Not A Sushi Bar | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon

Not A Sushi Bar

Bend Izakaya Ronin builds connections

It's easy to forget how close we all used to be. Over the last few years, we got so used to eating at home or only going out with people in our bubble that the communal aspect of sharing food and passing around small plates to a large table full of friends, family or co-workers almost seemed taboo. Spending three hours laughing and having great conversations is something that I've been missing so long that as Bend Izakaya Ronin carefully curates that experience, it almost feels revolutionary.

Not A Sushi Bar
Credit Jared Rasic
Just a couple of the delicacies featured at Bend Izakaya Ronin.

An izakaya is basically a Japanese bar that serves snacks, drinks and is designed as a hang-out for people as they get off work, similar to an Irish pub or Spanish tapas bar. The brilliance of what owner Scotty Byers and General Manager Mikelle Byers have done: supplanted the casual vibe of an izakaya and given it a Pacific Northwest makeover, upscaling the sushi and small plates into a lovely fusion of fine dining without the stuffiness.

"We are trying to showcase more of what the vast, varied cuisine of Japan looks and tastes like in a traditional way," says Byers. "We are focused on classic comfort/street foods of Japan, along with fresh sashimi, nigiri and temaki (hand rolls). We are not your typical sushi roll smothered in sauce, crunchy bits and mayo type shop. We are also NOT a sushi bar."

Normally, I go to restaurants that I'm writing about by myself or with one other person, so I can focus on the food and how best to relate my experience to readers, but that felt antithetical to the entire purpose of what Ronin is curating. So I brought five of my favorite people and, well, we went hard. Like really hard.

Beverages first. The table went with Sapporo while I had an Ume Choya (Japanese Plum soda). Then we started with the wakame (green seaweed salad), Sunomono (cucumber salad) and a large bowl of Shishito peppers. The wakame's texture was flawless with a perfect balance of sweet and sour; the sunomono was fresh veg-forward without leaning on the vinegar and sesame, and the peppers were so tender and blistered to perfection that the massive bowl of them was gone within minutes. The hardest part of the meal was not ordering three more bowls of these and crushing all the free radicals in my body.

After all of this was gone, we asked for the omakase (putting yourself in the hands of the chef). Ronin isn't formally doing omakase right now, but the staff offered to just keep bringing out plates of chef's choice dishes until we waved the white flag. Ten plates and two hours later, we relented, although we all wanted to keep going just to keep sampling the hundreds upon hundreds of flavors Ronin was playing with.

Their menu is always changing due to what's in season, so what we had isn't guaranteed to be there when you go, but regardless, you won't be disappointed. Here's how hard we went: a plate of hamachi carpaccio with amberjack so fresh it was like butter flowers, a plate of sashimi ceviche that balanced the citrus with the fish without flaw, a beautiful plate of madai usuzukuri (thinly sliced sashimi, usually white fish), a large plate of pan fried squid that was unlike anything I've had in town and absolutely eclipses what is typically served as calamari, very light and smoky buta bara (pork belly), a delicate order of albacore tataki (lightly, perfectly seared), two orders of the freshest king sake (salmon) nigiri I've had outside of Alaska, two orders of hamachi nigiri with mouth-watering yellowtail and a crispy and delectable pork gyoza wrapped the meal as a perfect palate cleanser.

Over the hours it took to eat that staggering amount of food, we witnessed Ronin fill to the absolute brim (they are reservation-only right now) with first dates, meetings, family meals, post-work relaxation and every derivation of connection in-between. Everyone on staff is warm and familial, balancing impeccable and attentive service with a casual friendliness that's hard to find anywhere.

Byers explains the feeling he has so successfully cultivated: "Out of all the Izakayas I have visited during my past trips to Japan, the experience was always the same. If you work hard, make sure you play hard. Don't be afraid to try new things, eat what the chef gives you, make new friends; don't be afraid to enjoy yourself or take yourself too seriously."

Advice to live by, now more than ever.

Jared Rasic

Film critic and author of food, arts and culture stories for the Source Weekly since 2010.
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