3449 NE 24th St.
Portlanders might already know the unfortunate history of the NE 24th and Fremont address. The chef at SE Hawthorne's superb Compass Cafe valiantly went there to open the Dining Room. It was a classy place that specialized in fish, steaks, and pasta. It seemed like a solid addition to the neighborhood. But, its days were numbered. Folks said it was simply a bad spot for a restaurant, that nothing could survive on that corner. Yet, judging by the recent weekend dinner crowds hitting new tenant Aja, the hex isn't sticking.
First off, know how to pronounce the place--it's Asia, like the continent, but spelled like the Steely Dan album. Chef/owner Paul Moss is a big fan of the band. Second, resist the urge to call Aja's food fusion. The Korean and Japanese influences are deliberate but generally subtle.
For small plates and starters, Aja's miso soup is an excellent twist on the traditional, minimal Japanese version. The salty white miso is served hot and stocked with slivers of carrots, shredded cabbage, delightfully chewy udon noodles, and house-smoked chicken or firm, local Ota tofu. The "red cooked" duck gets a treatment similar to Chinese barbecued pork. The sweet and tangy sauce goes perfectly with the juicy duck and is served in a martini glass with its cracklings. The beef skewers are tender and flavorful, with subtle notes of vinegar and pepper. --The best of the appetizers, though, are the scallop "cigars." Sure to become known as one of Aja's signature dishes, the briny diver scallops are rolled up with crisp veggies and cilantro, fried egg-roll style, and dotted with pastel green dollops of wasabi aioli for kick.
As for dinner, the menu is well-balanced and constructed with top-notch ingredients like Misty Island beef, Carlton pork, Draper chicken, and local and organic produce. The Koda rice, from a discerning California grower, can be analyzed like fine wine. It's creamy, with a hint of vanilla, and is like nothing you've ever put on your tongue.
The ingredients are put to the test when dishes like local mushroom ragout or beef short ribs arrive at your table. The ribs are bathed in a medium spicy soy sauce. The flat iron steak isn't as mighty, but the generous accompaniment of shitakes and crispy wasabi potato cake nudge it into the win column. And "Grandma Thayer's" meatloaf might give the version at Mother's Bistro a run for its money--it's nutty, herby, and fragrant.
Where Aja falls flat is breakfast. On one hand, it's refreshing to see them offer miso soup (just like in Japan), homemade granola, and more of that great Ota tofu. But Aja is not the place to go if you want a good omelet. The bacon and tomato scramble is good, portion-wise, but sloppily prepared. The newest addition, a smoked chicken and fried rice folded omelet is an admirable experiment, but one better left to more tinkering. Maybe herbs? Maybe a hint of gari (Japanese pickled ginger)?
The nicest thing about Aja is the lack of pretension it couples with the great food. After all, if this neighborhood restaurant is going to succeed, it has to lure in out-of-area diners, but more importantly, the folks from down the street. At present, Aja looks like it's got a great shot.