaki combination dinner came with miso soup (average), a wonderfully tart cucumber salad, and sides of both chicken yakitori and shrimp and vegetable tempura. Quite unlike the typical Oregonian "teriyaki," which I delight in more often than I'd like to admit, this stuff is simply a big broiled steak served on a sizzling platter with a side of teriyaki sauce. It was soft and juicy, but rather undistinguished from the kind of steaks your mom used to make back in the days when moms served steaks.
The yakitori and tempura looked pretty good, but there was so much food on the table, I didn't get around to trying them. It's no wonder that Portland's Sumo wrestlers like to eat here. The premium chef's choice sushi platter contained some real gems. A huge raw clam (at least I think it was a clam) topped with sea urchin was luscious. It had a creamy taste and texture, which is a quality that Bush Garden seems to strive for in many of its sushi creations. My piece of salmon was just fatty enough to achieve that coveted creaminess. The sushi was properly sized and formed, and set upon well-seasoned rice. Instead of the ubiquitous California roll, the dinner came with a marvelous spicy tuna roll, which was not, as is often the case, overrun with mayonnaise.
It's a bit worn at the seams, but for the depth of the menu, the intimacy of the Tatami rooms, and the traditional, well-prepared Japanese cuisine, Bush Garden is a worthy contender. And you can rest assured, none of the profits from your meal will go to energy companies, defense contractors, or the committee to reelect Jeb Bush in 2002--I already asked.