Sushi in Oregon's High Desert
There’s just nothing like deliciously creative sushi in the company of good friends to lift one’s spirits. And in Bend, two sushi restaurants will blast those spirits right into space. Below, you'll find two reviews. I hope for your sake that you can experience both restaurants for yourself.
Off the Menu and Out of This World
Ever since I was introduced to the intoxicatingly delicious and downright seductive off-the-menu fare at 5 Fusion, I’ve yearned to repeat the experience. While some people dream of sugar-plums dancing in their heads, my dreams were of delicate slices of ivory salmon served in a glass fish bowl draped atop a large black stone and perfumed by lemongrass-scented cold smoke that curled up the sides of the bowl.
There are only two words to describe 5 Fusion executive chef and co-owner Joe Kim: culinary genius. If you’ve eaten his food, you already have a sense of his talent. But if you haven’t tried the Chef’s Tasting Menu (five to seven courses—either raw or cooked—for $55) or Joe’s “off the menu menu” for which you can establish a price cap when ordering, you haven’t begun to experience what he can do in a kitchen.
Our other-worldly off the menu dinner began with corn, black truffle and tapioca push-pops. The last time I had a push-pop it was strawberry flavored and I was 7. I won’t wait as long to have another, as long as it has the same deliciously savory, velvety, earthy richness of the one Joe served. “This is one of the coolest things I’ve ever eaten,” one of my dining companions said. “This could make me give up on trying to have a body,” another added. The unanimous conclusion: crazy, ridiculously good.
A caprese salad served Joe-style followed, complete with heirloom tomatoes and mozzarella spheres that looked like white egg yolks and oozed white creaminess when punctured. Olive oil powder resembling grated parmesan and balsamic pearls that looked like caviar took the dish over the top.
Speaking of caviar, Joe served us Toro tartare and Blue fin tartare topped with tiny, raw quail egg yolks and accompanied by sturgeon caviar, rice caviar and soy caviar. “I think I’m in love with Joe,” I told my friends. And that was before the foie gras hit, along with little demitasse cups of foiepaccino, a play on cappuccino in which espresso coffee, foie gras and cream are cooked together and then transformed into foam. The foiepaccino was crazy enough. But the foie gras wasn’t just any foie gras. One slice was done peanut-butter-and-jelly style (I’m serious!) while the other was served atop sweet-chili granola, Joe’s tongue-in-cheek nod to those who object to foie gras being served at all.
Next we each enjoyed a small, spicy (raw) tuna taco with a rice cracker shell, which was presented in a paper wrapper inside a small wooden box. Absolutely Iron Chef worthy in terms of originality, taste and presentation.
The next course, vanilla-infused lobster risotto with bacon and peas ringed with a drizzle of chimuchurri sauce, made all four of us remember that food really can be as good as—or even better than—sex. “Joe isn’t the kind of guy who toots his own horn, but toot, toot!” announced one of my tablemates.
We moved on to sweet and savory uni (sea urchin roe) crème brulee served with pickled ginger. Absolute perfection.
We still weren’t done. A small round of pan-seared ivory salmon served with pan-seared shaved asparagus and wasabi-apple crème fraiche hit next, followed by Asian Wagyu Beef Wellington ringed with potato puree and black bean and garlic sauce.
The word fusion has been overused to the point that it’s almost meaningless. But at 5 Fusion, Joe delivers on the promise inherent in the word’s true definition: the merging of different elements into a sublime union. The fact is that with his out-of-this-world creativity and talent, Joe belongs on the big culinary stage. Take advantage of his being in Bend before the rest of the world discovers him, because they will.
Some brand refreshes amount to little more than putting lipstick on a fish. That couldn’t be further from the truth when it comes to Kanpai. The cozy sushi restaurant and sake bar, located on Bend’s westside, has served some of the best sushi in town since its inception. But for owner-chef Justin Cook, who worked as a Portland line cook before launching Kanpai 13 years ago, that just wasn’t good enough. So earlier this year he embarked on a revamp that ranged from renovating the restaurant to enlivening the already creative menu.
I’ll use any excuse to go back to Kanpai, but this refresh really peaked my curiosity. Could a superb sushi restaurant get that much better? In a word, yes.
After briefly admiring the smoky, sexy interior and the new streamline bar, my two friends and I got down to business. It wasn’t hard. Two specials hollered at us, with good reason as it turns out.
The thinly sliced ahi carpaccio—folded over on itself and served with freeze-dried soy sauce, pale-orange tobiko (flying fish roe) in a Thai chili vinaigrette—danced on the palate, the sweet and mildly hot flavors highlighted by the pop of the fish eggs.
Next, finely sliced lemon, avocado and crab leg topped the ponzu-scented salmon roll drizzled with yuzu kosho sauce (a condiment of fermented fresh chilis, salt and tart citrus). “This is my chef’s specialty roll,” said Justin. “I haven’t tried it, but I know what it tastes like in my mouth.” That, clearly, is the secret of his success.
We were off to a flying start and wouldn’t touch down for the rest of the evening. The new dishes we tried kicked off with a diver scallop that tasted like it had just been plucked out of the Atlantic before being brilliantly pan-seared and doused with a brown butter yuzu kosha sauce. “Ohhhh,” I exclaimed after one bite of the shellfish that’s served with tender house-made squid-ink gnocchi. Yes, as my friend Leah pointed out, this guy knows how to do heat. Even better, he spikes it with citrus.
That deft hand showed itself again in the silky hamachi crudo, rolled around young, peppery arugula leaves and Marcona almonds, and finished with a Thai chili ginger vinaigrette.
Then there were the oysters, one served with albacore and quail egg in a jalapeño sauce and the other, my favorite, coated with decadently rich and pungent uni (sea urchin roe) butter that tastes like briny foie gras.
“I just swallowed a taste of the ocean,” my friend Scott announced.
“I just swallowed a taste of happiness,” Leah amended.
And who can forget the positively fun ahi poke bowl? There’s nothing like piling cubes of Hawaiian-style ahi poke tossed in sesame oil and ponzu citrus onto a crunchy fried wonton and then adding creamy avocado, seaweed and daikon radish spirals.
“No more,” my friends and I finally agreed, a resolve that lasted all of two minutes until sushi chef Yoshi offered us some aji (horse mackerel). I was dubious. To say I’m not a mackerel fan is an understatement. But the dish proved to be the surprise of the evening. Served with grated ginger, chiso leaf and ponzu sauce, it was buttery instead of oily, with a taste that was positively delicate.
This time we were really done. Until, that is, we found out about the chef-made cheesecake. Served on an ever-so slightly salted strawberry coulis, it may be the best I’ve ever had.
Ditto for the meal.