IF JIRO DREAMS of sushi, what knocked him into his sweet sleep was probably a sake or five at an izakaya.
In Tokyo, izakaya are hole-in-the-wall establishments, often with no more than a dozen seats, where salarymen down a few beers before returning home on the train, or college kids pre-func before they hit the clubs in Shibuya. Izakaya can be chic or dingy, but there are always meat skewers and sake aplenty. Done right, they're a goddamn blast.
Think of it this way: If a sushi bar is the type-A first child, all precise knife cuts and years of training molding rice by hand, izakaya is the relaxed youngest child who parties until dawn. So, consider NE Alberta's new Bamboo Izakaya a natural progression from the partners behind the pricey and precious Bamboo Sushi.
Grab a table under paper lanterns, or even better, with a friend or two around the grill. This is all about small, salty plates of drinking food—work your way around the menu, ordering piecemeal and enjoying multiple beverages as you go. Start with a cocktail like the Chu Hai ($8), an effervescent high-end nod to Japan's equivalent of Mike's Hard Lemonade.
Order the $15 salted mackerel. What the menu doesn't tell you is that it's going to arrive gloriously whole, spread out like a bear rug across the plate. This is when you should switch to a flight of shochu or sake—three generous shots in the $15 to $19 range. Dig into the fish with fingers and chopsticks, dipping the charred, moist flesh in ponzu sauce, and garnish with green onion and micro-planed daikon radish. Eat the super salty eye. Go on, do it.
Go crazy on the other kushiyaki, skewers grilled over binchotan (white) charcoal on the robata grill. A pork belly skewer ($3) is chewy with savory fish sauce. A platter of baby back ribs on special ($12) were lathered in five-spice and served as a finger-licking small rack. Bonito flakes danced over the heat rising from the soy tare-flavored okra ($3).
The okra's the best of the garden patch: Veggies seem to be Bamboo Izakaya's main weakness, like the overpowering maple sweetness on the Brussels sprouts ($3), or the oddly all-onion order of seasonal tempura ($7). A grilled asparagus salad ($6) was far too spicy, but was removed from our bill with hardly a peep from us. Also, dessert needs fine tuning, or maybe just elimination: an uni crème brûlée ($8) was just unsettling, and the whiskey boudino ($9) was mostly savory.
Get a cup of the Suntory Hibiki 12-year whisky ($14), and wish that the lights were a bit lower to hide the flush creeping up your neck. From the small plates, try the head cheese tonkatsu ($6), and the okonomiyaki ($7), a savory pancake with pork and cheddar. Finish with the coconut kaffir lime-braised pork cheeks ($12), a Thai sour-sweet pick-me-up before you face the cool night air.
Hungover from the festivities the night before? Head back to Bamboo Izakaya for brunch. Right now, there are no lines.
I'm a little disappointed there isn't a version of the traditional Japanese breakfast—a whole fish, bowl of rice, bowl of miso, maybe some eggs and veggies. But there are some breakfast dishes that push American breakfast boundaries. The oyakodon (meaning "parent and child") is a slightly sweet scramble of chicken and eggs in a dashi sauce over sticky rice ($10). It does Japan's 24-hour comfort food justice.
Largely, however, brunch is made up of Asian-influenced crowd-pleasers: the spiced Bloody Maria and Mary offerings are both smoky and balanced, and there are three kinds of eggs benedict on offer. Dinner and brunch also offer an opportunity to get yer mitts on the often overlooked, but very good, Bamboo burger ($14).
And, in the ultimate bit of Portland brunch trolling, there is a BACON FLIGHT. I shit you not, it's five slices of bacon from across the country, grilled on the robata and served together for $12. As much as I hate this, I fell for it, as we nibbled each piece and declared our favorites (it's the Snake River Farms Kurobuta pork from Boise, just the right blend of smoke and not too fatty).
What makes an izakaya truly successful is cultivating a place where you can let go of your cares—sitting back and taking in the drink, company, and nosh. This is nearly achieved at Bamboo. But the price point makes it hard to forget there's a bill coming at the end. And there are problems when Bamboo Izakaya lets the fastidiousness of Bamboo Sushi slip in. A $12 special sashimi plate of wild ocean trout, for example, was five frail slices of fish that just didn't hack it on the izakaya menu.
There are already plans for a second location downtown. This is good news, because when Bamboo Izakaya takes the good qualities of its older sister restaurant—sustainable ingredients and a sharp eye for quality—and then turns it into something funky and drunky, I can only hope there are more siblings on the way.
Mon-Thurs 5 pm-midnight; Fri-Sat 5 pm-1 am; brunch Sat-Sun 9 am-2 pm. No reservations. Full bar. Get dessert at Cupcake Jones next door, then drink more at the Knock Back. You're welcome.