I’m not a professional. I’ve said it time and again. Usually it’s to remind the people reading my ramblings. I do it a a defensive measure. You don’t like my use of profanity? The fact that I spend so much time writing about places that are out of town? That so much of my writing is focused on things like burgers and Asian food? Too bad! I’m not a professional writer. I’m sure as hell not a professional food critic. I make no money doing this (notice the lack of ads on my blog?). Sometimes I get an invite to a soft opening, or a free bottle of a condiment in the mail, and that’s about as lofty as it gets. I’m the one spending my own time and money, burning gas, putting wear and tear on my car, and so I go to the places I want to go and order the things I want to eat. This whole thing is meant to be informative to those who want the information. But every once in a while I get someone who accuses me of trying to ruin a business, or schill for another one, or complains that I write about taco trucks so much, and I feel the need to remind them that I am not a professional.
A few nights ago, I was the one who was reminded of just how non-professional I am. That’s karma for you.
Let’s start at the beginning. I take a fair amount of road trips with friends and family, but it’s been a long time since I took one solo, and I was craving the experience. It’s not better or worse, it’s just different. I wanted to leave when I got around to it, have complete control of the stereo, pick all the meals and activities, have a hotel room to myself, all that jazz. Last year Ms. Golden Rule and I decided to take the highway back from the Oregon Coast, primarily because I was just so sick of that same stretch of freeway I see every time I go to Portland. Between the mountains, the forests, the desert, and all the kooky roadside stuff you only see on the less-traveled roads, it was just a lot more entertaining. But it was late, and we were trying to make time, so I didn’t really get to enjoy it. I’ve been wanting to go back ever since, and I finally decided it was the perfect excuse for some me time. About the furthest thing I wanted to see was the Deschutes National Forest, so it made the most sense to stay in Sisters or Bend, and since the latter has the most options for dining and entertainment, that’s where I ended up. It didn’t take a lot of research before I found out about 5 Fusion & Sushi Bar. I mean it’s an Asian eatery with a chef who’s been a Beard nominee three times over. And it was while perusing their website that I learned of their tasting menu. Now I’ve never been a particularly ambitious foodie (I even despise that term), and I’ve never been willing to pony up the dough for a tasting menu, but then again I’ve never had the chance at an Asian one. There are a few different options available, but the eleven course Chef’s Tasting Menu at $115 was the one that caught my eye. I mean if you’re going to do it then do it right, yeah?
Still, I was indecisive. There were other very good looking places to go and spend a lot less money. The day before I was to leave for my trip, I decided to call them and ask how much notice they needed if I wanted to pull the trigger, and they said 24 hours. I was then offered the choice of the tasting menu shown on their website, or just letting the chef do his own thing. How could I resist that? I made the reservation. Then I went to my Facebook page seeking confirmation from my friends that I hadn’t lost my damn mind. I mean $115 before drinks or tip is a decent chunk of change. When all was said and done, this one meal would cost me about a day’s salary. One helpful soul recommended I save money on the overpriced bar drinks by having a couple at the hotel before I headed out. Far be it from me to argue with a lady. That double bourbon I sank had me feeling very relaxed and happy as I strolled in for my meal, even though I’d had to park half a mile away and jog to make it by the appointed time. I was seated at a cozy little two-person booth. My waitress confirmed that I was indeed there for the tasting menu and asked if I wanted to do the wine pairing for an additional $45. Wine on top of bourbon sounded like a bad idea, but I had seen a cocktail on their menu that looked like it would be a refreshing accompaniment: the Cucumber Gimlet.
Now this was a tasty beverage: house infused cucumber gin, muddled cucumber, triple sec, and lime. Just as refreshing as I thought it would be, and it seemed like it would make a decent palate cleanser between courses as well. I had taken a few sips when my first course hit the table.
We kicked things off with a bite-size appetizer. The waitress said it was king salmon with caviar (sturgeon, I believe), carrot, crème fraîche, and chive. Simple enough. As soon as she turned her back I was typing the description into my phone for later reference. The next couple of minutes I spent trying to get my new camera to focus properly in the unexpectedly dim lighting, cursing myself for not having anticipated it, for not having practiced for it just in case, and for not having studied my new toy enough to have any idea how to compensate. After five tries I gave up, and what you see above is the best of them. I had no idea how quickly the next course might be coming or how many people had already noticed me making an ass of myself with the camera, so I decided to move on. I slid the hors d’oeuvre off its metal spike and popped it into my mouth. Everyone has had lox and cream cheese, right? That’s what my mind went to at first, but as I chewed the complexity began to set in. The cream did have some of that sourness, but is a lot less rich. The carrot lent some texture and a little earthiness, while the tiny bit of chive and the saltiness of the caviar expanded and enriched the whole thing. The balance was amazing. This guy knew what he was doing. I might be in for a real treat here. Maybe even eleven of them. I’d had a small lunch about six hours earlier, but as long as the courses stayed like this, I thought I’d probably be just fine. What seemed like mere seconds after I’d swallowed this morsel, the empty plate (well, rock and spike) was whisked away. A couple of minutes later, my waitress appeared to ask how I was enjoying the cocktail and what I’d thought of the first course, then set a pair of chopsticks on my table and took off again. Apparently I was to have several minutes between the courses. I started fiddling with camera settings.
The next thing to hit my table was referred to as a nigiri plate, even though half of the items weren’t actually nigiri. The waitress started rattling off information. Hamachi with scallion oil, lamb with mint and more crème fraîche, toro with black truffle, maguro with…wait, did she say tamarind or tamari? Shit, I got distracted. What was that last thing? Tako taco? I don’t really dig octopus. And did she just say escolar? I’ve always avoided escolar because it has a bad effect on certain people’s digestive systems and I didn’t want to risk it. She was looking at me expectantly, and I realized I didn’t remember half of the details she’d just given. I’d had two and a half drinks on a mostly empty stomach, and that wasn’t helping things. I am not a professional. “There’s no way I’m going to remember all that” I said, cursing myself because why the hell should she care, other than maybe thinking it a bit odd that someone would want to remember every detail. She offered to jot the menu down for me. Somehow I managed to avoid professing my adoration and just thanked her. I could just roll with it now and enjoy myself, focusing on the experience rather than the specifics.
I decided to go for the maguro first because I have always found the whole foam thing on food disturbing. Granted, this looked more like bubbles than spit, but it’s still a little odd in my mind. The second my fork pierced the first bubble, a chain reaction began that destroyed all of the others, and within seconds there was no foam, just a perfect cube of tuna in sauce. I wanted that piece of lamb bad, but I decided to make myself wait for it. I went for the fatty tuna next, which practically melted on the tongue just the way you’d expect it to. Next the hamachi, which was probably the best single piece of that fish that I’ve ever had. I was reveling in the sushi/sashimi offerings, which would have been excellent in their familiar forms but were elevated and transformed by the garnishes that had been applied. And the lamb…my god. If I put off leaving town until they opened the next day, could I talk them into making me some kind of lamb sushi roll? Okay, focus. The taco looking thing, I prepared myself for that rubbery octopus texture I hate so much, but it wasn’t there. It was just the best seafood salad I’ve ever had in a little two-bite shell. I finished with the little cubes of escolar that seemed to be on a little cracker of some kind. I’m happy to report that I don’t seem to be one of those people who is susceptible to escolar’s more unpleasant effects, which is good because it was delicious. Anyway, this is how it was all described in the menu that was e-mailed to me the next day:
Nigiri Plate – toro with black truffle; tako taco with bacon, avocado, and chmichurri; maguro with tamari sriracha foam; seared hamachi with scallion oil; lamb with mint and crème fraîche; escolar with sea salt on fried shiso leaf
Once again my plate was taken away, as were my chopsticks No utensil was brought to replace them. A few more minutes, and the next course arrived.
