Japanese restaurants

click on images for full-size:

The entrance to the parking lot at Benkei, the first restaurant we stopped at

Picture through a window of the interior of Benkei

Exterior of Sapporo, the second restaurant

Interior of Yosaku, the newest Japanese restaurant in Portland

Terrace at Yosaku

Returning from a trip, we decided to have a Japanese meal in Portland on our way home from the airport. There were two major Japanese restaurants in the city (as well as several minor ones). We drove to the newer restaurant, because we had preferred its generally upbeat atmosphere. First shock: the parking lot entrance was now spanned by a wooden gate arch in an oriental style. Second shock: the interior had been rearranged, the sushi bar enlarged, and an area of tables replaced by a long table in the shape of a boat. Third shock: the menu had been slimmed down to sushi and a few other items. Christmas music was playing, and there was a poster for Rock and Roll Sushi on Thursdays with live music. The TV was showing a tape of a sumo tournament. We didn't like the changes and went down the street to the older restaurant. It was darker, less well kept up, and, unlike the newer one, had Western waitstaff. The sushi chef there was jovial and loud, both in Japanese and English; the general air was loose and noisy. The menu was larger. The music was soupy orchestral arrangements of Japanese folk tunes, but there was some good calligraphy mounted on the wall by our table. The food was only so so, and the chef argued with some university students about whether they were of age to order beer.

Both places were themed Japanese. But the newer restaurant had chosen to reshape that theme in a way that simplified it down to a series of univocal symbols. This made for a more intense and concentrated mouthful of otherness, but thinned out the complexities of the taste. This was very consumable, and the newer restaurant was getting more business. The older restaurant had mixed in Western elements without worrying too much about authenticity. Neither was quite like a restaurant in Japan, but the older one's informality and chatter among the staff was more like a neighborhood restaurant in Japan, and the "more Japanese" newer one seemed less like what one would find in Tokyo.

More recently a newer restaurant has been opened by a disgruntled chef from the more extravagantly themed restaurant. The new restaurant serves better food than both the others, but reviewers have worried that it is getting too "American" in its desire to attract customers.