Wafu, the new Japanese-inspired restaurant from chef Trent Pierce, is intimidating. The dining room is a long, spare concrete corridor, with dark oaken tables, walls and bar, white paper light fixtures and gleams of stainless steel. But for the Japanese movie posters plastered on one wall, it looks like a storage unit decorated by West Elm. The drink menu is heavy on scotch and shochu, and is opaque to the uninitiated. But scariest of all is the restaurant's signature dish, a massive bowl of ramen noodles garnished with a generous slick of rendered chicken fat.
But the fear passes swiftly; Wafu wants to make you feel welcome. Service is swift, cheerful and accurate, the bartender is happy to help you find a whiskey soul mate, and if you show the slightest sign of hesitation at tackling Mount Ramen, the servers have a solution. "Most people split it," the waitress said to my wife and me on our first visit, "and maybe get a couple small plates."
Those small plates, more than the ramen, have seized the attention of many of the city's obsessive diners. Chef Pierce is best known for heading Fin, the tragically short-lived modernist seafood restaurant that closed in February. Although ramen is Pierce's new centerpiece, he still has a few fish in his net. The small plates are evolving variations on mostly fishy themes. A mahi-mahi ceviche with fresh corn and tomato was absolutely flawless. Tempura shrimp ($7) comes in two piles of four, one dressed with a spicy, creamy sauce and the other with wasabi mayonnaise, with a miniature haystack of shaved daikon. They're very fresh—so fresh that the flesh is as crunchy as the breading. Land animals are equally good. I greatly enjoyed a preparation of lamb tongue, cooked confit for 12 hours, then grilled, sliced and arranged in a pool of ponzu and garnished with truffle oil and chives.
If none of this sounds particularly like the menu at your favorite sushi joint, well, that's the point. "Wafu means 'Japanese style,'" says Pierce. "We're cooking food in Portland in the style a Japanese person would do with our ingredients. It's not authentic Japanese [food]."
That said, Wafu's eponymous ramen is fairly traditional. It's a chicken-broth ramen seasoned with soy sauce, bacon, garlic, ginger and white peppercorns. Pierce says it's similar to a style popular in Okinawa; regardless, it's the only bowl I've had outside of Japan that left me feeling happily dazed and queasy. Enough on its own, but you'll probably want to add a poached egg, confit chicken leg or thick slice of crisp pork belly. The chicken leg is tender enough to pull apart with chopsticks and tastes hugely of poultry, like a sort of chicken grenade.
As good as the Wafu ramen is, it is a less admirable achievement, I think, than Pierce's vegan ramen. Vegetarians are usually shut out of ramen culture, which celebrates animal fat, but this miso-based broth, served with marinated tofu, has real depth. Seasoned with konbu, dried shiitake mushrooms, organic white miso and roasted vegetables, it's milky and earthy, like the miso soup of the gods. With noodles.
With built-in appeal to vegans, fish lovers and the acolytes of David Chang, Wafu should be an instant success in Portland. But the restaurant faces a problem of perception: I think it has to do with price and portion size. Diners who seek out giant bowls of soup are the sort of people who like large portions. They are scandalized when a $9 order of "BBQ octopus" turns out to be a single, lightly charred tentacle curled delicately around dollops of herb purée. It's the sort of dish that had diners raving at Fin, but it may not please the noodle-snarfing crowds at Wafu.
- Order this: The vegan ramen ($12), which does not taste vegan at all.
- Best deal: The Wafu ramen, at $9 for the basic bowl, will feed two.
- Iâll pass: A yuzu-flavored cream puff was like a salty Yorkshire pudding. Not my thing.