There is only one reason to review Bush Garden, Portland's most established Japanese restaurant—and surely the only one located on the ground floor of a city-owned parking garage—right now. Its owner, Sho Dozono, is running for mayor.
Last week, Dozono held a press conference on the sidewalk outside, across from the noise and rubble of downtown construction, to explain why Bush Garden was more than $18,000 behind on rent and taxes owed to the city—he was negotiating, see? (City property manager Diana Holuka tells WW she got the checks in the mail on May 2.)
I'm WW's City Hall reporter, not an accomplished restaurant reviewer. I've written just a handful of restaurant reviews, most of which were whorish pap for Asian travel mags when I lived in Bangkok from 2005 to 2006
Luckily, that was good practice for Portland's 48-year-old Bush Garden. On walking past the faux waterfall in the lobby and into the vacant lounge, I was instantly transported into any one of countless hotel bars in Asia where I'd gotten hammered with besotted businessmen. Everything was spot-on: the paper lanterns over the tables. The lonely-looking guy at the bar. The synth Sinatra soundtrack. The disco ball over the karaoke stage.
My friends felt the shock of recognition, too. Except they really had been here before.
"I threw up in the sink here!" said one. "I'm pretty sure I did blow in the bathroom," said another. (The restaurant is in good graces with the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, where a spokeswoman reported no recent violations.)
It was too early for karaoke, so we sat in a comfy corner booth, ordered a bucket of Sapporo ($14) and got down to business. The happy-hour menu promised $1 appetizers "With Alcohol Beverage." Like I said, spot on.
At that price, your only sushi choice is the (pretty good) California roll. But your choice of "Meal" (for the same buck a pop) spans from the fresh, lightly battered tempura (recommended) to pork or shrimp dumplings to egg rolls to edamame, etc.
We tried, per the menu's instructions, to "limit orders to 5Items at time (per table)," but we still encountered massive server confusion. It didn't really matter, because they comped us for the screw-up, and our servers were friendly.
"I love this music," said the bemused bartender. "I mean, mu-ZAK." Indeed, the management believes in a strict definition of "lounge" music.
That could be why happy hour at Bush Garden feels strangely liberating—and perhaps why, by Dozono's own admission, the business is suffering. There is no pretense to the place. It doesn't try to make you feel uncool by stressing its own coolness. It is out of sync with its hipper-than-thou Portland surroundings.
Unlike, say, the schmancy red-curtained dining area at Masu (which has DJ nights) at Southwest 13th Avenue off of Burnside Street, Bush Garden pretends to be nothing more than an old-school Japanese restaurant. It's got a menu that would've shocked white-bread palates when it opened in 1960, but can now be bought in Fred Meyer's freezer section. In other words, nearby construction is not the only reason Bush Garden might be hurting. Better sushi is no longer too hard to find.
My friend said her eel roll from the sushi menu was fine. I thought the yellowtail-and-scallion roll was OK. But the salmon nigiri was disappointing—i.e., not that fresh.
As for the entrees…well, they average $20 a pop, so we didn't order any, except for the chicken tempura ($16.50). It was tender and not too greasy.
My advice: Go for drinks and snacks and fun.
Dozono, who also owns Azumano Travel, hasn't talked much about Bush Garden on the campaign trail. Now that he's settled his bill with the city he hopes to lead, he should hype Bush Garden at every opportunity. I had a great time there. And I'd wager that if Commissioner Sam Adams—Dozono's main opponent—owned a Japanese restaurant, the décor might be snazzier, but it wouldn't have that authentic, drunk-in-the-afternoon-with-a-traveling-salesman-from-Toyko vibe.
900 SW Morrison St., 226-7181 Happy hour 5-7 pm, 4-7 pm Sunday Lunch, 11:30-2 pm weekdays Dinner 5-10 pm weekdays, 5-10:30 pm weekends, 4-9 p.m. Sunday.