Image: Lauren Lark

Poker-faced cooks vigorously fan the flames on their custom-made robata grill, a coveted Japanese barbecue that uses traditional holm oak charcoal. Skewers of chicken and duck liver meatballs, tiger prawns, and okra line the grate, blackening over scorching wood smoke. That grill is the heart and soul of Bamboo Izakaya, a promising new eatery and drinking den—and sister restaurant to Portland’s sustainable sushi franchise.

Bamboo is an immersive experience: hanging lanterns, bamboo canopies, and tin awnings lend the NE Alberta Street spot’s 64-seat dining room a rustic Japanese vibe. Follow izakaya tradition and order a drink from the lengthy list of sake, shochu (a vodka-like distilled Japanese spirit), and Japanese whiskey. A big cocktail list rounds out the menu with Japanese fusions like a kimchi Bloody Mary stirred with smoked soy sauce.

Izakaya—the Japanese take on a pub—is nothing new to Portland, but Bamboo is the first using what they term cruelty- and hormone-free meats, grilled over a top-dollar stove with pure-oak charcoal. You’ll taste the difference in spears of smoky, rare skirt steak and in a standout salted mackerel for two, butterflied open and grilled until crisp and buttery alongside a white ponzu dipping sauce. But beyond the smoke, Bamboo also tackles small, comforting plates, from deep-fried orbs of headcheese tonkatsu to coconut-kaffir braised pork cheeks in a thick stew. 

Skewers aside, there is a gimmick factor. Bamboo’s more Americanized brunch menu features a “bacon flight”—a sampling of five varieties, from Oregon’s own Carlton Farms to Nueske’s bacon from Wisconsin. The dessert menu includes something called uni crème brûlée: a ramekin of thin, runny custard without a hint of the promised saline funk of sea urchin. 

But Bamboo’s awkward moments are small hiccups in an otherwise tasty operation. They’ve nailed the transportive digs, they’ve nerded out over the right grilling equipment, and they’ve kept their promise of ethical meat and fish. With a second izakaya planned for downtown’s West End in late spring, the Bamboo brand is poised for a sustainable Japanese takeover. We’ll raise a skewer to that.

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