National attention is coveted by any Portland restaurant, though it's no guarantee of greatness. But at Nimblefish—which nabbed the No. 6 spot on Bon Appétit's list of the best new restaurants of the year—I am so very happy to report that the hype is well-deserved. For chef and owner Cody Auger, whose former restaurants Hokusei and Fukami were some of our favorites, Nimblefish is a personal, intimate expression of Japanese Edomae sensibility through a Pacific Northwest lens.
Crowds have ebbed and flowed during the first year of business, but ever since the Bon Appétit shout-out the place is constantly packed. After several months politely declining omakase (chef's choice), Auger and his team now offer multicourse tasting menus for $65 or $90. But surfing the nightly specials can be just as rewarding as you might find perfect nigiri of meichi dai (naked face sea bream), tairagai (Fukuoka pen shell clam), tachiuo (beltfish) or kamasu (barracuda).
Much has been made of the chef's exhaustive rice preparation—Auger uses a traditional cyprus bowl called a hangiri to mix it—but the chef's focus on delicate aging and artistry, deftly transforming lesser-known pieces of fish into things of beauty, is what truly deserves commendation. It echoes the charcuterie-and-offal boom that helped define the last generation of great Portland chefs. There are also more familiar bites, like tuna, salmon and scallop, ranging from $5 to $11. All of it's executed exquisitely, from the subtle, perfect tamago ($2) to indulgent, satisfying hand rolls ($3-$6.50).
A restaurant that sources from the top Japanese fish markets and works with fresh catches off the Oregon and Washington coasts is cause enough for celebration—a true pan-Pacific mashup of ingredients and cultures, presented with zero artifice in a chill setting. The end result is a sushi restaurant that could only be here, in Portland.
Pro tip: If you're dining alone, or are short on time, Auger and company have mastered the fine art of chirashi ($28). Meaning "scattered" in Japanese, this is a bowl of sashimi cuts of the day. Discover the pleasure of digging for those final bites of fish and hidden bits of roe in the rice.