Kushiya Benkay, Portland

In Japan, it’s common to find most people celebrating the end of a particularly long workday at their local Izakaya, a watering hole of sorts that specializes in small, delicious snacks to accompany one’s beverage of choice. The most commonly served victuals include Kushiyaki—also referred to as yakitori though that technically denotes the use of chicken specifically)—skewers of grilled meat, as well as its deep-fried counterpart also on a stick, Kushikatsu. More substantial dishes, like a bowl of Yakisoba noodles, are generally consumed when the drinking session nears its late-night conclusion.

It is safe to say that the traditional Izakaya is the template for Kushiya Benkay, the newly opened sister restaurant to the successful India Street sushi destination, Benkay. The space has been completely remodeled since its prior residents held court, and it imparts a balance of both modern and traditional Japanese decor with funky chandeliers and a handsome bar set with metal tiles. On a recent visit, I warn my dining companion that we will be sampling damn near everything that chef Ando can send our way. I want to get a feel for the menu, and in the process dispel misconceptions that Kushiya is in any way identical to the original Benkay.

As we settle ourselves in, we are presented with a flight of four kinds of sake, with each glass labeled neatly and resting on a long wooden paddle. Of particular distinction is the Ichinokura Taru Junmai from the Miyagi Prefecture in Japan, which has been aged in cedar barrels. Unlike many examples of this particular style, the flavor of the wood is present but not overpowering, allowing for the subtle notes of both pine and tropical fruit to come to the forefront. It is, of course, irreproachable with an ice-cold Ki-Rin Ichiban on draught.

Before engaging in a raucous celebration of meat on a stick, we investigate other menu options, beginning with those from the sushi case. A full range of rolls are offered, most likely to comfort those who have wandered in expecting fare from the sister location, and we opt for the Primavera Roll. It consists of tuna, salmon, cucumber, and avocado, bound in a vibrantly colored sheet of soy wrapper and garnished with salmon roe and micro-greens. The flavor is clean and refreshing, which sets the stage for a richer appetizer of tempura-fried avocado, as well as tuna tartare tossed with diced mango and fiery mayonnaise. Eating the tempura prompts my companion to wonder why he doesn’t regularly fry buttery, delicious avocados at home every day, as it so nicely enhances both the color and the texture!

We also sample Ando’s Yakisoba, made by stir-frying ramen-style noodles with fatty, thinly shaved slices of pork belly, carrots, and cabbage that are tossed with the traditional sauce, which resembles a sweeter, thicker version of Worcestershire. It is then garnished with tangy pickled ginger and nori powder, so you can imagine the carnival of flavors at work in every bite here!

Then, it’s on to the Yakitori—beginning with grilled Bluefin tuna belly topped with shichimi tograshi, which translates to “seven flavor chili pepper” and leading into insanely tender beef tongue, chicken livers, scallops, beef short ribs, pork belly, chicken hearts, bacon-wrapped asparagus, and chicken thighs. The skewers are served with three options for dipping—a sweeter, miso-based sauce that my companion refers to as “satisfying in the same manner as Duck Sauce,” a sweet chili sambal of sorts, and a small mound of green tea salt.

Equally satisfying is the panko encrusted Kushikatsu, because, honestly, what is better than delicious fried chicken on a skewer? These, as well as the fried pork with onions, are made even more delicious when dipped in the creamy, pungent wasabi mayo served as an accompaniment. As with the yakitori, there are many, many options of meat to choose from here.

The meal concludes with Tofu Tiramisu, easily one of the most interesting and surprisingly delicious desserts that I’ve tasted in awhile. As I eat, the use of tofu in the layers makes complete sense to me—it adds a highly refreshing contrast to the overall density of the dish. So crafty…

The concept of the Izakaya will be quite welcome in Portland, and you will be elated to know that Kushiya is open until two in the morning on the weekends. This is yet another solid addition to what is quickly becoming the city’s most vibrant dining neighborhood.

653 Congress St. | Portland | 207.619.7505 | kushiyabenkay.com

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