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The name is gangster, but Yakuzas as cozy as they come

Weekend!Food: Taste
by: DENISE FARWELL, Candles and curtains give a homey look to the sleek Yakuza, where diners enjoy drinks and munch izakaya-style on sharable small plates.

My husband was homesick for Portland while he spent most of last year in Japan.

Now that he's home he misses Tokyo, especially its restaurants and bars. So I was happy to hear about Yakuza (5411 N.E. 30th Ave., 503-450-0893), which opened recently just off Northeast Killingsworth Street, near Grolla, Autentica and the Cup and Saucer.

Yakuza is sleek and modern. But low ceilings and candles on every table and in the fireplace give it a cozy feel.

One wall is a bar, and there's a small, semiexposed kitchen. There are garage-door windows in front, and two walls are adorned with cherry blossom murals. There's a heated Japanese-style patio in back and a sushi bar tucked between the dining room and patio.

Yakuza is modeled after an izakaya, a kind of bar in Tokyo that serves small plates of food and mostly beer and sake. One generally goes to an izakaya to drink and nibble. You wouldn't order a whole dinner right up front but a dish or two or three throughout the evening.

Yakuza's menu lends itself to such grazing, although it's possible to order a regular meal there, too. The menu is only loosely Japanese, and they're clearly trying for something broader.

I like to alternate between sweet and salty snacks when I'm drinking, and there are two ideal dishes at Yakuza for me.

Fried Chinese long beans are salty and spicy, dressed with chili-garlic sauce. And sweet baked squash is cut into bite-size chunks and glazed with a sauce of maple syrup and soy. The squash is cooked just right, not too firm and not too soft.

The long beans and squash are addictive and pair perfectly with a Japanese beer (all bottled).

Other successful dishes at Yakuza are the chickpea salad with pepperoncini, pine nuts, feta and parsley. The feta could stand to be a little sharper. But overall it's a nice dish to share.

I also liked the fried goat cheese drizzled with honey and sprinkled with little chunks of cooked apple, served with bread.

For sushi, we ordered a few pieces of nigiri, which were nice - fresh (of course), delicately flavored and tender. But there was only one piece per order.

In Japan sushi always comes in pairs. It's meant to be shared. So at Yakuza, even though the pieces aren't expensive ($2 to $3), you feel ripped off by there only being one piece. I say, make it two pieces and charge a little more.

One dish on our first visit was awful. 'Fried chicken' clearly wasn't fried. It seemed either poached or baked, and wasn't very flavorful.

Thankfully fried chicken wasn't on a more recent menu. But in its place was chicken 'sous vide' (that French boil-in-a-bag craze) with the same sides as the fried chicken. Perhaps the fried chicken I'd had was in fact prepared sous vide. If so, sous vide stinks.

But I like Yakuza - how it looks, much of the food, the drinks (beer, wine or cocktails), the fact that when you're first seated you're given a little complimentary bowl of good olives.

Yakuza is new, but it's off to a fine start.

The restaurant is open 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.

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Recently we stayed at Yakuza until closing but weren't quite ready to go home so we zipped over to Pour Wine Bar and Bistro (2755 N.E. Broadway, 503-288-7687) for a nightcap.

Pour is especially nice at night when the twinkling light is just right (and flattering) and the music is low. As we chatted, Pour's normally fastidious owner, Robert Volz, walked in the door looking a little dusty.

I asked him about it, and was invited to see the source of the dust.

Just four doors down from Pour, Volz is preparing to open a tiki bar called Thatch. I think it's going to be fun.

The small space is narrow and deep. At the entrance you'll cross a tiny bridge over a koi pond. Then into the bar/restaurant decorated with all sorts of Polynesian knickknacks culled from the recently closed downtown restaurant Jasmine Tree.

Volz is quite the restaurant recycler. He acquired the long, comfortable-looking booths from Denny's at Jantzen Beach and had them re-covered in a rich-looking Naugahyde. Puffer fish lamps hang above the sunken bar, where you'll be able to choose from several tropical drinks and dishes.

There's still a lot of work to be done and, asked when Thatch will open, Volz only commits to 'in a month or two.'

Sometimes an original restaurant suffers from lack of attention after an owner opens a second spot. That shouldn't happen here, since Pour and Thatch are so close to each other Volz probably could wait on tables at both spots the same night. He might be ambitious enough to try it.

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