Bamboo Sushi is a Portland micro chain with three locations. MagoGuide dined on four occasions at their 23rd Ave. NW location. In a sushi-drenched gastropolis, Bamboo’s differentiator is its dedication to serving only sustainably raised and harvested seafood. In fact, Bamboo Sushi is the first Marine Stewardship Council-certified sushi restaurant in the world.
Telephone: (971) 229-1925
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Rostra rating: 4
Eating at the Sushi Bar
Eating at Bamboo Sushi requires some sacrifice on the part of its patrons. Sushi superstars like toro and uni are rarely to be had, and those species that the Japanese are systematically killing to extinction are right out. Along with a salved conscious, however, it is quite possible to pamper your palate at this restaurant. Just follow three simple rules: 1) sit at the sushi bar, 2) ask the platoon of sushi chefs what is good, 3) eat their suggestions. Here are several offerings Team Mago sampled:
MagoGuide considers menus at sushi restaurants to be particularly useless. They impart very little information to the diner concerning either the quality of ingredients or the skills of the chef. At Bamboo Sushi we cut out this impediment by setting up a challenge for the denizens of the sushi bar that we pursued throughout multiple visits. We started each session with a request for a spicy hand roll of the chef’s design, but with the twist that we wanted a different roll for each diner. Holding a single variable constant but maxim freedom with the others within a category as diverse as hand rolls allowed us to judge the results in terms of both culinary skill set and creativitiy. We were very pleasantly surprised when three separate meals resulted in six very different takes on our basic request:
- Salmon with black tobiko, cucumbers, and a melange of five different peppers.
- Salmon and asparagus ignited with “mystery peppers”.
- Cobia (king fish sustainably farmed in offshore cage systems), avocado, micro sprouts, jalapeño, and sweet pickled asparagus.
- Yellowtail with avocado, micro sprouts, and habaneros.
- Albacore tuna tinged red with hontaka chiles.
- Maguro using habaneros for heat.
Mago Tip: Try to get seats on the right side of the sushi bar. The head sushi chef’s station is in the right hand corner of the bar as diners face it. We had the pleasure of attending Chef Kevin’s station on our most recent visit and he added touches to our order that we did not experience at other locations around the bar. Chef Kevin distributed the construction of our hand rolls amongst his minions in order to expedite their construction, but he also made sure that their order of presentation coincided with their increasing levels of heat. Bravo Chef Kevin for attending to style points while dealing with a blizzard of tickets in a packed restaurant. Diners’ insistence upon seating placement at the sushi bar and the patience to wait for seats to open up will be amply rewarded at Bamboo Sushi.
MagoGuide heartily endorses the following three regular roles, although the chefs are happy to make any of them as a hand roll too:
The Local Roll consisted of albacore, strips of red jalapeño and cucumbers inside topped with east coast red crab mixed with spicy sesame aioli and black tobiko. This roll had very decent heat that evolved in a slowly building burn. The black tobiko was a nice touch (think fish poprocks) but it made dipping a bit difficult.
Chasing the Dragon included shrimp tempura, spicy tuna, house crab, cucumbers, avocado, and red tobiko rolled in tempura crisps. A very pretty roll with nice muted crunchitude on the outside. The finely diced cucumber was a nice visual and textural addition, while the bright red flying fish roe enhanced the roll’s flavor profile.
Spider roll well-executed and again very visually appealing use of finely diced veggies. The tempura soft shell crab gave the roll a very rich flavor. This was seriously a superior take on a ubiquitous offering at “all you can eat” sushi abominations.
With respect to nigiri or sashimi, do not even bother with the menu. Ask one or more of the folks whacking up the fish (in the nicest possible way) what is fresh that day and order it. Bamboo Sushi usually has three to five types of sustainable seafood that arrived less than 24 hours prior.
Two things on the menu you definitely want to order are House on Fire mackerel and aburi nigiri. Perhaps the most under rated fish in the sea, for this dish mackerel is grilled, drizzled in red chile oil, topped with pickled mustard seed “caviar”, and then seasoned with lemon charcoal and alder wood smoke. It was terrific, amped fishy flavors supported by smoky, medium heat. The charred lemon and pickled mustard seeds rocked as well. The presentation, which involved an unveiling by a very excited waiter, could get old as I intend to have this dish every time I show up.
Aburi nigiri is sweet or savory soy marinated albacore belly that is lightly kissed by a culinary torch. This was a great way to serve fish so juicy sweeeet.
Tempura at Bamboo Sushi is outstanding. The batter is ethereal and the end product virtually greaseless. While the white shrimp and cod are exemplary, the real jewels in the tempura crown are vegetables, especially onion rings and squash (kabocha).
The miso eggplant, not so much. The eggplant was blatantly undercooked, which is sad because otherwise it had a nice sweet and salty flavor that could really have used some unctuous eggplant notes.
Whatever small flaws we discovered on the regular menu, however, pale in comparison to Bamboo Sushi’s phoned in happy hour. In a town and neighborhood where happy hour has replaced soup as the test of a kitchen, this one is a real dud. To start with, happy hour at Bamboo Sushi is just that, one hour in length from 5 to 6 PM. Patrons are subjected to more than just temporal restrictions, however. You can’t sit at the sushi bar or even in the main part of the restaurant. One is restricted to one type of beer (draft Sapporo), one cocktail, one type of white or red wine (from California? in Portland?) and one type of cold or warm sake if you want HH prices. On MagoGuide’s visit, the draft Sapporo was overly malty. Perhaps the keg was old or the pipes had not been cleaned recently/properly. Their draft Goodlife IPA was much better (but you pay full price for the privilege). But mainly, the food is definitely inferior to the anything else on offer in the restaurant.
The daily hand roll contained an under-spiced dollop of albacore tuna and the roll itself was served unraveling on the plate and possessed a very inferior rice to other stuff ratio when compared to those served at the sushi bar at regular prices.
Pickled veggies were nicely presented, but very uneven. The best were the spicy bok choy, crunchy fiddlehead ferns, and apples, which delivered a nice funky aftertaste. The asparagus, pickled burdock root, and daikon were merely OK, while the squash was mealy and (again) under-seasoned.
Char grilled shishito peppers were served tossed with miso butter and bacon topped with bonito flakes. The peppers themselves were good, delivering either charred vegetal notes or nice heat, but the rest of the dish was a mess. You could not taste the miso in the butter and the bacon while good was definitely out of place. A very heavy hand with the bonito flakes enhanced the messiness.
Steamed buns turned out to be pork belly sliders garnished with arugula. Fine for what they were, but bearing little resemblance to anything asian.
Bottom line: go elsewhere for happy hour, but be sure to hit the sushi bar, especially when it is not slammed.