There may be no better training for becoming a sushi chef than growing up in a sushi bar. A prime example is Joe Kim Jr., executive chef at 5 Fusion & Sushi Bar in downtown Bend.
Kim, 32, grew up in a restaurant family in the San Francisco Bay Area. His father — a Korean who was raised in Osaka, Japan, and who moved to the United States in the mid-1970s — owned sushi restaurants in San Francisco and Oakland, Calif.
“From my early teens, I worked in the kitchen of Japanese restaurants, making soba noodles and tempura batters, and later, sushi," Kim recalled. “I think respect for fish was ingrained in me from a very young age."
He recalled one mentor in particular, a chef who had been a culinary instructor in Japan before he came to North America. “He taught me the tiny little things, how to cut the fish in just the right way, how to delicately scale a fish so you are not damaging the flesh on the other side of the skin," Kim said.
Since joining the staff at 5 Fusion in June of 2010, the Oregon State University graduate has made it part of his job to instill in his kitchen staff that same reverence for good seafood. And that has helped to elevate 5 Fusion into the highest tier of Central Oregon dining experiences.
Deep no more
This is not the same restaurant it was three years ago, when it opened as 5 Spice in the space that formerly housed Deep. (The name was changed a few months later due to a trademark infringement challenge.) Many of the original features remain, notably a wave pool suspended above the main dining room. But there are none of the problems with consistency that plagued the restaurant in its first year.
Kim has established a solid culinary reputation by splitting his efforts: “I work about half the time on the sushi bar and half in the back kitchen," he said. “It gives me a chance to get away from the traditional."
Dining-room manager Derek Brendle, who arrived in October 2011 after stints at 900 Wall and Brickhouse, has directed training to solidify the restaurant's service staff. And 5 Fusion's community profile has been elevated by owner Lilian Chu's monthly series of Collaborative Charity Dinners, which over the past two years have raised more than $75,000 in support of local nonprofits.
Although 5 Fusion diners may enjoy sushi anywhere in the restaurant, from the main floor to the cocktail bar to a mezzanine that overlooks the wave pool, I prefer to wield my chopsticks at the 10-seat sushi bar in a rear corner of the dining room. And if my dining companion is of the same adventurous mind, I leave it to the staff to decide what I'll eat.
In Japan, this is called “omakase" (pronounced oh-ma-KAH-see), or chef's choice. It requires a certain level of faith in the chef, but I trust Kim completely. After all, he won't even allow fresh fish deliveries to be left at his shipping door unless he is personally present to receive them. Otherwise, they go back to the purveyor, no questions asked.
On a post-Christmas visit, Kim's menu began with a pair of delicious seaweed salads, accompanied with ginger and cucumber. He followed this with small portions of salmon tartare, sprinkled with sesame seeds and presented upon cucumber slices with creme fraiche.
Then came a flight of tuna sushi — four different types of the popular ocean fish served in traditional nigiri style, atop vinegared rice wrapped in seaweed. The opportunity to sample, side-by-side, different cuts of yellow-fin and blue-fin tuna, including toro (blue-fin belly) and white tuna (also known as shiro maguro), was a lesson in the subtleties of flavors.
The menu got increasingly interesting, but no less delicious, after the tuna flight. Kim next sent out an order of negi hama, thinly sliced hamachi (young yellowtail tuna) sashimi in scallion oil with roasted jalapeno ponzu sauce and a delicate pickled-ginger foam. Then came a matched set of grilled eel nigiri — the sweeter unagi (freshwater eel) and the more robust anago (saltwater eel).
As if this weren't sufficiently exotic, the chef turned next to nasu hotate, stacked slices of eggplant and scallop with the salt of the distinctively flavored shiso leaf. This was perhaps our favorite flavor of the meal, trumping even the ensuing ankimo, or steamed monkfish liver, which offered the pâté texture of fois gras.
We cleansed our palates with fish eggs. Ikura (salmon roe) were matched with soy pearls and yuzu (citrus) caviar, the latter two bites a venture into molecular gastronomy.
Two decidedly nontraditional specialty rolls followed. The IPA roll, which wraps around asparagus, avocado, egg and cream cheese, is finished with beer-brined and hop-smoked salmon in a reduction made with India pale ale. The paella roll, which might be likened to Mexican sushi, featured a core of crab, avocado, cucumber and hearty ground chorizo sausage; on the outside, shrimp and snapper were dressed with saffron aioli.
“As we are a fusion restaurant, I have a huge canvas to work with," acknowledged Kim. “I can use ingredients from all over the world. There are so many things that people aren't familiar with, and my goal is to offer something that's unknown in Bend — to make dishes that are innovative and delicious, or to change the texture of things and give diners those little surprises."
We strayed from the sushi menu on another visit, ordering designer cocktails and a handful of starters and entrees from the main menu, and discovering several new flavors along the way.
We enjoyed a hearts-of-palm salad with Asian slaw, Thai basil and a lemongrass-flavored vinaigrette dressing. We had a plate of oysters with three different toppings, then a sampler of salmon with Asian pear and wasabi, before moving on to full entrees.
My choice was Hawaiian ono (wahoo), crusted with crushed macadamia nuts and nori seaweed, then baked just to flaky. In fact, it probably could have been removed from the oven a couple of minutes sooner. But it was a great preparation, served atop creamy polenta with Thai herbs, and accompanied by a spicy red sauce and a milder basil cream.
My companion chose the Thai airline breast of chicken. Why airline? I have no idea. But Kim said it's one of his favorite new dishes, and we concurred. Accompanied by snap peas and light rice noodles, it features two flavor-filled sauces: one with ginger and lemongrass, the other a peanut sauce with lime.
I haven't even mentioned desserts like miso ice cream, sweetened with amaretto, or fois gras mousse with granola and maple syrup. Don't laugh. They work.
Not bad for a kid who grew up working at Japanese restaurants in the Bay Area.
Pho Viet is expanding into downtown Bend, in the space formerly held by Amalia's. Owner Tan Bo said the new restaurant, to be called Sweet Saigon, is on schedule to open before the end of this month. Sweet Saigon will serve casual lunch fare, including pho (beef noodle soup) and banh mi (sandwiches), but the dinner menu will be Vietnamese fine dining, including Dungeness crab and pineapple-marinated steaks at moderate prices. Open daily except Sunday. 915 N.W. Wall St., Bend.
Pho Viet's current location will continue to serve casual fare with Tony Bo, Tan's son, as general manager. Open 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day. 1326 N.E. Third St., Bend; www.phovietandcafe.com, 541-382-2929.
Sabor a Mi! (“A Taste of Me") opened Dec. 28 by cousins Leticia Maynard and Rogelio Bolaños. Huevos rancheros, chilaquiles and molletes highlight the Mexican breakfast menu; lunches include burritos and quesadillas as well as camarones a la diabla and pechua empanizada. Open 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. 304 S.E. Third St., Bend; 541-788-9351.
Eco Bistro, Bar & Boutique, which opened in mid-December, serves a full menu emphasizing fresh ingredients, including cheese and meat platters. Salads, sandwiches, pastas and an exclusive gluten-free menu complement a long list of Oregon wines by the glass and bottle. Open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. 905 Third St., Bend; www.eco bistrobend.com, 541-241-4790.