I have to admit, I don't know much about sake. I'll drink anything you put in front of me, of course, but as for really appreciating it—I've long considered sake to be just another taste that I can't quite afford to acquire. The accessibility of sake in Portland has recently gotten a serious boost, though, with the opening of NE Alberta's Zilla, a sake bar boasting the largest selection in the city.
Sake may be poised to become the Next Big Thing in the drink world, but the atmosphere in Zilla has none of the exclusivity or snobbery you might expect from the foremost representative of a burgeoning trend. If anything, the opposite is true: Both the service and the space at Zilla are welcoming enough that any sense of intimidation surrounding a foray into unfamiliar gustatory territory dissipates almost immediately.
The bar boasts over 40 varieties of the Japanese rice wine, organized by polish ratio. (Polish ratio refers to the percentage of the rice grain that remains after excess fats and lipids—which can adversely affect the quality of the final beverage—have been polished from the surface of the grain.) Each sake gets a few sentences of description in the menu, and the servers are quick with recommendations if you find choosing one variety out of the extensive list a little overwhelming. There are also samplers available, including a $12 flight from Forest Grove's Moonstone Sake.
Comparing the handsome, cork-bound sake menu with the one-page paper food menu makes it clear that the emphasis here is on drink, rather than food—but even though the food menu is limited, considerable care has been taken with each item, all of which are small plates designed to be shared. The spicy ika (a dried squid jerky served with wasabi sauce for dipping) is served in a fibrous, tangled heap that, despite its resemblance to a bowl full of hair, makes for a perfect drinking snack, chewy and salty, with occasional dips into sinus-clearing wasabi. Seared tuna with sake marinade is elegantly presented and reasonably portioned for the price ($8), while a large bowl of warm edamame, peppered and dashed with ginger, beats the hell out of peanuts.
The space is small, pleasant, and dark, with lots of dark wood and gray-green walls—the type of room that feels cozy on a cold day, cool on a hot one. The interior design is understated, but notes like the metal-framed paintings on the walls and the lovely wooden backbar reveal a studied attention to detail. A few high-backed booths have inlaid carvings that light up prettily, while a long wood bar and a loungy front area lined with cushioned benches offer a range of seating options.
My only complaint about Zilla is that their sake-based cocktail list is limited and not particularly interesting. The "Fuzzy Feeling" combines peach sake, orange juice, and raspberry Stoli for a twist on the Fuzzy Navel—but who drinks Fuzzy Navels? What am I, 55? The sake julep, while tasty in execution, is similarly banal in concept. It would be nice to see some more creativity demonstrated here—perhaps making use of some of the ingredients the kitchen has already—rather than simply sake-fied versions of standard cocktails.
Maybe quibbling over cocktails at a sake bar is missing the point, though—and either way, it's the one off note in what is otherwise a genuinely likeable and unusual addition to Portland's bar scene.