Justin Cook, the energetic owner and executive chef of Bend's Kanpai Sushi and Sake Bar, is taking Central Oregon diners on a new culinary adventure — a “boken,” if you would.
“Boken” is the Japanese word for risk or adventure. It is also the name of Cook's new restaurant in downtown Bend, which opened Feb. 7 in the breezeway between Wall and Brooks streets opposite Minnesota Avenue.
Using the popular Japanese “izakaya” concept as a model, he has turned the former home of the Downtowner and Lola's into an exotic, Asian-style pub. And he has installed Michael Murphy — born and raised in Bend, but with a passion for Asian cooking — as the head man in the tiny kitchen, producing small plates from numerous Eastern culinary traditions.
The result is a restaurant serving the bold, fresh flavors of Japan, Korea, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines, quickly prepared from scratch.
The varied cuisines are presented in an atmosphere that is at once Asian and hip, with pounded brass tabletops surrounded by a black-accented decor. The highly professional and knowledgeable service staff is also dressed entirely in black.
“Food should be fun,” said Cook, who ironically has never set foot in Asia. “Downtown Bend has a ton of Asian restaurants, but this one is different.”
Murphy spent all of 2008, and parts of the preceding and ensuing years, as executive sous chef for the four restaurants of the luxurious Amanpulo resort on the Philippine island of Palawan. After returning to Bend last year, he went to work in July for Kanpai, then assisted Cook in planning the menu at Boken.
Soup and salad
Boken serves both lunch and dinner, Tuesday through Saturday.
The menu is essentially the same for both meals, with only a few exceptions: A couple of dishes, notably curries and a Japanese-style bento (combination lunch), are added midday, while a couple of more elaborate entrees, notably steamed snapper and duck leg, appear only in the evening.
Miso soup is a traditional Japanese starter, but here, it is much more than a soy-based production. It is flavored with shiso leaf (a Japanese aromatic), served with thinly sliced shiitake mushrooms and pieces of real crab meat.
Among the salads, I'm a fan of the green papaya variety, popular in Laos and Thailand. Under-ripe papaya is julienned and tossed with cucumber and crushed peanuts in a dressing of Thai fish sauce, lime juice and chilies. It's a little spicy, yes, but light and fresh tasting.
Similarly refreshing are the spring rolls, seasoned with sweet chili sauce and wrapped in thin rice paper. Duck and mango are the prime ingredients in this appetizer, along with lettuce and cucumber.
If I have one favorite on the menu at Boken, it is Murphy's steamed buns, served in triplicate. Not unlike Asian tacos, these savory treats are stuffed with tender, warm pork belly and cold, spicy Korean kim chee cabbage, along with sliced cucumbers and microgreens.
I am not as crazy about the crab-and-scallion gyoza (pot stickers) nor the lumpia (fried spring rolls), but I don't particularly care for heavily fried foods. Both were served with spicy sauces, and I saw other diners enjoying them.
But I thoroughly enjoyed the grilled Japanese eggplant. Thin slices of the vegetable were coated with a cilantro pesto sauce and dressed with lime and chili sauce. They were delicious.
Boken offers skewers of several dishes, including prawns, scallops, chicken, shiitake mushrooms and roasted garlic. My favorite from this list is baby octopus, lightly grilled and seasoned with chilies, lime and sea salt. I also liked the Korean-style beef bulgogi, prepared in a savory marinade. I find the skewers best when ordered with traditional Southeast Asian sticky rice, served in a bag presented in a personal woven basket.
From the choice of larger entrees, I find the steamed snapper especially tasty. The Oregon coastal fish is wrapped in a banana leaf with ginger, lemongrass and scallions prior to steaming. The taste is wonderful — but diners must unfold the leaf carefully so as not to be burned.
Duck leg confit, slow-cooked in its own fat with a shiitake-ginger demi glaze, is served with a spicy blueberry compote and freshly steamed baby bok choy.
Pork ribs are delicious, but they're more bone than meat. The coating of chilies and garlic, along with sesame oil and soy sauce, is very spicy.
Laotian-style chicken wings are wonderful, but request a damp cloth or finger bowl if you order this dish. Served with a chili jam, it may be the best version of wings that I've sampled at any Bend restaurant.
To finish a meal, Murphy serves an infused sorbet which varies from night to night. When I sampled the dessert, the ingredients were Asian pear, ginseng and Grey Goose vodka.
My favorite dish from the lunch menu is the yellow curry bowl. The moderately spicy blend of chicken, green beans and eggplant are perfect when eaten with a serving of jasmine rice. I did not find the spice blend of Boken's green curry, with snapper and bok choy, to be as appealing as the yellow.
Japanese-style tonkatsu, a pork cutlet breaded in panko crumbs and served with a rich teriyaki-style sauce, was excellent. It was presented with rice and Napa cabbage.
Throughout Japan, train stations sell “bento,” a simple box lunch for commuters. Boken presents a daily bento box, including miso soup, a lightly vinegared cucumber-and-onion salad, and an ever-changing main dish. On my lunch visit, this was a fried-rice dish much like Malay “nasi goreng,” including shrimp, pork and cooked egg, along with carrots, onions, cabbage and green onions. It was tasty, but not as good as other dishes.
And while the pho bo, a Vietnamese rice-noodle soup with cuts of round-eye beef and brisket, was acceptably tasty, it didn't stand up to many other dishes on the menu.
Executive chef Gavin McMichael is back in the kitchen cooking, and he has installed a new, upgraded menu at Bourbon Street Sea&Soul Food. Highlights of the menu include fried green tomatoes with a corn-bacon salad ($9.25), polenta corn tart with sauteed crab ($12.75) and seared salmon Greco with artichoke hearts and feta cheese ($23.95). 5 N.W. Minnesota Ave., Bend; www.bourbonstreetbend.com or 541-323-2833.
The River Rim Coffeehouse , in south Bend's Brookswood Meadow Plaza, has added live music to its Friday-night schedule, with individual performers scheduled weekly. River Rim's menu features breakfast and lunch sandwiches, salads and small plates. Summer hours, soon to take effect are 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday to Friday, 7 a.m. to close Saturday and Sunday. 19570 Amber Meadows Drive, Suite 190, Bend; www.riverrimcoffeehouse.com or 541-728-0095.
Caldera Grille (C+): Despite having retained the comfortable decor of Giuseppe's when it replaced the Italian mainstay in December, Caldera is a disappointment. Food is mediocre and service is lackluster. Open 5:30 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. every day. 932 N.W. Bond St., Bend; www.calderagrille.com or 541-389-8899.
Club D&D Bar&Grill (B+): The D&D has been a downtown Bend institution since 1947, and it looks its age. But simple meals, such as steak dinners, are tasty and well-prepared, while servers make a special effort to please. Open 6 a.m. to 1:30 a.m. every day. 927 N.W. Bond St., Bend; 541-382-4592.
Corey's Bar&Grill (B+): Budget prices are the dining highlight at Corey's, as no menu item is listed over $10. Friendly, efficient servers offer reliable home cooking, especially in the breakfast eggs Benedict. Open 7 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. every day; grill open until 9 p.m. 928 N.W. Bond St., Bend; 541-317-1468.
Geno's Italian Grill (B+): Located on the ground floor of the three-story Harriman Building, this friendly restaurant has a more extensive menu than many Italian eateries. Fare includes pizzas, pastas, salads and excellent steaks. Open 11 a.m. to close Tuesday to Friday, 8 a.m. to close Saturday and Sunday. 212 S.W. Fourth St., Madras; www.genositaliangrill.net or 541-475-6048.