Weirdness sours Anjus appeal
- Anne Marie DiStefano
- Portland Tribune - Features
Bread and Brew
Anju is a neighborhood Japanese restaurant that feels like it wants to be something more. Welcoming touches - a fried egg on top of ginger fried rice, or a friendly server - clash with a forbiddingly industrial, night-clubby interior design.
This new spot on North Williams Avenue encourages drinking with wine and sake specials and a cocktail of the day. The purchase of a drink also gives you access to an all-hours happy hour menu of snacks ranging from miso soup to french fries.
For a starter one night I had spicy shrimp cakes, served with a vinegar dipping sauce. The simple pink patties had a bouncy quality, similar to a Chinese fish ball.
There's a lot of shrimp and squid on Anju's menu, although it's not really a seafood restaurant. There's no sushi. And there is pork.
The pork belly is rich and fatty. It's braised to a dark, sweet brown and served with pickled cabbage and hot mustard. The glossy chunk of meat comes apart with a light prodding from chopsticks, so it's good for sharing, and has the muscle to stand up to cocktails flavored with ginger and hot chilies.
A less satisfying meat dish is the lamb meatballs, which are small and nondescript. Instead, get the spicy seafood noodles. These are thick, chewy noodles with a fantastic, fresh, springy texture. They get a nice coating of flavor from a red broth dotted with rings of calamari and a few shrimp.
Shrimp and calamari are also the seafood in the spicy seafood pancake. This is a light, frittata-like dish topped with hot sauce, soy, and an unctuous mustard sauce. It's also sprinkled all over with wide, tissue-thin flakes of dried bonito, the mild fish that is a signature seasoning in Japanese cooking. Steam causes these thin shavings to sway gently back and forth, giving the impression that the pancake is breathing through hundreds of gills.
The effect is easy to overlook when a plump little shrimp covered in eggy batter lands in your mouth. But when a hash of the fork reveals a purple squid tentacle, it's hard not to feel a little tripped out.
Tea ice cream
When things get a little weird, there's no comfort to be found in a decorating scheme that intentionally exaggerates the building's industrial bones. Anju is in the refurbished Hub building, in the space that used to be Nutshel. The front looks like a loading dock - in fact, it is a loading dock, with a glass-paned sliding garage door.
Further back, a long slice of open kitchen is visible through a horizontal shaft with a dark counter below and soaring sheets of rusty corrugated metal up above. There are stacks of pallets at the back. The floor is concrete, the light is dim, and the music is trendy.
So you might not think to order the ice cream, but do. It's possibly the most interesting part of the meal. A scoop flavored with lapsang souchong tea was smoky and just slightly grainy. The creaminess of the curry ice cream bolstered the taste of the curry pleasantly, and the barley ice cream was sweet, smooth and buttery and soothed my tongue as I sipped the last of a cocktail seasoned with Thai chilies and lime.
5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 3808 N. Williams Ave., Suite C, 503-282-1003, www.anjupdx.com, small plates $1-$9