“This is our carbonated oyster, with edible sand” my waitress announced with a smile. I verified that she had said the sand was edible, thanked her, and away she went again. I licked my fingertip, touched it to the sand, and put it to my tongue. Cardomom and breadcrumbs? Clever, and I really dug the presentation of the tin can. Still, carbonated oyster? The menu didn’t offer more description than that when I looked at it the next day. The liquor was definitely lightly carbonated though, and there were some other flavors going on that I couldn’t decipher, but suffice it to say it was terrific. The quality of the oyster itself was superb, and my tongue was tickled by the fizz while I gave the obligatory chew before swallowing it. I wish I’d had a second one so I could have sprinkled a little of the sand on it to see what difference that might have made, but I still had eight courses to go. Quick as a flash my can disappeared and I was presented with a fork shortly thereafter. I realized they were going to keep swapping out utensils as the evening wore on, and began to make it a bit of a game to guess what might be coming next based on the tools I was presented.
Morel Salad – Roasted morel mushrooms, chipollini onion, sweet peppers, asparagus, shiso bleu mozzarella, radish, shallot vinaigrette
Ah, time for salad. And you may remember that yes, I hate mushrooms, but I didn’t care at that moment. I was fully committed to the experience. Besides, I’d never tried morels and the chef had just made the first octopus dish I’ve ever enjoyed, so what did I have to lose. Nothing, as it turns out. The greens were fresh and excellent, I always love sweet peppers and asparagus, the bleu/mozzarella combo was perfect (there’s that wicked sense of balance again), the tiny little roasted onions were sweet and delicious, and the morels…well, I’m not going to rush out this weekend and buy any, but I ate every one of them and dug it. The waitress noticed my drink was empty and asked if I would like another. That would be silly, I thought. I’ve already had a cocktail plus the whiskey before I got here, and my thought process already wasn’t as tight as it could have been. “Yes, please”, I said. Plate, fork and glass all disappeared. New fork appeared, this time with a knife. Not a steak knife or anything, but a knife nonetheless.
Seared scallops (one of my faves), morels, truffle cream, pomegranate foam, lemongrass, kaffir lime, asparagus, and pomegranate seeds. Some of that I remembered, the menu filled in the rest. BEST scallops I’ve ever had by far. I didn’t even mind the foam at this point, even though it didn’t do the same disappearing act the one earlier had. The knife was a joke, I used it to keep things civilized but the scallops cut like warm butter at the slightest prodding from my fork. This was one of those dishes that has so many components that no two bites taste exactly the same. For the second time this meal, I found myself wondering if the dish I was eating was available on the regular menu, because I would be exquisitely happy with just a big plate of it. It was gone far too soon. Plate and utensils go bye bye, to be replaced by another knife and fork.
This plate hit the table next. I smiled at my waitress and said “I know what that is! Well, most of it”. I noticed that this wasn’t the waitress I had started with. The drinks had me buzzing along pretty well at this point and I was in a rapidly increasing state of sensory overload from the food, but it was easy to see that her green dress was far different from the black outfits the rest of the staff wore. I don’t remember the specifics of the conversation, but eventually she said that she was Laura, the one I had spoken to the previous day when making my reservation. She asked how I was enjoying it, and I unloaded all of the fifty cent adjectives I could muster. She mentioned that her husband was the chef and I asked for his name so I could give him the props he deserved, and she said it was Joe Kim. That cleared my head a bit. THAT Joe Kim? The executive chef and co-owner? I realized that I’ve been spoiled by television, that some execs do more than just plot menus and then jet around doing the TV circuit and trying other people’s food. Some of them are actually hands-on in the kitchen pretty much every day. I gushed some more and told her that I hoped he was enjoying the freedom to play a little bit, because I was certainly enjoying the results. I also joked that when I had first looked at the menu, I was seriously considering just coming in for lunch and trying their Ramen Carbonara before committing to the tasting menu, since it seemed like one of the more amusing fusion dishes.
