Chef Naoko’s Bento Café Gets a Redesign from Star Japanese Architect Kengo Kuma
Kengo Kuma is not the kind of architect you'd expect to see working on a small Portland neighborhood restaurant. Kuma, one of Japan’s most celebrated designers, is in the midst of a $33.5-million-dollar renovation for the Portland Japanese Garden. Soon, his firm will start construction on a massive wooden stadium for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. And in between, he redesigned Chef Naoko, a tiny, hole-in-the-wall bento spot at 1237 SW Jefferson St. serving farm-fresh boxes. Eat Beat has an exclusive look at the beautiful new space, now dubbed “Shizuku by Chef Naoko,” which will softly open Tuesday-Saturday.
Owner Naoko Tamura and Kuma met during his visits to the Japanese Garden. His obsession with landscape and natural materials meshed with her fascination with organic and natural food. The two hit it off, and he agreed to take on the remodel of her 16-seat, eight-year-old space, expanding next door into a 60-seat space with double the kitchen size. (Good thing, too, since Chef Naoko’s catering kitchen supplies Japanese entrees for Delta’s non-stop flights from PDX to Tokyo).
Near the entrance sit a low-lying tatami platform and Japanese stone garden. The tatami space is meant for traditional tea ceremonies, a new endeavor for Tamura. The stone garden, a very intentional rectangle of rock, gravel, and ikebana flower arrangements, was designed by Sadafumi Uchiyama, the garden curator for the Portland Japanese Garden.
According to local architect Lorraine Guthrie, who helped execute the design, Naoko’s bamboo forest aesthetic comes from a series of hanging sudare screens, turned sideways to create wavy, curving designs. Oregon white oak is used for the seven-seat bar and surrounding tables. Behind the bar, sliding panels hold a collection of hard-to-find ceramics and tableware from Tamura’s recent trip to Japan.
Besides more elbow room, what does all of this mean for Chef Naoko’s cult followers? Lunch is mostly the same: bento boxes arranged with organic chicken, Carlton pork shumai, and grilled Alaskan salmon, accompanied by assorted bites of rice, miso soup, pickles, and greens. But dinner, says Tamura, will be much different. It’s still in the R&D phase (she's experimenting with different plates and approaches for the first few weeks), but diners can expect a more intricate, “Japanese” preparations. Naoko says that eight years ago, she might've been hesitant to go such a formal route, but the continued growth of Japanese food culture in Portland gives her hope.
Shizuku by Chef Naoko
1237 SW Jefferson St.
Lunch: Tues–Fri, 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m.
Dinner (reservations only). Email [email protected] at least 24 hours ahead
Tues–Thurs, 6:30–9:30 p.m.
Fri: 6:30–10 p.m.
Sat: 5–10 p.m.