I haven’t eaten this well since San Sebastian feasts of chuleton and pinxos de foie gras. I don’t know what took me so long to get out to Syun Izakaya in Hillsboro, except for the fact that it’s out in Hillsboro, but I can hardly wait to get back. I’ve of course been hearing about this joint for years, Syun is amazing, Syun has the biggest sake selection on the west coast, Syun is the reason to go to hillsboro (otherwise known largely for its subdivisions and its migrant farm worker population), but I could never justify the trip.
It’s not that I don’t like Japanese food. On the contrary it is, to my mind, one of the few cuisines worth going out for. Japanese food is not part of my repetoire and I know enough about the accomplishment of Japanese chefs to keep me from trying to learn it. I’ll stick with what I understand intuitively, and all of the Pan-asian, world beat, globalist, multi-culti numskulls with their little bamboo mats and their ridiculously expensive Damascus steel japanese cutlery and their Far Eastern spiritualism can flounder about in half- hearted, unapologetic ignorance. Problematically, I also generally reserve judgement on cuisines of the far east because I’m so unfamiliar with their paradigms and standards.
Of course bad fish is bad fish in just about any language (although I feel sure that there must be some culture that absolutely revels in the ammoniac aroma of 12 day old prawns), fermented sauces notwithstanding. And sometimes deliciousness likewise knows no cultural, political, or gustatory bounds. Syun presents just such a revelation.
We started with some fried smelt, simple, perfectly fresh, not a trace of the fish fat rancidity that usually haunts the littler fishes of the sea. Just dusted with flour and pan-fried and served with a wedge of lemon. We also had what was described as a raw beef salad. A strip of loin meat (striploin?) had been previously seasoned and lightly seared on all sides then sliced down thinly and served over a bed of mixed greens dressed with some sort of miso-soy dressing and the whole thing showered with little dollops of exceptionally mild fresh grated horseradish. This was the least impressive dish we had, and it was phenomenal.
We got a little plate of japanese pickles, delicious all around. Especially a log of pickled daikon (the waiter gave it another name that designated its stage of maturity), that had been cut open and laid flat, like a pork loin for stuffing, then filled with shiso leaves and rolled back up and sliced into little pinwheel rounds. Impressively exotic. The real triumph however, possibly of the entire meal, was an appetizer called Narutoyaki. I’ll obviously be the first to admit that I am an ignoramous about all things “Asian” (more about how much I detest that designation later) but I had never heard of it. Neither Shisuo Suji (Japanese Cooking) nor Charmaine Solomon (Encyclopedia of Asian Food) nor even the great wise Google of the Internets makes any mention of the dish . How sorry my life has been till now. Thin sliced beef (sirloin?) pounded, seasoned and seared to medium or so, was tossed with an abundance of thin sliced yellow onions and dried bonito flakes and a deeply savory dressing that included the collected juices of the beef and apparently some fermented soy product or another. Truly a revelation.
We moved on to Miso soup. nothing much to say. Then on to what, from our western perspective, serves as the main course in a japanese restaurant, massive amounts of raw fish in all mannner of artsy-cutesy presentations. I had my first otoro, fatty tuna belly, and I was… underwhelmed. It’s just fatty, really fatty and it tastes like little more than creamy fat, like lard of the sea. I noticed that more than one person at the table gave each bite a good double dipping in their soy/wasabi dish (I know you’re not really supposed to do this but if you want a keen awareness of and attention to japanese protocol and etiquette, you’re definitely reading the wrong blog). On the plus side, I suspect that the wasabi was real and fresh. Very subtle, not like that scorching, palate-excoriating mustard explosion one usually is forced to desecrate one’s aquatic megafauna with.
The sashimi was excellent. Lacking the training, knowledge or adjectives to describe the subtleties of great raw fish I’ll just mention my personal highlights. The uni which we were informed was flown all the way from japan (so much for local seasonal etc…, I believe that much of the seafood here was flown from the far corners of the globe, In this case it was carbon well expended), was unlike any I (or any of us) had ever tasted. It was like Butter of the Sea, not a trace of iodine, subtley shellfishy, like a cold creamed scallop. Speaking of scallops, sliced thinly, layered with even thinner slices of blanched lemon. The bitter-sour of the lemon waging an adorable battle with that bivalve’s rich plumpness.
I need to mention the rice. We got bowls of warm white rice, nishiki was the variety, to accompany our sashimi platter and, although I hear you accusing me of employing precious hyperbole (and just plain being precious), it was poetic. I’ve read of the pleasures of eating plain rice in far eastern literature class and I’ve scoffed. I don’t scoff no more. This rice was sticky and glutinous, but not like the “sticky rice” you get in thai restaurants, more like rissoto, but softer, finer and although of a short grain variety, the grains were thinner than those plump nuggets of rissoto. It was unseasoned and its perfume, not bold, not floral, just sweet, slightly earthy, and somehow “human”, drifted through.
Of course, we were still hungry, so we got rolls. The finest being tempura prawns rolled up with rice and topped with grilled unagi eel and drizzled with sweet teriyaki sauce. This reminded me, somehow, of fresh fried donuts. A savory far eastern donut. The combination of the slightly oily, incredibly crispy and sweet prawns, the aforementioned rice and the rich, sweet teriyaki sauce harmonized to create, in my mind, the illusion that I was eating not the end result of a three hundred year evolution of Japanese court ccuisine but the modern Japanese equivalent of the donut holes that my mother used to fry on the exceptional sunday morning of my youth. Incredible.