In the face of stiff completion, Hinoki will serve as an ‘R&D project’ to put Oregon coast seafood on the map.
After a year in which several staples of Portland’s food scene vanished, including the Little Bird Bistro and Byways Café, it would stand to reason restaurant entrepreneurs would err on the side of caution when it comes to opening dining venues downtown.
John Gorham has high hopes for his new sushi restaurant Hinoki, opening in southeast Portland in the spring of 2020. His hopes reach outside of Portland, and extend all the way to the Oregon coast. His dream is that the restaurant will change the way diners think about Oregon coast seafood.
“I would be satisfied if the restaurant just broke even,” says Gorham, whose restaurant group owns Toro Bravo and Tasty n Alder. “I’m hoping this restaurant will serve as an R&D project.”
Diners will be able to book a seat at Hinoki, a 12-seat sushi bar serving an omakase-style sushi meal from chef Sam Saltos, whose previous restaurant experience includes Manhattan’s Morimoto, as well as Noma in Copenhagen, which was ranked the second-best restaurant in the world by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants Academy in 2019.
Guests will sit ringside as chef Saltos prepares and serves sushi right before their eyes.
But the goal of Hinoki isn’t to see if Portlanders will go wild for traditional Japanese dining. Both owner and head chef want the restaurant to showcase the quality and diversity of fresh Oregon coast seafood, which the pair claims has been largely overlooked by the domestic market.
“At some point, industry kind of took over,” says Gorham, who claims large-scale commercial operations have left Oregon coast seafood with an undeserved, middling reputation across the Northwest.
“I heard somewhere that 90% of clams caught from the Oregon coast are used as bait for crab fishing, and we have amazing clams,” says Gorham.
Another reason freshly caught Oregon coast seafood has not caught on, according to the pair, is because other markets get it first.
“As far as domestic seafood goes, 90% of it is exported. They go to China and Japan since they pay top dollar for it, and there’s not a whole lot left for us,” says Saltos.
“The reason you get the best fish in the world in Japan is because everything is freshly caught.”
Gorham points out that Oregon coast seafood is often caught, processed across state lines, and then sold back to Oregon consumers in a process that can reduce freshness by several days.
Hinoki, on the other hand, will receive its meat within hours of being caught.
“When it comes to fish, freshness is what makes it special,” says Gorham. “That’s why Japan has the best fish. They do the work and get it first. They get our fish before we do.”
But if an Oregon coast seafood renaissance is going to take place, it will not be at a restaurant too expensive for most eaters. Whereas traditional omakase-style sushi restaurants can cost more than $400 a dinner, guests at Hinoki will generally pay less than $100 for a meal that includes more than a dozen sushi offerings.
Chef Saltos will serve guests enough of the freshly caught seafood to feel satisfied, which he says can be a problem of other traditional sushi restaurants.
“With some of these places, guests leave after only ten bites,” says Saltos. “It feels bad to spend money on a meal and then feel like you have to get a slice of pizza afterwards.”
The larger portions also serve to highlight the quality and diversity of Oregon coast seafood.
“One of the most highly sought-after and expensive seafood in Spain are percebes, or gooseneck barnacles,” says Gorham. “We have them here. You can drive an hour-and-a- half and go get them.”
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