Japanese Rising

At this diminutive eatery in Nob Hill, sake may be king, but the food that’s paired with it is what holds us captive.

By Camas Davis May 19, 2009 Published in the August 2008 issue of Portland Monthly

OF ALL THE DISHES a restaurant critic is liable to get excited about, shrimp salad sure doesn’t seem a likely candidate. Yet ever since my first bite of the ebi sudachi at Tanuki, a tiny Japanese restaurant and bar tucked away near NW 21st Avenue and Flanders Street, my tastebuds have been forever altered for the better. Imagine cold, sweet, tiny bay shrimp (ebi) that have been seasoned with sudachi, a small, round, green citrus fruit that’s rarely seen outside of Japan and that’s more aromatic and piquant than the lemon or lime we’re used to. The shrimp is pickled for six hours in a mashed mixture of sudachi peels, shallot, garlic, a house-blended soy sauce, and a sprinkling of shiso, mint, and coriander. Bite into a forkful of shrimp and you’re privy to a cool, summery combination of salty, sweet, sour, spicy, and savory that’s downright addictive. (During one meal, I told my dining companion that I could feel the flavors actually shifting my brain chemistry as I ate.)

And so it goes with most everything on Tanuki’s menu: From the ebi sudachi to the pickled vegetables to the grilled salt-and-pepper shrimp skewers, each dish is so headily flavored that not only will you savor them, you won’t be able to get them out of your mind.

Headed up by chef Janice Martin, who worked in Cleveland, Ohio, for six years under the close eye of a Japanese chef, Tanuki is named after an inebriated Japanese spirit that shape-shifts at will in pursuit of all things pleasurable—be it women, sake, beer, or food. As such, Martin’s focus is on Japanese “drinking foods”—sometimes authentic, sometimes not—that go well with alcohol, primarily sake, in the manner of an izakaya, or tavern, where everything is meant to be shared. The best way to experience Tanuki? Gather three or four people and order every item on the menu. Not only will you have eaten nary a dish you’ve tasted before in this town, but you’ll also have paid less than $75 altogether. You may not know what you’re ordering (the menu can be confusing at times, listing ingredients most diners probably haven’t heard of), but rarely will you be disappointed—except when that delicious dish you love disappears from the ever-changing menu. For instance, soon after the shottsuru manju—steamed wheat buns filled with salty pulled pork braised in an intense Japanese fish sauce known as shottsuru—had me hooked, it was no longer offered.

But no matter. Martin always seems to come up with something else delightful to take its place: like okonomiyaki, fluffy rice-flour griddle cakes stuffed with shrimp, green onion, cabbage, and bean sprouts—a kind of Japanese pizza that’s subtle in its textures and tastes, but, when topped with smoky bonito flakes and dipped in a deep red, slightly sweet pepper sauce, becomes a bold combination of flavors from the earth and sea. Or the rafutei ssam. A hearty, wintry dish of pork belly braised in awamori, a distilled alcoholic beverage that hails from Okinawa, rafutei ssam is meant to be folded into delicate chive crêpes with lettuce, pickled daikon, and a quartet of condiments, from pickled garlic to a ginger-chile jelly. I could easily eat this finger food for lunch every day.

My only real complaint? This is food I want to linger over, order second helpings of, all while getting a little tipsy with friends—but the atmosphere just doesn’t feel conducive to long, drawn-out meals. Not only is the restaurant tiny, but the place feels too thrown together. The walls have been painted a soothing shade of red, but the lighting is so poor that as the sun goes down, I begin to feel as though I’m sitting in a cave. A haphazard bar is situated toward the back, but there are no stools to sit on, and no one actually stands behind it, which makes that corner feel like a dreary void. And each time I walked in, the distinct smell of either fish or fermenting vegetables permeated the room. While the odors demonstrate that Martin is actually doing what her menu says (cooking fresh fish and preparing her own kimchi, which means curing and fermenting vegetables), I could see they nonetheless deterred diners unaccustomed to the strong scents. During the summer, you could avoid all of this by sitting outside, but come winter, that won’t be a viable option.

Clearly, Martin is in the business because of her passion for cooking, not decorating, and her enthusiasm is certainly welcome in this town of same-old, same-old chicken teriyaki and udon soup. As a result, most of the customers that frequent Tanuki are of the food-and-drink-obsessed variety—those of us whose appetites hold such tremendous sway over our day-to-day decisions that we’re willing to eat in cramped, unadorned surrounds or unappealing spaces if the meal tastes good—those of us, in other words, with a little tanuki inside.