If I had asked my daruma for the ultimate food experience I would be colouring in its other eye right now. Tanuki was that good. I have been trying to get this post out for days, but I’ve been finding it really hard and that’s because I fell head over heals, intoxicatedly and stupidly in love – with the food, the sake, the dinky space that had more attitude that almost every San Antonio restaurant combined, the waitress who managed to perfectly balance presence and absence, and the chef... Janis Martin what have you done to me!!
A little background first. In Japanese folklore Tanuki is the loki-like raccoon dog trickster who spends most of his time mischievously acquiring sake and a free lunch. He also has unsettlingly large testicles and the ability to shapeshift them into all sorts of useful items such as a boat, tent or raincoat. In short a fabulous choice for the patron saint of restaurants.
Yeah those parachutes...they're attached
Tanuki in Portland, Oregon in a kind of izakaya, a bar serving food that goes with beer and sake. It is not Japanese tapas but the concept is similar. In fact, it is not strictly Japanese food either, crossing several cultural and continental boundaries to offer the best beer food from Japan, Korean, the Philippines and beyond.
The outside of Tanuki - Great things come in small packages right?
Given my current mental state I will do my best to refrain from using absolute definitives and give you what I can piece together before my mind turned to happy happy jello. I first heard about Tanuki from this blog that I read. Her review sounded way too good to be true, but since I’m in Portland occasionally and always up for an adventure I decided the check it out. The more reviews I read the more skeptical - and stupidly excited - I became. My colleagues in Portland, Mary and Patti, surprised me by not only willingly indulging me but also agreeing to be completely led on food choices!
Chef Martin affectionately describes Tanuki as “a scuzzy little dive bar” but when we arrived on Tuesday evening we walked into a small (maybe 20 seat) room filled with warm low light, earthy colours and the delicious smell of pickles, sake and anticipation (I might have brought the latter). There was a muted TV on top of the sake fridge showing a nonsensical Japanese program that seemed to consist of manikins modeling 70s knitting patterns in a late night and somewhat twisted version of East Enders, or maybe that was my take. I felt like I had come home!!
We took up residence at a tiny table near the bar and entrance to the kitchen (although, given the size of the place, that describes most of it!) We only looked at the menu long enough for me to begin drooling before aforementioned exceptional wait-person was making us feel right at home and talking me into perhaps the most enjoyable sake I’ve ever had. It might have just been that it was exactly the right night to be drinking it, in the right place with the right food, or it could have just been that good. I stupidly forgot what it was called but lucky for me super chef remembered (yay for email) – it was the Watari Bune Junmai Ginjo 55, unfiltered. I need to get my hands on some more for a second sampling!
Instead of trying to make a choice from the daily changing menu, we all decided (ok I decided but my lovely companions agreed) to take the omakase option. That is, we let the chef decide and suggest how much we should spend. Don't get me wrong, for the agreed price we had the perfect amount of food for three and we all left well satisfied, but in retrospect is seems an insanely small amount to have spent considering the quality of the food we ate. I plan to make it up to Janis by returning and drinking a lot more of that sake... eventually!
We were immediately presented with a bowl of chilled edamame that initiated the ‘blow Jac’s mind’ chain reaction. These were not your standard soy bean pods drenched in salt served at most Japanese joints, these were subtly lemon and sesame flavoured with a big togarashi punch (Japanese red pepper spice mix) and I couldn’t get enough of them. While we were still popping these beauties, a tiny plate of the freshest uni sashimi I have ever seen appeared, studded with real wasabi, not that pappy mustard powder crap. Uni is sometimes called sea urchin roe but it is more like the gonads – Aussies who have eaten really good scallop roe will understand. It was light, sweet and so delicate and everyone at the table really enjoyed it (I didn’t explain what it was until later mind you).
From this point on I lose track of exactly what appeared when or was brought by whom. Chef Martin herself delivered some of the dishes and explained them to us with helpful tips on how best to consume them (no pretentions here). In my enthusiasm I took a few photographs of the food and I now feel terrible that I didn’t ask permission (I’m having dreams of Janis tracking me down with her wicked chef’s knife…). She may call her space a skuzzy dive bar, but every dish was impeccably presented with stunning yet simple plating and not a scrap of inedible filler ‘fluff’ to be seen (no clichéd beefsteak leaves, grated daikon threads or carrot roses to be seen). Every dish was a tribute to her skill as a chef; perfectly balanced flavours, serious knife skills, fresh local produce and a sense of style that seemed to transcend boundaries of tradition, pretention and expectation.
To continue on from the subtlety of the uni we were brought hamachi sashimi (yellowtail) plated on slivered lemon wedges lightly seasoned with ponzu-like sauce and a little nub of that delicious wasabi. If you’ve ever had a bad raw fish experience, this would be your miracle cure. This delicate dish was followed by the mind blowing ankimo – monkfish liver pate on slivers of sesame toast with refreshing herb salad that was at once familiar and unplaceable but tasted so good! Citrus and herbs, and fire in the form of a hot sauce that I practically licked off the finished plate.
The next offering was a plate of kushiyaki – three skewers of sweet, sticky, broiled unagi that had none of that fishy eel taste and all of the melt in your mouth deliciousness, and a skewer of miso hotate; tiny sweet scallops lightly flavoured with mirin and miso and mustard, none of which dominated the sweetness of the flesh. Next time I must also try the ahiru kokkoro, or duck heart kushiyaki.
Chef Martin then delivered a larger plate of fried rice intermingled with lap chong, Dungeness crab meat, fluffy scrambled egg and her homemade kimchi. Nestled on top was a tiny raw quail egg, which we tipped over the dish and mixed through the rice. This was a table favorite, simple, elegant and so delicious that we couldn’t get enough of it. Every bite was different depending on whether you hit a pocket of crab, a sweet piece of sausage or some heat from the kimchi. I don’t think there was a grain remaining when we were finally able to relinquish the plate to our wait-person of infinite patience.
Kimchi chahan with the quail egg and accoutrements
The heft of the kimchi chahan was followed by the absolute delicacy of ebi nikkei; prawns poached in cinnamon tea with bok choi. The prawns were perfectly cooked, slightly salty and the poaching liquid was divine with a slow building fire. We were then served a wonderful plate of half-moon sandwiches of longganisa (Pinoy or Filipino style skinless sausage) between grilled lotus root slices with a selection of four sauces including an umami-rich house-made worcestershire and a squid ink sauce. To top it off this plate had an added bonus in the form of a pile of marinated shitake, again house-made!
Renkon nikuzume - pity I completely hit the lotus and sausage (no hide the sausage gags!)
The meal was quickly balanced by two sweeter dishes. The first was a soft, slightly sweet bun topped with a tiny vein of what tasted like delicious vanilla custard to me and piles of sweet, slightly malty flakes which were actually shavings of dry cured pork belly. Lucky for me I had previously experienced this meaty, candy-like goodness thanks to a fellow food-whore here in San Antonio but this was definitely the best incarnation of the stuff that I have yet to put in my mouth. The second dish was Mary’s favorite: niku dango or wild boar meat balls drenched in a sweet, smoky Korean soy on a bed of rice (to suck up the residual stickyness). The meatballs were delicious, with the texture of pulled pork rather than mince so as you bit into them you scored sticky, meaty chunks of meat so soft you could separate the fibers with your tongue. Or maybe it is just me who does things like that... The meatballs were served with a choko (tiny cup) of a chrysanthemum infused Korean rice wine (Kauelkukhwa) with a light, lemony front and soothing herbaceous finish that kept us from reaching our sticky pork saturation point, to the degree that I think all of us could have done that course a few times over!
The sweet bun with pork belly shavings - the vegos would never know!
Janis then provided us with a bowl piled high with asari kimchi to deglaze our sticky palates – clams steamed with sake then chilled and served with kimchi shaved ice. This one was certainly a favorite of mine, and I loved the way the flavor went from chilled to heat and yet stayed so refreshing. The masterpiece was completed with a final dish of broiled mackerel flavored with the remnants of the sake making (kasusaba) and a selection of house-made pickles including sour plums and daikon. Another huge hit with the table and the clean pickles were such a wonderful way to finish that we opted out of the miso soup offered as an optional final course (a decision I later regretted but only because I never wanted to stop eating Janis’ food).
One of my companions, towards the end of the meal, was trying to articulate why our experience seemed quite so magical and I think she nailed it. She said ‘it felt as though the chef had cooked a special dinner just for us’ and it really did. It makes me so happy to know that a place like Tanuki exists, and if I lived in Portland I would be a regular (pest, stalker... call it what you will). If it is within your power to get there, go and go now. Me? I’m still wearing my grin (and my Tanuki t-shirt) and plotting my return to Portland. The beloved’s fish allergy the biggest spanner in the work, but Tanuki has so many vegetarian options that she won’t miss out entirely!