I really do love to cook. It has long been one of my favorite activities. From designing a set of complementary recipes to selecting ingredients from the grocery store shelves…from breaking down the parts with cutlery to assembling new wholes with heat…from sipping wine while cooking to sitting down for the first bite. Cooking welcomes contemporary innovation while leaning on ancient wisdom. It does more than forgive accidents. Sometimes it embraces them as the next delicious idea. It calms anxiety. It exhilarates the senses. It dares the imagination and sometimes it tests the belly. Cooking is everyday magic.
For a while now I have thought that the greatest thing someone could invent would be an olfactory camera. Imagine being able to capture aromas as easily as we capture images and send them off to a loved one. I have been at pains to explain to my mother over the phone the splendid and complex smells escaping from a pan full of curry-spiced apples and lamb shanks, which have been simmering long enough to have the meat loosening from the bone. Or, simply, the invisible waves of ambrosia yeast and flour as they recombine in a 475-degree oven. How wonderful it would be to vacuum up a capsule-full of those scents and ship them off to tempt other noses.
Despite this passion, each afternoon – I’d say right around 3:00pm – I find myself longing for happy hour food. Yesterday it was artichoke dip and pita chips from Gold Dust Meridian. Today it’s a ridiculously oversized pile of nachos from Matador. Tomorrow it might be a build-your-own-burger from Club 21. (I shall not link to the respective sites, so as to preserve one more hurdle between you and your own downfall into happy hour gluttony.) These lures are salty, fatty, and all too easy at the end of an exhausting day. And most of them are accompanied by your choice of discounted alcohol, which makes most people expert at rationalizing poor choices.
So tonight, in the presence of Beulahland’s full bar, as plate of sliders flies casually by destined for a nearby table, and an assortment of pies stares out at me from a refrigerated case…tonight I shall resist. I’m going to spin up a batch of pesto, add it to some penne pasta, and toss in a few sautéed scallops. Some crudités with white bean dip beforehand. Hand-buttered garlic bread alongside. A glass of Chardonnay that I pour myself. Maybe two. And tomorrow I’ll wage mental war on tater tot night.
If you get the opportunity at some future point to have Japanese omakase (お任せ), please do it; especially if that opportunity arises at Tanuki in Southeast Portland, just west of the redline. We call this experience ‘chef’s choice’, but I like other various translations such as ‘I’ll leave it to you’ and ‘entrusted’. Name your per-eater price, and the chef – in this case the delightful owner Janis Martin – will craft a line-up of small dishes with huge flavor that arrive at your table with the persistence of lapping ocean waves. Combine these fresh culinary miracles with an equally constant flow of small-batch sake, cheap Asian beer, and sensational Japanese whiskey, and you have the makings of a experience that will stretch one hour into five without anyone at the table knowing how or when it got dark outside. (You also have the reason why this “daily exercise” took a day off).
The thing is, omakase is not at all particular to Tanuki. Nor, obviously, is sake or beer. What makes omakase at Tanuki feel special is the establishment’s rag-tag sensibility. You’d better know the address (8029) if you go, because there’s no sign on or above the door. My longtime friend, Eric, and I arrived a few minutes before opening and, from the locked door and look of the place, momentarily thought we’d have to find different digs than this out-of-business business. But then the deadbolt popped free and our absolutely adorable server for the night set up the discreet sandwich board that announced in scrawled pink chalk “No sushi / No kids”. Then she invited us into the dining room. It feels like a lower Manhattan performance garage / studio apartment / storage facility borrowed each night for the purpose of serving some food. The sparely placed tables themselves seem foreign between the well-stocked bar, Ikea showroom sitting space, and piles of boxes with provisions in the corner – mostly beer. A card table holds two self-serve jugs of water – one that broke during the night – and a garage door remains halfway open to a parking lot out back. Pin-up girls from alcohol-sponsored calendars adorn the wall near the bathroom, and two huge television screens in opposing corners are inescapable (all night, Eric watched soap operas out of his peripheral vision, and I was oppressed by blood-bathed Korean and Japanese cult grotesquerie). A hastily plugged-in stereo perched on the sill of the covered storefront window blares away. Everything is dark when you start, and it just gets darker and more luscious from there.
I know very little about what I ate. I mean, of course I know what muscles looks like and what nori is. But specific details regarding preparation and minor ingredients of the twelve plus dishes we were privileged to taste remain a mystery. Our server announced each one as it landed on the table, but the ambient sensory chaos conspired against comprehension. I rarely followed up because it really didn’t matter. What mattered was diving unabashedly into each offering. Not everything worked, but the rewards are more than worth the risks. And seriously: Japanese whiskey.
Food and drink deepen the environment. The environment bolsters everything you taste. Of course, the night was biased to begin with. I was in exceptional company, and together we were willing to let table after table around us turn over as we staunchly occupied our place in the middle. It also strokes the ego to have one’s server sincerely name you “drinking champs.” So omakase if you can, but have some bus fare ready and don’t assume you’re driving home. We didn’t.