Chef Rodrigo Ochoa loves dinner that feels like a celebration. Walking into his new Northwest Portland restaurant Janken, which opened this weekend in the former Bluehour space, that passion is evident: Sitting at white oak and quartz tables, diners watch servers toss sizzling bowls of rice tableside. