Nine years ago a new type of restaurant came to Portland. It served as an ambassador from Japan; it heralded a new type of Japanese dining experience, right here in the United States. Called Biwa, it was Portland’s first izakaya.
An izakaya is an informal drinking establishment that serves food to accompany the drinks. They are the places that Japanese blue collar workers go to for after-work drinking. Think a neighborhood bar with light far. Except that light fare in Japan is still exquisite cuisine on this side of the Pacific.
It was in this spirit of honoring exquisite fare that Gabriel “Gabe” Rosen and Kina Voelz opened Biwa in March of 2007. Setup as a casual diner with great sake, grilled food, sashimi and small dishes, Biwa brought a Japanese tradition home to Portland.
A Couple’s Tale
Although Kina hailed from California, the daughter of a farming family, Gabe came from the Midwest to attend culinary school when he was only twenty-one. The reasons behind his journey to our fair city should be well-known to the local ear.
“I came here because the weather was a lot nicer than Iowa and at the time I didn’t drive,” he says, “and this seemed like the kind of place where you didn’t have to drive. They had a good cooking program here, too.”
Attending culinary school was a no-brainer for Gabe. Cooking was in his veins. “I had wanted to open a restaurant since I was a little kid and worked as a cook my whole life,” he says.
By contrast, his wife Kina pursued a career in architecture. And while their two stories and trades are very different, the personal and business harmony in their marriage is apparent.
“Sometimes in the chef world it’s easy to get focused on the cool stuff you’re doing on the plate,” Gabe explains. “But Kina is very good at making sure we keep everything that we do in the greater perspective.”
A Welcoming Vibe
Keeping the greater perspective is about both ingredient and setting. Gabe takes great pride in the handmade nature of most of their small bites and dishes. “We try to start as much as possible with the raw ingredients and fabricate things ourselves.” Indeed, there is very little on their menu that contains prepared or processed ingredients, rice and sugars aside.
After the food sweeps you in, the setting welcomes with a warm, casual vibe. There is good reason for this, considering Kina’s profession. “Being an architect, Kina definitely thinks about the spaces people inhabit,” says Gabe. “The interior is not necessarily meant to be nostalgic or evocative of anything, but we want it to be a place of high experiential quality for our guests – a rich, meaningful experience.”
With high ceilings, stark colors and clean lines, the aesthetic part of experiential quality is on display inside Biwa. Tables are spaced in such a way that keeps the room quiet while showcasing a lively environment. Then the drinks and food arrive.
While one would go to an izakaya to eat, one must first go to an izakaya to drink! Right after work, of course, as your Japanese friends would do.
“We try and go deep in all areas,” Gabe says. “We have fairly expansive sake offerings, all by the glass. We make cocktails and we have a small, but quirky cuisine wine list.”
Hungry after all that drinking? Try from a varied list of Japanese fare that goes from light to filling with measured ease. Perhaps a nashi sunomono will do you, an Asian pear salad served with daikon and yuzu. The pears are perfectly ripe and the juxtaposition of flavors explodes off your palate.
For something a bit heavier you may try the masu trout grilled in the yakitori shop style of unagi (eels). If you’ve never had a piece of unagi sushi, it may be hard to imagine, but all you need to know is it’s delicious. Cooking the trout in the same fashion results in a soft, moist flaky bite every time.
If you find it’s just too hard to decide on one thing, try going with the special omakase chef’s choice tasting menu. Or you could settle on the special otsumami, which is described as a “special selection of little snacks, delights and oddities.”
Finish off with a simple chocolate pudding or butterscotch miso gelato and you’ll have placed a capstone on the evening.
A Story Told
Having achieved nine years of success in Portland, Gabe and Kina have now embarked on their next adventure, opening Noraneko under the Hawthorne bridge near the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. Noraneko, which is Japanese for ‘stray cats,’ is styled to be a first-class ramen shop. We can’t wait to try it out.
But for now, Biwa will remain their tried-and-true Portland staple. “I am not sure we would be able to pull the same thing off today,” Gabe says with a chuckle as he ruminates on their nine years in business. Even so, Portlanders can still be happy they did.
A biwa is a Japanese short-necked lute that is often used in narrative storytelling. Thus it is a fitting name for an establishment that tells the story of the first true izakaya in Portland; Gabe and Kina’s story.
Biwa Izakaya is located at 215 SE 9th Ave, Portland, Oregon 97214. They can be reached at 503.239.8830. For drink and menu information visit their website. They’re open every day from 5:00pm – 12:00am.
William Bessette – PortlandMetroLive.com Contributor
William Bessette is an author, journalist and blogger who’s been writing professionally for over eleven years. When he isn’t writing or eating, then writing about eating, expect him to be outside enjoying the natural splendors of his home in the great Pacific Northwest.