But I digress. The central item of the plate in front of me was a little circle of foie gras, with pickled grapes, pulverized raspberries, and the crime scene-looking sauce I had to be reminded later was comprised of almond and raisin. There was also a perfect disc of Sauternes gelee (essentially a sweet wine gelatin) perched atop the foie, and a little ceramic basket of tiny toasted slices of brioche to pile all this mouthwatering stuff on before cramming it into my maw. What can I say? This was absolutely exquisite. Every single component of it was perfection. Further words fail me. This man’s sense of balance awestruck me. I saved the last piece of bread to mop up the last of the puree, and my table was cleared again. Fork and spoon this time, and I guessed at pasta of some kind for the next course.
And there is the aforementioned Ramen Carbonara. Laura smiled, she knew it was coming when I had mentioned my slight disappointment about not being able to try it, she just didn’t want to ruin the surprise. Fresh noodles, edamame, pork belly, and tonkotsu broth cover the ramen component, while the carbonara is represented by arugula, bacon, and parmesan. The halfway point is the egg, a central ingredient in both dishes, represented by a raw quail egg yolk here. I had no idea what to expect aside from the novelty factor. I had tried to reconcile what tonkotsu broth and parmesan cheese would taste like together and just couldn’t make it work in my head, but of course the chef made it work. This would be a terrific textbook example of a fusion dish. The table was cleared again, and I was given only a fork for the next course, which Laura brought out several minutes later (she didn’t clear the table or bring utensils, but she delivered most of my food for the remainder of the meal).
A sizzling hot stone bowl was set in front of me next. Laura asked if I was familiar with Bi Bim Bap and cautioned me that the bowl was not to be touched. I’d like to think I’d have been able to figure it out from the sizzling and the steam, but some people need things spelled out for them, and slightly drunk people enjoying the culinary equivalent of an amusement park certainly can’t be hurt by a little reminder I guess. Laura noticed my glass was empty again and asked if I wanted a refill. Common sense wasn’t so common by this point, so I said sure. Besides, I was about 2/3 of the way through, right? One cocktail every three or four courses sounded reasonable to me! Back to the BBB. Quail (another first for me), rice crisping up very nicely at the bottom, three kinds of kim chi, veg, and quince (yet another first) go chu jang. This took some time to eat because it was piping hot. And even then, the errant bits of rice were still sizzling on the stone when I finished. What do you want me to say? How many ways can you say that a bit of food was amazing? I can break out a thesaurus if necessary, but suffice it to say that just like everything else so far, I adored it.
Laura returned with a drink that wasn’t the one I had ordered. I figured maybe I had exhausted their cucumber gin supply (not me alone, it was a busy Saturday night after all), but she said this was a new item she thought I might enjoy and that if not she would fetch me another gimlet. I don’t remember what it was called, it’s not on the menu yet and most of their specialty drinks have cute names (the Shiso Horny, for example). She did describe it as a martini, which caused my inner old man to bristle, but I slapped him down. This was definitely not the time or place to be a purist, and I was simply along for the ride. The components I remember are ginger vodka and elderflower, capped with liquid nitrogen. It’s served with a small spoon for breaking up the ice cap, which then dissolves slowly, keeping the drink absolutely ice cold and mellowing the flavors a bit (this drink has a bold flavor to it). Definitely not a martini, but still very good and VERY interesting. As I sipped, I realized that I was starting to get full. I cursed the unsatisfying lunch (more on that in a future post, I’m going out of order so I can get this one up while it’s still relatively fresh in my mind) and the valuable internal real estate it was occupying. Still, three more courses to go. How bad could it be? A fresh fork was brought out to me, along with another knife. A steak knife. Oh boy.
