It's cold...annoying bus ride...too hungry to wait...won't be fun alone... on and on I went in my head Wednesday until I finally had a couple drinks (heading to an izakaya it seemed appropriate) and mustered up the nerve to get my ass to Tanuki. Awkwardly pushing apart the door sheets and litteraly stumbling down the step into the tiny dark dining room, I pulled up a stool at the bar, eyed the menu and sake list, wondered at the japanese woman being killed on the faux cooking show playing on the TV, and fell in love.
Tanuki is run by Janis Martin - if you want her pedigree and errant sheep stories you can read the weeklies here here and here - and she runs this place with a mix of kindness, perfectionism and personal vision that makes you feel honored to sit in any of the 16 seats - it disarmed my awkward buzz almost instantly. Dim red light made it clear that there would be no photo shoot tonight, this would be my eyes only and I almost had to strain them to make out the food - but it only added to the sensory intoxication. Some yahoo's behind me kept complaining about not seeing the dishes clearly enough - just eat it and shut up.
I don't remember what sake I started with, but it balanced itself refreshingly in the middle of the sweet/dry scale and tasted like rain (in a really good way). Everything on the menu was equally foreign and appealing, like the strange japanese movie playing above the bar (Wed and Sat are movie night), so I ordered omakase style - meaning I'd say what I wanted to spend on food and the chef would serve me what she felt like feeding me. $15-$25 per person is recommended so I settled on $20 - keep this number in mind as you read on.
The first items to the table came hot and fast:
Edamame - soy beans in pod with lemon & togarashi sea salt
These big thick furry pods were more interesting than usual with the addition of subtle lemon and spice, I had to stop myself to finally get to the next dish.
Hotate - scallops with mirin & spicy shrimp paste
I fell in love with scallops right there on the spot. This one little skewer of six or so perfectly sweet white marbles were tamed by the rice wine while brought back to life in a better form with the spicy umami shrimp flavor.
Ebi shioyaki - salt & pepper shrimp
There was only one on the skewer, but it was sweet as could be while balanced by a thin warm lemon slice on top.
Gyu-kimchi - kimchi marinated beef onglet
A large skewer of generous hangar steak cubes were cooked rare and absolutely addictive when added to the small bowl of pickled veggies that accompanied the skewers
While I was lost in a pattern of: skewer bite - sake - skewer bite - sake, a giant white plate swept in next to me - this is no time to zone off - sober up and eat...
Gindara to yasai - Sablefish (black cod) marinated in a paste of fried dried shrimp, shallots, garlic and yuzu peel over stirfried radish, turnip & mustard greens (from the garden)
A tall monster of sablefish - black on the outside and pure wedding white in the middle - looked to be struggling to not fall apart all over the cloud of comforting stewed mustard greens and literally garden fresh early spring veggie slices and sprouts which were supported on a bed of perfectly soft fluffy rice.
Every texture from fauna and flora found it's way into this dish - the sablefish tender, yuzu chewy, mustards a tender mush, fresh veggies crispy, and rice pillowy soft. I wish I could remember the flavors at work here but the sake starts getting me fuzzy at this point and I was overcome with enjoying rather than analyzing - but really it's what you imagine from the description with the addition of dabs of sweetly alluring sauce to keep everything lubed, balanced and integrated.
As I'm halfway through this beauty and fully expecting the meal to wind down, out comes a dark beast of a bowl...
Rafute - Okinawan style shoyu & awamori braised pork belly with clams over Kagawa style udon
Black clam shells haphazardly jut out of a dark bowl and hide whatever else lies inside but the server doesn't even need to finish her sentence - I'd recognize that beautiful brick from an airplane - it's my best friend PORK BELLY! How did you know I'd be here pork belly?! After a pleasent catching up he goes on to introduce his friends - deep ocean-salty almost-bitter clams, luxuriously soft wide soy stained noodles, and a dark mysterious broth that reminded me of an intensely concentrated french onion soup. Pork belly was his always hospitable self with graceful tenderness and the loving warmth that only pork fat can provide. Awamori is an Okinawan booze and I wonder if it's what added the complex pop to this dish that brought it all together. I doubt this dish would help me live into my 100's but I absolutely loved it, my favorite of the night.
I waited until the server wasn't looking, picked up the bowl, and slurped down the broth...although I later admitted this to her when she asked how everything was. Now utterly stuffed and enjoying my second 8oz tokkuri of sake - this one a nigori (unfiltered) variety that was sweet and citrusy like mango - I'm asked if I'm full...because there's still soup...seriously...
Mategi no haccho miso - razor clams in aged dark miso, dashi, and seaweed soup
Never have I seen miso soup this color, dark and evil - the devil's soup I casually assumed - it was exactly how I like it: what seemed like a handful of seawead, delicious bits of razor clam, and every bit heaven if God would allow it there.
Thoroughly satiated, sipping (well trying to sip) my sake, I'm the last one standing but for a couple nestled at the window bar. Janis comes out of the kitchen with a frightfully large can of beer and we start talking about sake, shochu, and the nearly 18 hour days she puts into this place. Before meeting her I was already in awe of what was happening here, and after my meal I admitted to the server (or I should say 'front of house' since she handles everything in that room by herself) that I almost felt guilty paying $20 for what I tallied on the menu to be worth more than $30 - and even that would feel like stealing. She confidently replied: "this is the best deal in town".
Janis poured me a complementary drink of the best sake in the house (made by the same family for 56 generations) as I wondered why she works this hard for margins this tight, and although I didn't really understand it walking away with a unique feeling of thankful drunk, it all made a little more sense after finding this quote in her portlandfood.org profile:
"It only stands to reason that where there's sacrifice, there's someone collecting the sacrificial offerings. Where there's service, there is someone being served. The man who speaks to you of sacrifice is speaking of slaves and masters, and intends to be the master."
...and if you're worried about a small adventurous joint like this struggling to keep it's vision and identity, Janis has already made it clear that this is her place and not your's:
"For I am Willy F-ing Wonka and Tanuki is my chocolate factory. In spite of the Veruca Salts of the world."
(Note that Tanuki is a bar and although minors are permitted it's not really intended for the young, there is no wheelchair access, and it's one CC per party)
4pm-10pm or later