Tucked tightly into the space next to Ken’s Artisan Pizza, in the old Masu East location—Lofgren funded Masu’s second site in 2006, but recently bought out his partners’ shares to build Bamboo Sushi in its place—Bamboo Sushi may well round out a triple threat of superb Portland sushi houses, along with Masu on W Burnside Street and the Pearl District’s Hiroshi. An assorted sashimi plate confirms my hunch that the fish should be allowed to speak for itself: the sashimi is perfectly fresh and also deeply flavorful, a testament to the quality of Bamboo’s seafood selection; chilled cuts of meaty wild salmon (MSC certified, as we’re invariably reminded), deep-red tuna, and delicate yellowtail are complemented by real wasabi grown in Oregon. (Unlike the sinus-searing horseradish paste you’ll often find, real wasabi is milder in flavor and gentler on the palate.) The scallops on the “chef’s choice” sashimi plate (which varies daily according to freshness and availability) are so creamy they seem to melt off my chopsticks.
What the sashimi offers in simplicity, the house signature rolls counter with showier displays of artistry. These elaborate inventions are busy with ingredients that often sound more interesting than they collectively taste. The Ring of Fire roll, for example, is a mouthful of fried oyster, cucumber, yamagobo (Japanese pickled burdock), chopped albacore, jalapeño and a redundant jalapeño marmalade topping, fried shallots (yes, tiny onion rings), and yuzu sauce. The dish verges on overkill, but fails to fully deliver the fireworks its name suggests. Instead it is mildly sweet, delicately spicy, but otherwise forgettable. Similarly, the Local, a roll of MSC-certified albacore, red jalapeños, and cucumbers, topped with pale-pink crab salad, sesame aioli, and glossy black tobiko (flying fish roe), is pleasing, if not particularly distinctive.
It’s Bamboo’s more mundane sushi options that stand out. Feeling rather unimaginative and pedestrian, I sheepishly order a Rainbow roll, more or less the sushi equivalent of a turkey sandwich—ubiquitous, safe, familiar. But it arrives with a bright blush of salmon and tuna, and thin slices of avocado. It all tastes as vivid and pure as it looks. The Northwest Philly roll, Bamboo’s signature take on another classic standby, also impresses with its full smokiness, rich cream cheese, and a light tempura crunch, finished with a drizzle of sweet eel sauce. And diners partial to Masu East will be relieved to find old favorites on the menu, like the succulent Kobe beef burger with a sweet homemade brioche bun, caramelized onions, and a tangy dipping sauce.
Leaving the restaurant, I’m reminded of a bit of wisdom a fellow food-critic shared with me recently: “The better the seafood, the less you should be doing to it.” Sushi, above all, should inspire rather than overwhelm. The statement should come from the quality of the fish, more so than from placards, banners, and overzealous menus—which may be why Bamboo Sushi is at its best when it isn’t trying so hard.