The next dish was wagyu beef, with potatoes lightly fried in duck fat, kale, and a veal demi-glace. A larger portion than I would have expected, too. Not a full size steak by any means, but still very generous under the circumstances. Or at least it seemed so to a guy whose eyes were rapidly outgrowing his stomach. I’d never had actual wagyu before, just “American Style Kobe”, and recalled reading that Chef Kim likes playing with Australian Wagyu. Any hopes I’d had for another surprisingly light, melt in your mouth course that wouldn’t hit my tummy too hard were quickly dashed. This was a leaner cut, and while obviously high quality still had most of the weight of a traditional steak. My inner masochist was enjoying himself (especially that demi, wow), but I was already fantasizing about stepping out into the fresh air, heading back to the hotel, collapsing into bed, and spending the rest of the night sleeping and digesting. Two more courses to go, and I was thinking that after two relatively heavy ones in a row I would get something light next, then likely a dessert of some kind. I could do this. A spoon was dropped off at my table.
The next course arrived, and I was told it was a cheese course (great, I love cheese!), which was subsequently elaborated upon by further describing it as a goat cheese and habanero ice cream. The menu I later received made no mention of this, but I’m pretty sure pineapple was mentioned at the time, and I’m guessing it was in that syrup that was drizzled over the cheese. Now I love goat cheese, and I love habanero. Pineapple, not so much. Actually, I loathe pineapple. But at the start of this meal, I also loathed mushrooms and octopus. It was rich, it was spicy, it was creamy, it was cold, it was ever-so-slightly sweet. And your not-so-humble narrator, a man who can usually taste a few drops of pineapple juice in a cake, found nothing to be offended by here. Hell, the meal could have stopped right here, on yet another perfect example of a perfectly balanced dish, and I would have been perfectly happy. And not just because I was already full. Nothing wrong with a more savory dessert as far as I’m concerned, and this WAS ice cream. Maybe this was number eleven? Had I miscounted? I mean, where do you go after a dessert? My bowl and spoon were collected, and I was told that my next course would be out shortly. Guess I hadn’t miscounted after all…
The next course was handed straight to me. No utensil, no plate or bowl or display stand. I was told it was a kumquat sorbet. I stared at it. “It’s a push pop” we said, practically in unison. I’d never had kumquat before either, in any form. I hated it like poison. This was the only dish I not only didn’t like, but actively disliked. It was the most bitter thing I’ve tasted since my mom tried powdered alum to cure me of cursing (soap hadn’t made a strong enough impression). Even my camera didn’t like this one, refusing to focus on the lightly reflective frost on the outside of the plastic tube. I struggled with every lick and bite. You know those certain kinds of spicy food that only burn the back of your tongue for whatever reason? Well imagine that, but with sourness instead of heat. I’m not going to lie, I was kind of disappointed, but I was going to finish every bite of it because it was the last thing, the finale to one of the best meals of my life. And besides there was nowhere to set it down. *rimshot* I got it over with as fast as I could and sat there holding the tube and stick contraption because it wouldn’t stand up on its own. Eventually it was taken from me and I sat there waiting for the check, gulping water to try and get that taste out of my mouth.
And then this. What the hell? Had my math skills completely abandoned me? I wanted to look through my camera and see how many courses it had actually been. I wasn’t even hungry anymore, but the prospect of toasted marshmallow awakened reserves somewhere in me that I hadn’t known were there. She set the plate in front of me and lit the miniature firepit with a flourish. This item is on the regular menu, in a manner of speaking. The menu says Mirror Glazed Chocolate Cake (look at the finish on that icing), and next to that “see server for today’s cake”, so I’m guessing that while the central item doesn’t change, the presentation does, and I was lucky enough to get the s’mores version. There was even a skewer of mini marshmallows for me to toast myself.
Now, I don’t presume to know the mind of Joe Kim. I’d never heard of the guy two weeks ago, and this was my first time eating his food. Every dish leading up to that sorbet had been a symphony of, allow me to beat that dead horse once more, balance. That sorbet was not balance. And while for me it was too much of a bad thing, it was completely balanced out by this dish. Was it intended that way? I have no way of knowing. What I do know is that the sweetness of this dessert might be overwhelming to me under normal circumstances, but with that bitterness still clinging to my palate, my taste buds opened up to this sugary onslaught in much the same way that they do for ice water after a strenuous workout. Toasted marshmallow is one of my favorite flavors in the world, and chocolate syrup and graham crackers ain’t bad either. But that cake? Hands down, without a doubt, absolutely the single best chocolate cake I have ever had in my life. Moist, fudgy, decadent as all hell. Mind-blowingly excellent. The sweetness was almost overwhelming, but it was preferable to overwhelming sourness. I was happy. This was a fine place to end. My table was cleared, my cocktail finished, and I resumed my wait for the check.
I swear I almost started laughing when the next plate hit the table. I knew I was past eleven courses now, even without looking for confirmation. Instead, without looking up I just asked if this was the last one. I was assured that it was. Another dessert, but a bite size one (though it took me three bites), a little morsel to end a meal that had begun with a little morsel. And even though it was another dessert, the cake was very light and the slight tartness of the passion fruit was refreshing. Don’t worry, I’m not going to say that word again. But you know what it is.
I sat there, in that same seat I hadn’t moved from in over three hours. I was more than full. I was exhausted. I was slightly drunk, even with all that rich food to soak up the alcohol. I became aware of someone standing next to my table. He was speaking to me. It was the chef. I came back to myself long enough to spout all the same superlatives his poor wife had been forced to listen to over the course of the evening. I did mention the sorbet, hoping I wasn’t causing offense but also trying to pry out of him if the the correlation I had noticed between that and the chocolate cake had been intentional. I never did get an answer. I told him that this would go down as one of the great meals of my life, like the first time I had dim sum, my first real taco, my first raw oyster, my first bowl of restaurant quality ramen. He was so polite and soft spoken, and I’m sure I was making a complete ass of myself. At the end, I shook his hand and told him that while I don’t put any great stock in the Beard Awards, I think they’re fools if they pass him up again this time. He should win an award just for doing what he’s doing where he’s doing it. He went back to the kitchen. Laura came to say goodbye and reassure me that she would email the menu the following day. A waitress asked if I needed anything else, and then I finally got my check. I tipped 30%, then kicked myself all the way back to my car for not leaving more. I took the long way back, savoring the fresh air and the way it cleared my head. I hadn’t been as inebriated as I had thought, my head was just swimming in general. I was just tired and tired of moving. Back in my room, I turned on the news and collapsed on the bed, thinking about taking a quick shower before I turned in for the night.
The next thing I knew it was three in the morning, TV and lights still on. I hadn’t even managed to take off my shoes. At least I was starting to feel normal again. I pulled out my camera and scrolled through the pictures, trying to ignore their inadequacy. Thirteen courses, when all was said and done. Plus three cocktails, though I realized upon reflection that I hadn’t been charged for the third one that I had been brought to try. Two bonus dishes and a free drink, a reward for abandoning myself to the chef’s whims, I suppose. I recalled that he had said at one point during our brief conversation, “I overdo it sometimes”. I’m only too happy to have overindulged along with him.
I’m not going to do a letter grade on this one. I just can’t bring myself to rate an abnormal experience with a normal rating system. Am I glad I did it? Hell yes. Would I do it again? Maybe someday, on a completely empty stomach this time. Though I might opt for the five or seven course tasting menu instead and ask if they’d be willing to do the omakase thing on one of those. I will definitely return to 5 Fusion if given the chance, even if it’s just to order a sushi roll or a dinner. Maybe some appetizers and some other cocktails. I figure if I can trust the guy when I have no idea what’s coming, I should be more than safe ordering from the regular menu. And who knows, there’s probably some surprises lurking there as well.