Downtown Portland’s Shizuku is by all means a beautiful restaurant (to the level where it scooped up Eater’s Design of the Year award for 2017). And it’s little surprise: owner Chef Naoko went to one of the most lauded Japanese designers, Kengo Kuma, enlisting his firm to create that beautiful space that hovers between traditional and contemporary Japanese design, and that honors the food served at Shizuku.
Balazs Bognar of Tokyo-based Kengo Kuma and Associates was the project architect, and he spent time in both Japan and Portland helping to guide the project. Despite his lead role, he describes as a “conversation” between himself, Chef Naoko, and Kengo Kuma, as well as other Portland- and Japan-based team members, including Portland architect Lorraine Guthrie and contractor Steve Kem. Developing a design that respects chef Naoko’s food was essential to their process.
“Design should honor the guests, their dining experience, and of course the prepared dishes,” says Bognar. “We hope we have done it not only with respect, but also with enthusiasm for the care, craft, detail, and purity of materials of Naoko’s cuisine.”
“When he designed my restaurant he wanted to express my cooking style through the use of natural materials in a way which would also emphasize the beauty of that material, which is how I like to prepare my dishes,” says chef Naoko of Kengo Kuma and his firm’s work.
The design itself was inspired by classic Japanese architectural elements. “Our link to tradition in this case was very specific to the thin-filament bamboo screens [called sudare] used in the restaurant design,” Bognar says of the swooping screens that define the SW Jefferson Street space.
“The big change is actually quite simple: instead of hanging it with the filaments arranged horizontally, we turned the bamboo screens ninety-degrees so that the strands were oriented vertically. It’s an age-old material, but used in a new way.”
Also striking is the restaurant’s miniature zen garden, a simple tatami platform for small groups, flanked by an abstract dry garden. That garden also entails design expertise: it’s from Sadafumi Uchiyama, the current garden curator at the Portland Japanese Gardens, and longtime collaborator of Kengo Kuma. Meanwhile, the tables were made by chef Naoko’s husband and partner, Graham Bell, with input from the designers.
The final product is peaceful and beautiful, without overwhelming guests and distracting from the food, a goal of Kengo Kuma’s philosophy. “If we are lucky,” says Bognar, “the atmosphere might even bring delight and a sense of the sublime — but never at the expense of the focus on food.”