Reader Survey Best Restaurants in Portland 2012 #16. New review 10/15/12
A lot has changed about Portland since my review of Biwa in 2008. Sure, Portland still isn’t much of a sushi town as compared to Seattle, Vancouver BC, or San Francisco. Yet good ramen and izakaya style dining were still a rarity in Portland in ’08, and Biwa was one of the leaders of the pack. I raved about the restaurant for their inventiveness, deep honor to tradition and obsessive commitment to quality. Fast forward to 2012. Now, with a good handful of both ramen and izakaya joints sprinkled about town, and very good ramen food carts, does Biwa still hold its own? The answer is yes; absolutely. Biwa is as good as ever.
Ramen was THE hot trend for a while, but remember, in Japan and China it has been around for a few hundred years. Warm, steamy, not-too-expensive and always satisfying, ramen is the perfect dish for Portland’s eight months of weather tending on the gray and cool side. Izakaya has now become a household word, and is as much an approach to going out to eat, as it is about the food. Izakaya matches Portland’s love of small plates, shared dishes, casual dining, drinking, and excitement over new tastes.
Noodles are an important part of Japanese food culture. In fact, the Japanese are as obsessive with their noodles as the Italians are with pasta; both share food influences brought by countries as diverse as Portugal and China. In Japan, noodles show up in stir fries, served chilled in the summer, and come topped with Wafuu style curry year round, but nowhere are they better loved than in soups. Thick wheat udon noodles might be served in a traditional broth made from dried bonito fish flakes and kombu seaweed, while Chinese-influenced ramen in rich meat broths make for a filling and cheap worker’s meal or a way to revive after a long night of drinking. While Biwa is neither a traditional noodle house nor a straight izakaya restaurant, they have found a happy balance between the two. Located in the basement of an old imposing church (they share the same building as Simpatica Dining Hall) in the industrial and pedestrian sparse SE 9th and Pine, there is no sign indicating the entrance, and parking can be difficult to find. Yet the space itself makes for a cozy den, with an open kitchen and corresponding counter seating, and a nicely divided dining room. The glow from candles on the tables and long rows of tall wooden booths against the walls keep everything from feeling too industrial.
The menu reflects the spirit of Izakaya, including echoes of the current Japanese love of certain foreign cuisines such as Hawaiian marinated fish poke or Korean dishes. Much of the food at Biwa is made up of small plates, but they are far from fussy or precious. It’s more like the Japanese equivalent of pub grub or the down-to-earth food found at countless tapas bars in Spain – simple, but freshly made and inspired. There are so many terrific dishes on Biwa’s menu it’s difficult to pick the standouts.
One big change at Biwa is the evolution and expansion of their sashimi. It’s always fresh, cut properly, and served with inspiration. You might find Atlantic diver scallop with basil and dashi alongside barbarian-style fried, pickled mackerel, while on another night there might be Maguro tuna served with avocado, Korean chili and ginger. On a recent visit I tasted a nightly special of escolar cured with soy sauce. Silky, rich and buttery, it reminded me a bit of the best cold smoked cod (often called sable) you find in some East Coast Jewish delis. Served with greens, shaved carrot and daikon the escolar was a highlight.
Biwa continues to rock the Ramen too, but gone are the homemade noodles. They have been swapped out with store-bought ones, that are frankly better than Biwa’s often inconsistent house-made version. The milky tonkotsu pork broths and light soyu broth are also retired, replaced by a signature broth of their very own made from chicken and pork, and tare (a dried fish broth made with things such as mushrooms, tomatoes, soy sauce and other “secret” ingredients). There are still several wonderful add-ons for $1-4 each, including chasyu pork, grilled egg, wakame, kimchi greens, and now a melt-in-your mouth slow-roasted pork shoulder. Thick and chewy wheat udon noodles are often the Cinderella to the more popular ramen. At Biwa they shine on equal footing. At $5 during late happy hour (9 pm to closing) both ramen and udon are a bargain here, but are still a perfectly good deal at $9 during other hours.
Other dishes vary depending on what’s in season and where the kitchen’s creativity seems to lead them. There’s always a fabulous house-made tskuemono pickle and a kimchi plate. Gyoza still makes its delicate and tender appearance, and the Yukke Korean beef tartare continues to highlight owner/chef Gabe Rosen and his staff’s knowledge of how to handle meat. With its smooth chop, intense sesame oil, garlic and god-knows-what-else, it perfectly encapsulates the Biwa approach to balanced flavors that pop on the tongue while the presentation remains classic.
Hot dishes on the other hand are light, but substantive, including marinated karaage fried chicken, pork fried rice, miso soup, sake steamed clams, and sweet fork-tender, slow-cooked pork belly simmered with kobocha squash. Biwa also makes one of my all-time favorites; the Japanese version of the sandwich, known as onigiri. These triangles of rice stuffed with a pickled umboshi plum, or fish such as salmon, come wrapped with nori, or as a grilled, un-stuffed version. Onigiri are highly satisfying and a good foil to the more intense and salty flavors of the soup, pickles or other dishes.
Izakaya restaurants often specialize in yakimono, which means “grilled things.” These are skewers and small plates such as the dengaku eggplant topped with a salty-sweet seasoned miso sauce, wonderfully fleshy and flavorful fresh shitake mushrooms, crispy mackerel, tender Kalbi marinated Korean beef ribs, or more intense offerings like grilled chicken hearts. Biwa continues to do a great job with each skewer coming out perfectly cooked. Try the chicken hearts, or isobeyaki grilled mochi for a real treat.
The happy hour, divided into 5-6:30 pm and 9-10 pm, is one of the best bargains around. You will find small bottles of better than average sake or well drinks for $5, $2 meat skewers, and other small plates such as onigiri and miso soup in the $2-$4 range. The only catch is that you have to order and eat at the counter to get happy hour prices, which may not work for large groups. Ramen and udon noodle soups are $5 (add ons are $1-$4 extra) and available from 9 pm to closing. If the Biwa burger is available (and it usually is late night), get it. Many feel it’s one of the best in town. A juicy burger with the addition of rich, smoky cha siu BBQ pork, and spicy kimchi mayo, it sums up a lot about the evolution of Biwa – Japanese pub grub, refined but not trying to take itself too seriously, and it works!
Finally, there is the extensive drink menu. Cocktails include concoctions that play off tradition, like the Nikka Sour made with Maker’s Mark, citrus and palm sugar, or the Biwa Martini with vodka and top shelf sake in lieu of the typical vermouth. Beer, sodas, teas, and other drinks such as wine are available, but it’s really hard to get past the sake list, which is well-chosen, featuring a wide range from dry to sweet, to unfiltered and a few rare varieties than can cost upwards of $40.00 for a 6 oz glass. I appreciate that Biwa offers detailed descriptions of the sake on their menu to help novices.
Service is generally stellar, some of the best in Portland, with an infectious enthusiasm about the menu. They are more than happy to take the time to answer any questions. Unfortunately, the kitchen has a few consistency issues. Ramen can vary depending on the day; a few times noodles are overcooked, or broth is very light one night, and super rich the next. Occasionally the food is too salty, while other times everything is on point.
Biwa has worked hard to become one of Portland’s better restaurants. It is very popular, so expect a wait during busy times, especially if you come with a group. Every time I’ve eaten at Biwa, I leave satisfied and happy. That’s the real gauge to me. Although the menu is not wildly innovative by Japanese standards, it’s not meant to be. This is damn good Japanese comfort food, refined. So whether I crave a long night of saké and nibbles among a large group of friends, or a simple bowl of ramen and a salad alone after work, I find myself returning to Biwa time and time again.