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Bread & Brew: Boxer Sushi wraps up adventure

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Chefs such as Brian Stanbro are known for their creative treatments at Boxer Sushi in Southeast Portland.If you’re bored with the Portland dining scene, it’s time for a visit to Boxer Sushi. It’s a small adventure, where the excitement comes not from exotic sea creatures, but from creative treatments, with ingredients like cilantro, apples, almonds and vinaigrette that push wasabi and soy sauce out of the picture.

Hidden just off Hawthorne Boulevard, Boxer encourages its customers to order omakase — meaning, put yourself into the chef’s hands, and let the meal unfold. You should, if you’re not in a hurry and if you’re open-minded about what sushi should be. It’s going to be different every time, so I can’t make any promises, I can only describe my own recent and very good dinner here.

The elaborate meal began very simply, with a fresh, crisp green salad in a sweet vinegar dressing, followed by a warming bowl of miso soup.

Then came a plate of sea bream sashimi, sliced very thin and mixed with crunchy curls of mild fresh fennel. On top was a pretty scattering of micro red shiso, with red and green leaves that made the dish look like a miniature field of clover and added a bitter, woodsy taste. The dish was dressed with a mixture of white soy, garlic, and citrus, and came across as a sort of transitional phase between a salad and a fish course, although the pale, cool fish held its own.

It was followed by scallop carpaccio — a reminder that Japan isn’t the only country to eat raw fish, and my favorite course of the night. Dressed with citrus, olive oil, and cilantro, the scallops were so tender that they seemed to dissolve. Their delicacy contrasted with the sour crunch of green apples cut into tiny matchsticks.

The chef then brought to the table a small tray of Tasmanian ocean trout, velvety and salmon-pink. It was liberally sprinkled with chopped, toasted Marcona almonds and tiny pickled mushrooms, so slippery that they skittered comically away from our chopsticks. The almonds and the fish had a luxurious, buttery quality in common, with textures in total contrast.

It was a recurring motif: clean, delicate flavors that served to showcase texture and emphasize the freshness of the fish.

A nigiri course also showed a fine attention to detail. A rosy spectrum of species from New Zealand, Hawaii and Oregon was draped over tender rice, and each was accessorized a little differently, with a touch of heat or a savory tidbit on top. A single cilantro leaf glowed between a layer of rice and one pearly, translucent piece of fish.

In a classy variation on a California roll, a creamy core of Dungeness crab salad, bound with aioli, was hemmed in on three sides by sweet rice, garnet-colored tuna and firm avocado, all topped with Japanese green onion.

This was followed by a dramatic sculpture of fish and vegetables. Sheets of seaweed were wrapped around a green trio of creamy avocado, snappy asparagus and crunchy cucumber. Discs of albacore rested on top, surmounted by a nest of shaved daikon that looked like spun glass and was sprinkled with a peppery red mix of powdered spices. It was a little difficult to eat, but everything was there for a reason. It all came together, sprightly and spring-like.

We were full and happy. We’d been there for about two hours, and didn’t feel particularly anxious to leave, in part that was because the meal seemed to conclude with an ellipses. Something a little bit richer at the end could have provided an exclamation point.

Boxer Sushi’s owners are Micah Camden and Katie Poppe, restless restaurateurs who have also forayed into fast-food burgers and gourmet donuts. Camden has also had a hand in a number of other Portland restaurants, and used to be an owner of the trendy Japanese spot Yakuza in Northeast Portland.

Boxer Sushi is different — no wasabi cocktails here. The decorations are simple, with a DIY look: a colorful mural on cement above the bar, and a lot of white paper lanterns. It doesn’t look ambitious, and customers who are expecting either exotic, traditional Japanese fare or American-sized sushi quick-serve may walk away shaking their heads.

But there’s restrained ingenuity and very fine fish here. It’s ingredient-obsessed, fun and a little off-kilter — to me, that’s exactly what keeps dining in Portland interesting.

5:30-9:30 p.m. Wednesday-Monday, closed Tuesday, 1524 S.E. 20th Ave., 971-271-8635, www.boxersushi.com

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