RYAN ROADHOUSE moves in one fluid motion, scooping up a small pat of rice, forming it into a perfect bed, dabbing on freshly grated wasabi, and applying a perfect-pink helping of ocean trout that has been pressed with shoyu and sesame.
Perched on a stool at what used to be a sandwich counter in a side room of Pastaworks, I'm the most relaxed I've felt all week, even if I've been sitting there long enough that I've lost all feeling in my ass.
Roadhouse specializes in wildly creative Japanese prix fixe meals with themes including Twin Peaks, Harajuku, and Haruki Murakami ["A Culinary Love Letter to Haruki Murakami," Last Supper, Aug 27, 2014]. They're bursts of inspiration on small, often vegetable-forward plates served Thursday through Saturday. But in the last year, thanks to pleas from a persistent regular, he's expanded to include a Hardcore Omakase sushi dinner, which brings a level of perfection Portland had yet to see.
It's guaranteed to be 20-ish courses, with seasonal mackerel, fresh salty ikura that puts caviar to shame, and a level of execution that no other sushi joint in town can approach. It's also $120, not including drinks or tip, making it one of the most expensive meals in town. In the words of the great Ferris Bueller: If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.
This was my birthday treat and I was lucky enough to snag a reservation this month. (In between my eating of that meal and the writing of this review, Portland Monthly also named Nodoguro its restaurant of the year, a well-deserved title.)
Roadhouse begins the meal at 6:45 pm, rolling out a beautiful oyster with a ginger flower mignonette. While guests eat, the successive courses are being laid out on meticulously arranged plates, so you can start drooling in advance over the Phantom Rabbit Farm Japanese eggplant that's deep fried like the tastiest tater tot ever, served with seaweed and Kyoto miso as a dip. Six art-gallery-worthy courses stream by, including a monkfish liver tofu (the aquatic answer to foie gras) with yuzu puree and the tiniest water pepper buds, which had the most intense pop of spice per square millimeter I've ever encountered.
Then comes the nigiri, a procession of fish flown in from Tokyo's famed Tsukiji market and other select spots—Roadhouse works with a broker to find what's best, and builds his daily menu around it. It's amazing to think $2 sushi train plates (which I also love, not gonna lie) are even from the same planet.
The first up was a sea bream with poached monkfish liver; mackerel, including an impossibly silver slice of aji, served simply with a swipe of aged soy sauce; and a geoduck so fresh it curled as Roadhouse sliced it thin with a Japanese knife that can only be described as a mini katana.[slideshow-1]
With a slight nod, the soft-spoken Roadhouse summons more rice from the back, constantly refreshing his meticulously prepared supply. His partner, Elena, is among those providing friendly and vigilant service. Chopsticks are frowned upon—in Japan, nigiri is eaten with your hands, in one single bite meant to be savored.
It's topped off with a $30 drink pairing by Paul Willenberg, which on our trip included a freakishly peaty sake made in Fukushima before the nuclear disaster. It's not made anymore, so trying a rice-based alcohol that tastes like Scotch was a treat.
This isn't the kind of place where substitutions are a thing, so I felt bad for the dude who clearly got icked out by the parade of raw fish. But for the rest of us lucky eaters, Roadhouse did an encore round after the meal was officially over, slicing up more ginger-poached eel and ocean trout on request. We waddled out around 10 pm.
Roadhouse isn't shy about saying that he prefers the less tradition-bound freedom that the prix fixe menu provides. (For his upcoming book, Questlove recently flew Roadhouse down to LA to recreate his Twin Peaks-themed menu for David Lynch himself. Lynch was really appreciative, Roadhouse says.) He also only books meals one month at a time, meaning he can drop it anytime like lukewarm toro. But Roadhouse just added a second night of omakase, so start saving up now for a treat in a few months.
Hardcore Omakase sushi nights: Wed & Sun. Japanese prix fixe: Thurs-Sat. Reservations required.