What's the bare minimum you can have and still call it a restaurant?
That's the question that tickled Gabe Rosen and Kina Voelz, owners of two of Portland's best Japanese restaurants, Biwa and Noraneko Ramen. Food carts were, well, so been-there, done-that, and didn't have the extreme minimalism that the couple had in mind. So they patterned their newest venture, Kotori, which means "little chicken" in Japanese, after the ubiquitous sidewalk eateries they'd seen while traveling in Japan.
Sporting little more than a yakitori grill, a prep table and a few coolers, the open air restaurant has no walls—even food carts sport those—and a tachinomi, or stand-up bar, that Kina and friends fashioned from two metal U-beams left from a business sign on the property. A few sticks of bamboo form a see-through "roof" from which a few solar-powered paper lanterns hang, with a couple of four-by-six beams making the counter, and that's it.
Poof! Instant restaurant. Of course, it doesn't end there.
Chef Carl Kraus working the grill.
Rosen, being the purist he is, doesn't just use Kingsford briquets to keep the flames fanned on the yakitori grill. Be prepared to be impressed by the authentic binchotan, white oak charcoal sticks that burn incredibly hot for a prolonged period, giving the little skewers of meat and vegetables cooked over it a light, smoky sear. And any fanning that's needed comes from a gen-u-ine Japanese fan fluttered by the chef himself.
Rosen's sourcing his meat and produce from sustainable producers like Rainshadow Organics, Tails and Trotters and BN Ranch, Bill Niman's model ranch that is setting a new standard in multi-species, grass-fed meat production. It's a way of trying out new suppliers on a relatively small scale, relationships that could blossom into larger commitments.
Tsukune, ground chicken skewer.
The two-person operation (minimalist, remember?) is headed up by Chef Carl Kraus—he's the guy expertly turning those skewers on the grill—and a server, who circulates around the tiny graveled spot taking orders and delivering the goods. Hours are minimal, as well, just open Thursday through Sunday from 4 pm until sunset.
Shisito peppers, shiitake mushrooms.
I sampled a selection of grilled meats and vegetables, from the tsukune, ground chicken seasoned and pressed around a skewer, to the pork belly (bara) and thin-sliced Korean short ribs, plus the shisito peppers, shiitake mushrooms and garlic cloves roasted over the grill in their papery covers, all incredibly reasonably priced and eminently worth ordering.
Meeting up for a cold Asahi and a few skewers with a friend? That's a stop well worth making.
Details: Kotori, under the trees at SE 9th and Pine. 503-239-8830.