The finest piece of fish I've had anywhere in Portland this year was at Southeast Belmont Street's Fukami Sushiya. Nodoguro—a small, rosy perch—is considered rare and precious even in Japan. And though it's a whitefish, its flesh was fatty as any tuna, with flavor that blossomed over the course of the bite into ecstasy.
Sourced directly from Japan, the fish was served on a bed of rice—brushed lightly with sauce and dabbed with fresh wasabi before receiving its tiny fillet—that managed to be ethereally airy while maintaining its integrity. It was a piece of sushicraft rarely seen in Portland, delivered humbly as pie.
But nodoguro is also the namesake fish of the other spot Fukami most resembles. Like chef Ryan Roadhouse's much-lauded Nodoguro, 15 blocks west down Belmont—whose reservations disappear months in advance, into the virtual mitts of San Franciscans and New Yorkers—chef Cody Auger's reboot in the same space of already-esteemed sushi spot Hokusei is high-dollar, prix-fixe Japanese fare somewhere between omakase and formal kaiseki.
But while Nodoguro segregates its sushi into impossibly scarce "hardcore" nights—I've yet to manage a seat—Fukami makes sushi the centerpiece of its nightly $65 and $85 multicourse tasting menus. One course is always a generous parade of nigiri (12 pieces on our visit), doled out singly fish by fish so it stretches out longer than any other course. It's a feeling of genuine well-being to see Auger gently smashing bright-green wasabi directly from a fresh bulb, placing it between fish and rice.
And from roe to heavenly squid or scallop or sardine, Auger is now using only wild-caught fish—with the welcome side effect that all fish is in season. In mid-July, yellowtail and mackerel are younger, with slightly different flavors.
For now, those nigiri are also available a la carte starting at $4 apiece, alongside lovely natto and ume shiso maki rolls wrapped with pleasingly thick, pliable nori seaweed. For $50, you can pile into a 12-piece succession of beautiful fish and leave in love with life itself—although the restaurant is considering a move to prix-fixe only.
But there, too, you are well-served. The omakase menu morphs night to night, according to the best ingredients available, so one night a sunomono might include a cold-smoked mussel so delicate it's like the essence of a beach campfire, and the next it'll be replaced by the tentacles of an equally delicate squid, topped with bright tomato and wakame seaweed in dashi broth. Cucumber suspended in a dashi gelee cube playfully recalls the dish's customary main ingredient.
An albacore tataki, meanwhile—fish lightly seared and marinated in citrus—was served with light aji-amarillo sauce on a bed of light chimichurri, an ode to a felicitous meeting of fish cultures amid the many Japanese immigrants to Peru.
The sake and Japanese whiskey pairings are expertly managed by bar and front-of-house manager Marjorie Caputo, including especially a truly wonderful, chestnut-and-melon-noted Yamahai-style sake—a more traditional, naturally fermented sake style that shows off the yeast—from revered boutique sake label Yuki no Bosha. A black-sugar-syruped panna cotta was paired surprisingly well with a Coffey-grain Nikka whiskey. Meanwhile, co-owner-sommelier Kurt Heilemann from East Burnside's Davenport assisted with a spot-on but unlikely wine pairing for the nigiri course—a muscadet, the same thing a coastal Norman might swig with his oysters.
At $30 or $45, the drink pairings aren't a cheap addition—though they are carefully managed not to leave you hopelessly sloshed at the end of your many-course meal—but take the suggestions very seriously as a starting point for single-drink orders. Or just pick up a lovely Kemura cocktail ($14) granting equal say to mezcal smoke, bitter fernet and citrus tang under egg-white froth—a precarious highwire of a tipple whose delicacy could be matched by few drinkeries in town.
In comparison to Nodoguro's themed dinner theater, Fukami feels much more improvisational and casual in general—sometimes to a fault—and the composed dishes don't quite attain the heights of that restaurant. The space also feels cavernous for the number of diners; Fukami will seek a more intimate space when Hokusei's original lease ends next February.
But the spot's casualness can also amount to a pleasant approachability. And with its fine attention to detail, Fukami has also become what's almost certainly the finest dedicated sushiya in town, comparable to high-end sushi spots you'd find in a city like Los Angeles that has a more established Japanese population.
And though Fukami may seem high-priced in maki-happy Portland, it's a steal compared to what you'd pay for sushi of this caliber anywhere else in the country. Don't come here to fill up your belly—that's not what nigiri is for. Come here to fill up your senses, the same way John Denver does with a walk in the rain.
GO: Fukami, 4246 SE Belmont St., 971-279-2161, fukamipdx.com. 5-9 pm Tuesday-Saturday.