As a colleague of mine pointed out, naming a Japanese restaurant in the US "Yakuza" seems a little like opening a burger joint in Tokyo called "Crips." When I asked Yakuza's chef/owner Micah Camden about the name, a note of frustration crept into his voice. "Do you know anything about the Yakuza?" I had to admit that my understanding was limited to a few Japanese gangster movies—but since there's a note on the menu that says, "No, we are not the Yakuza or Japanese mafia!!!," I should've guessed that the restaurant's name might be a touchy subject.
According to Camden, the term "yakuza" was originally used to refer to misfits and outsiders, people who fell outside the fold of the traditional, strictly codified Japanese culture. Whether this definition is historically correct, I don't know; but it certainly fits with Camden's own approach, which he summed up simply: "I'm not Japanese, but I want to own a Japanese restaurant."
It's perhaps more appropriate to call Yakuza a Japanese- themed restaurant, more "aesthetically Japanese" (Camden's phrase) than anything else. The restaurant's whimsical murals are the first things to catch the eye; a sakura (cherry tree) spreads its blossoms over one wall, while the other is dotted with colorful parasols. The menu reflects a Japanese influence as well, of course: wasabi in a martini, kaiware sprouts in the English cucumber salad, a burger with Kobe beef instead of Strawberry Mountain. The integration of Japanese ingredients and Northwest cuisine is seamless, feeling less like self-conscious "fusion" than like a casual appropriation of certain ingredients that are, well, fun to cook with.
There are two menus, one for the kitchen, one for the sushi kitchen. Camden created, and cooks, all the non-sushi items, which currently consist of seven starters, a few salads, and four "specials," or entrée-sized meat dishes. There are a couple real standouts on the starter menu: On a shrimp tempura appetizer, shoestring potatoes crackled like an electrical current around huge shrimp, in a fantastic interplay of texture and flavors. The tempura-fried chèvre with honey and baguette is equally stunning—warm, spreadable goat cheese surrounded in crispy tempura crust, and drizzled in honey. The dish is on the starter menu, but I could see ordering it as a dessert—especially since the banana tempura we actually had for dessert wasn't terribly inspired: Fried banana always tastes kinda the same, and always makes me think of Elvis, and this was no exception. As for entrées, the Kobe burger, with bacon, fried potato crisps, and chèvre, is massive and delicious, while the soda pop-braised baby back ribs are sweet and tender.
There's a small sushi bar in the back of the restaurant, where you can sit and watch the affable sushi chefs whip up elegant rolls with fresh fish that's flown in twice a week. Specialty rolls are huge; I tried the popular pear and avocado roll with yellowtail tartar, which made a crisp, summery snack.
Camden also aims to emphasize the culinary aspect of cocktails: He and a bartender pinched from ten:01 are experimenting with juicing sugar snap peas and roasting beets in order to create distinct, distinguished seasonal cocktails. (Currently, the cocktail menu includes a house martini with wasabi, and a marmalade martini with kumquat.) Sake-lovers will also find much to love in the 15-odd bottles available, making the Yakuza a prime destination, whether your tastes run to cocktails and burgers, or sushi and sake.