Portland Monthly's Restaurant of the Year: Nodoguro
Nodoguro has more eccentric characters than a Quentin Tarantino film. There’s a blade-wielding master of Japanese cooking, who happens to be Spanish Canadian. There’s his wife, a lawyer by day/host by night who sets an elaborate stage for every meal, glue gun at the ready. Her dad—Nodoguro’s Mr. Wolf—hangs fabric, battles leaky pipes, and washes dishes. He speaks mostly Russian and once built military planes. The house farmer has a Mad Max haircut and GQ looks. And then there’s the room itself, which absorbs a new persona every month, be it Mad Hatter’s Tea Party or Twin Peaks. The cast bands together five nights a week to deliver a consummate Portland experience: transportive food and a one-of-a-kind mood, a Japanese tea ceremony with the heart of a grade-school musical.
The restaurant was born as a lark in 2014. Months earlier, excitement over a new fish master, Ryan Roadhouse, was growing. He’d trained under Japanese sensei, headed Denver’s high-wire Sushi Den at age 25, and now was turning heads at downtown Portland’s Masu. “A friend heard I was starting a super-secret ‘pop-up,’” Roadhouse remembers. “It was the first I had heard of it, but it sounded like a great idea.” In short order, he and wife Elena launched a roving dinner experiment. It quickly evolved into a must-try, reservations-only destination in the former Evoe space on Hawthorne and earned Roadhouse Portland Monthly’s tag as 2014’s Rising Star Chef. Things have only become deeper and more fascinating since then.
Monthly themes, cultural touchstones brought to life by Elena, provide both inspiration and framework; word play and decorations condense into tasting menus of remarkable precision. July’s detour into Wonderland brought waves of playing cards across the chef’s counter and a seriously down-the-rabbit-hole menu. Melons danced in smoky tea and frozen maple milk, a turnkey tin of tuna was flavored with Alice’s “pig and pepper,” fir trees were spun as cotton candy. August’s “3 Day Monk” menu found us eating enlightened sesame tofu, laboriously pounded from seeds. Fall’s homage to Tokyo’s wild Harajuku street-fashion district found expression in pork seasoned like the interior of a gyoza dumpling, Japanese vegetables from cook Mark Wooten’s Phantom Rabbit Farm, and playfully garbed mannequins.
Bubbling beneath each meal is the hidden complexity (and ego-free calm) of Roadhouse’s cuisine. He’s well armed with modernist tricks but never lets on—even on the plate. That simple mackerel salad you just inhaled? The fish was cured, air-dried, expertly crisped, spritzed with dashi-soy vapors, then dressed in curry vinegar crafted days before from the clarified liquid of a spiced stew.
Nodoguro’s regulars are very much part of the show: There’s Gary the Foodie, John the Bastard, Julie the Japanophile, Paul the Wine Nerd, Pechluck the blogger, and an elder trio who call themselves “the hungry broads.” Opinionated counter debates are the norm. New converts are flying in (recently spotted: Japanese sushi cooks from Missouri). Nodoguro’s biggest new fan? The Roots’ Questlove, who had the Roadhouses remount the restaurant’s buzzed-about Twin Peaks dinner in LA for David Lynch himself this summer—doughnuts, fish-in-a-percolator, and all. (It’s getting a spread in the multitalented drummer’s upcoming book on chefs as artists and innovators.)
This year, Nodoguro added another undeniable draw: “Hardcore Omakase” sushi nights twice weekly. Diners dig in to wild fish from Japan’s famed markets, expertly sliced, paired with superb warm rice, and prepared with enough ritual care to make Jiro dream of Portland. One night, another regular, Mike the Fireman, summed up Nodoguro’s magic while lost in some outrageously good uni: “I think I just found my last meal; you know, the thing you eat before you’re put to sleep. This is it.”