Michael Murphy's take on a Japanese "Izakaya" restaurant isn't what you'd expect from a chef who is collaborating with Justin Cook, the owner of Bend's popular westside sushi house Kanpai. Murphy and Cook opened Boken last month in the former home of The Downtowner just off Mirror Pond Plaza. As you might expect, the execution is spot-on, the cocktails are well executed and the ingredients are incredibly fresh. But Boken's menu veers far from what most diners have come to think of as Japanese food.
Instead of sushi and tempura vegetables, Boken serves small yet substantial plates of exotic fare. And instead of a cocktail list heavy on sweet drinks like Mai Tais, Boken's bar leans heavily on select sakes and whiskeys - the latter of which has become an art-form in Japan, rivaling even Scotland. The menu and spirit list features items near and dear to my heart, like house-made kimchee, pork belly and a plethora of whiskeys, giving me high hopes.
The word Izakaya stems from the Japanese words for "to sit" and "sake shop." The simple translation is a sake shop that allowed customers to sit and drink, but the name has become synonymous with bars offering substantial small plates meant to be paired with cocktails.
Boken's décor, while simple, is anything but boring. Copper-topped tables, minimalist dishware and Japanese watercolor paintings create a Zen-like setting. The service adds to the ambiance. The waitstaff and bartenders are well trained, friendly and quick to offer pairing suggestions and tasting notes on all dishes and drinks.
In terms of food, a small-plates menu is a blessing and curse, in part because it's easy to order more than you intended. Each item on the menu, which features more than 20 small plates, a handful of "skewer" options and a few side dishes, sounded so tempting that it was hard not to order everything. My companion and I stuck with the kimchee ($5), spring rolls with duck ($7), Japanese-style green lip mussels ($6), the pan-seared tofu ($6), pork belly ($6) and the scallop skewers ($6).
The dishes arrived quickly, and soon we worried if we might have overestimated our appetites, or underestimated the servings. But each dish was so well executed and unique to anything else being served in Bend that there wasn't a morsel left.
While each dish was delicious, the kimchee, mussels and pork belly were the stars.
Now, I'm not going to pretend I grew up with a mother who poured her sweat and tears into a generations-old kimchee recipe. But in my adult life, I've eaten quite a bit of the spicy, crunchy cabbage dish, and Boken's kimchee is an addictingly good version. The pork belly, too, surpassed most of the pork belly dishes I've had in recent memory. Sliced thin and grilled, the crunch of the outer crust perfectly complemented a thick layer of molten fat. The mussels, large and fresh, were served like oysters on the half shell, covered in a spicy aoli, elevating the dish from the expected bowl of mollusks to something much more elegant.
My companion ordered a whiskey flight offered that night ($12), which allowed him to choose three whiskeys from the impressive list. I stuck with a cocktail - the Shiso Mojito ($8), a combination of Hendrick's gin and muddled shiso leaf. The cocktail tasted fresh, but not too sweet, and stood up to the dishes' bold flavors.
We finished the meal off with a coconut flan - an off-menu dessert that's available upon request. Speaking of menus, Boken points out all of the local sources of the restaurant's ingredients - Carlton Farms for chicken and pork, Draper Valley for beef, Tender Greens (Bend) for produce.
Finishing our meal, it struck me that Boken is delicious, yes, but more than anything, it is thoughtful. The menu, spirits selection, décor, staff - all have been carefully curated. As I finished the last drops of my cocktail, I couldn't help but think that this is the kind of place that doesn't so much live up to expectations, as it defies them.
852 NW Brooks Street. 541-706-9091, bokenbend.com.
Tuesday - Saturday, 4 p.m. - 11 p.m.