King of the Roll
675 Congress St., Portland
Every weekday, Portland commuters barrel up the steep State Street hill toward Longfellow Square. For years, the view to the left for those stopped at the light on Congress Street was The Bombay Club, its maroon awning fluttering over a (usually empty) terrace on the corner. Last week, I joined this cattle train on my way to the waterfront and was shocked to see brightly lit Japanese lanterns, fish kites and other Asian motifs adorning the former Indian restaurant’s dark dining room. The awning still says Bombay Club, but a banner below now proclaims this place is King Of The Roll, Portland’s newest Japanese restaurant.
Being a self-styled sushi snob, I made a bee-line for this new eatery last Thursday night to see how the “King” stacks up alongside the competition – a market that includes some long-established and highly regarded Japanese restaurants.
Yoshi, the owner of Sapporo on Commercial Street, recently celebrated his businesses’ 20th anniversary. Fuji, formerly out at the Maine Mall, has been on Exchange Street since Hu Shang fled the area many moons ago. Chef Tak’s Yosaku took over Giobbi’s space on Danforth Street several years back, and has since created perhaps the region’s premier Japanese food experience. Benkay, the restaurant on India Street famous for its “Rock ‘n’ Roll Sushi” nights, has been up and down since its first executive chef jumped ship to start his own place, but still draws crowds.
In addition to these venerable downtown sushi spots, there’s the growing list of suburban sushi joints. Fuji’s old South Portland location is now Nara Sushi. Sarku opened recently at the Maine Mall, and there’s some new sushi shack out on Forest Avenue. Add in those lame, chain-supermarket maki-trays and you’d think this town is turning Japanese (I really think so).
So what does the “King” have up its sleeve? How can it make a dent in this dojo? One thing it doesn’t have is an easy-to-find parking. My date and I walked four blocks from the spot we eventually found on Deering Street.
When we arrived around six o’clock, we were one of two tables occupied by customers. Shamisen (Japanese guitar) music wafted through the room. The new décor was welcome, even though it seemed pasted over the old Bombay Club’s paneling and banquets.
At the back of a little hall by the open kitchen doors was the requisite sushi bar. Its plexiglass window showed off some reasonable-looking maguro (tuna), sake(salmon), hamachi (yellowtail) and a few other fresh offerings. The chef offered an enthusiastic welcome from behind the bar, and quickly pitched his specials: fresh oysters from Washington State and soft-shell crab.
Oysters from Washington State? I had to ask: Why Washington, when the best oysters on the planet are farmed in the Damariscotta River, an hour east of here? “Very, very good!” he replied. Further banter revealed that his last sushi-slinging stint was in San Francisco. Hmmm, I thought, Left Coast sushi chef puts First Coast Maritime Capital squarely in his sights. The plot thickens.
We started with the chef’s oyster recommendation and a half dozen gyoza, pork dumplings with dipping sauce. My friend remarked that the dumplings were doughier than others she had ordered locally. The oysters were pretty good. They were treated with Mae Ploy sweet chili sauce, scallion, and grated daikon and horseradish. I was a bit annoyed that the oyster muscle had not been severed from the shell, making a mess of the thing as I wrestled around with chopsticks. The chef explained that it was normal to leave the beast unshucked, so as to remove any doubt for the customer that it actually is the original creature in its own shell. This move is right in line with Japanese epicurean preferences, so who the hell am I to complain? I’m just a First Coast sushi fanatic with a minor in oysters.
Humbled, I reexamined the menu and the sushi checklist. I usually order a couple items sashimi style (no rice) and a couple items nigiri style (with seasoned rice). Each “order” is served as a pair, and at about three-to-four bucks a whack, the bill starts to add up fast. I noticed that the usual “add $1 for sashimi style” option, common at other places, is missing from this menu. Further examination showed that sashimi is only available as a seven-piece serving for $10. Hrrumph. Is this some kind of Left Coast gambit?
The waitress wasn’t willing to make a deal – and it was my first visit, I reasoned – so I relented and chose the chirashi zushi, a chef’s sampler of sorts. This dish comes in a decorative wooden bowl. An inch or two of sushi rice is set inside it, and the chef cuts the fish of his choosing to apply on top. Sushi, like much Japanese cuisine, is edible art. The measure of a sushi chef is not only the quality of the ingredients but their presentation. Originality and flair count for points. I expected my chirashi to be the chef’s calling card, to reveal the personality and character of the two week-old King of the Roll.
While we waited, more tables were seated. My companion, not as much a fan of seafood as I, had chosen a dinner combination of vegetable tempura and beef teriyaki. The main menu features many typical Japanese meals: lots of udon noodle combos, both fried and in broth; various meat options fried in panko crumbs or prepared teriyaki style; and the famous tempura, generally shrimp or vegetables coated in a light batter and deep-fried. Any two among the 18 dinner specials can be combined for an easy $9.95, complete with miso soup, salad and steamed rice. This is a bargain. In fact, I had trouble finding anything on the menu over $10.
Ah-ha! The King’s plan became clear: inexpensive, mix-and-match Japanese food for folks on the go, right smack in the middle of Portland!
But is the food any good? My chirashi arrived laden with little slices of fish, a pair from each kind on hand from behind the bar, placed on a round hill of seasoned rice. There was little, if any, garnish, but upon reflection this was fine with me — I guess I’ve been spoiled by the little Zen-gardens-in-a-bowl served elsewhere. Besides, this chirashi had some damned nice fish and a lot of it.
I also ordered a sea urchin sushi to test how much this Bay Area transplant knew about the treasures in our waters — sea urchin harvesting became the No. 2 fishery around here in the mid-1990s. The little lobes of urchin gonad were a neon orange color — the sign of top-shelf quality — and clearly local (California urchin are much larger). It was fresh and delicious.
My cohort thought her tempura vegetables were good, but typical. The teriyaki beef was right on, tender and tasty. Served in a multi-compartment wooden box, called a bento, the presentation seemed a bit rushed, but this was minor.
As things got busier, the staff seemed rushed too, and at times, things got a bit scrambled. We were twice approached by the waitress with other people’s food, –but hey, every new place has to work out the kinks, and this wasn’t enough to keep me from planning a return visit or two, especially at these prices. For five appetizers, two entrees, two sakes and a beer, we got out of there for $60.
If I want royalty in Japanese cuisine, stick to Yosaku. But for a good Japanese meal at affordable prices, King Of The Roll is already a strong contender. Furthermore, consider what it’ll be like to dine on that terrace next summer. Sipping sake and munching tempura on a warm summer evening while the traffic glides past Longfellow’s statue could make for a definitive night out in Portland.
— Mort Peche
King of the Roll is open for lunch Mon.-Fri. from 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Dinner hours: Sun.-Thurs. from 4:30 p.m.–9:30 p.m., Fri. and Sat. from 4:30 p.m.–10 p.m.
Note: Though we missed it this time, there is some parking available around the side of the restaurant, near Joe’s Smoke Shop. Keep an eye on the signs to avoid a tow.