Thanks to Experienced Seafood Chef Cody Auger, Takibi’s Fish Dishes Shine, but Much of the Land-Based Fare Falls Short

The restaurant shares a building with Snow Peak, where after dinner you can buy the $200 flame-resistant Takibi blanket—yes, that’s really the name—next door.

by Michael C. Zusman

Takibi is Japanese for bonfire. In its Northwest Portland iteration, it is also a cross-marketing maven’s fantasy come to fruition: a pricey Japanese-ish restaurant that serves as a sales platform for even pricier camping gear.

As originally conceived, Takibi was a joint effort by “outdoor lifestyle creator” Snow Peak USA and Joshua McFadden’s Submarine Hospitality, which oversees multiple, disparate Portland restaurant concepts. If this sounds like a formula for dismal, dispassionate fare, that would be a solid conclusion. Fortunately, Submarine scuttled off sometime after last spring’s opening, and though executive chefs have come and gone, Takibi is now anchored by Cody Auger, whose deft touch with seafood is peerless in Portland, and Jim Meehan, an acclaimed mixologist.

Takibi occupies the east half of the larger, rectangular Snow Peak space facing Northwest 23rd Avenue. The retailer and restaurant are joined by two short hallways. Try wandering into the store a few minutes before your reservation time and check out the $2,000 tent and $700 iron grill table, among an array of fireside tchotchkes you didn’t know you needed. Take note that many items ($45 bamboo-and-titanium collapsible chopsticks and $10 titanium sporks in rainbow colors) will appear on your table next door. Brilliant.

Urban laggards can park their cars in a small lot off Flanders and walk directly into the restaurant. Oddly, the dominant aroma inside is not food, but rather something like the showroom of a Les Schwab tire store. Perplexing, but you get used to it.

The dining room is pretty, all gussied up in blond wood and white upholstery. On one side is the open kitchen and bar. The other end features booths that curve around the perimeter of the room. Be forewarned that the temperature on the dining room side hovers toward the bottom of the thermometer. Dress accordingly, or buy the $200 flame-resistant Takibi blanket—yes, that’s really the name—next door.

The menu is broken into several sections. For best results, focus on fish. Auger’s long experience sourcing and serving sashimi at Hokusei and then Nimblefish pretty much guarantees top quality. Delicate pink slices of trout ($17) and Hokkaido octopus ($18) divided into portions of thin-sliced suction cup and lightly cooked leg meat were excellent.

Also on offer: tai ($19), called sea bream or snapper, and saba, slices of cured Norwegian mackerel ($9). Sashimi is served with a small ground mound of floral, sharp Oregon wasabi root. Speaking of mackerel, if you love this boldly flavored fish as much as I do, saba shioyaki ($11), salt grilled and generously portioned, is as good a value on this menu as you will get.

As you move away from the water, Takibi becomes a more perilous proposition. Mixed pickled vegetables, tsukemono ($6), epitomizes the problem. Of the four items on the plate, two—soy-cured daikon and pinkish-orange radish quarters with a sweet-tart cure—were a delight. Watermelon radish slices and carrot sticks, on the other hand, tasted as raw and uninteresting as a Safeway crudité tray.

Takibi has sold Japanese fried chicken, karaage ($11), since the outset. It is an izakaya standard. At its best, the chicken arrives blistering hot, extravagantly salted and spurting juice with every bliss-inducing bite. Takibi’s take is from the opposite universe: tepid, timid and desiccated.

On one early visit, the braised pork belly called kakuni ($17), served with soft cooked egg and a sprinkle of numbing sansho pepper powder, was almost entirely unappetizing hunks of fat. More recently, fat and meat were in perfect equipoise, the highlight of the non-seafaring sections of the menu.

An upward trend, perhaps? Nope. A lamb chop ($17) on my final visit was another fatty-cut phobic’s nightmare. And a recent menu addition of cured salmon roe atop a blini of sorts ($15) rimmed with a ribbon of liver mousse was even worse. After one bite, two of us shook our heads in unison, aghast at what tasted like fish egg shortcake. If I could untaste this somehow, I would.

Meehan’s libations are also a mixed bag. One dining companion, a longtime industry insider, swears by the top-shelf bottles and consistent creativity of the drinks menu. A second designated drinker, also in the industry, was less effusive about the rum-forward, citrus-heavy Shochu the Magic ($17), a riff on a Singapore sling. The sexy-sounding matsutake-washed cherry brandy in this drink was a dud, the piney mushroom indiscernible. On the short non-alcohol slate, the Queen Garden Swizzle ($19), anchored by Seedlip Garden, tasted broadly botanical, but that was about it. Give me club soda and bitters for a quarter of the price.

Great restaurants tend to be fired by passion. Takibi emerged from a marketing plan. It may have its high points, but it’s hard to walk away without feeling burned.

EAT: Takibi, 2275 NW Flanders St., 971-888-5713, 5-9 pm daily.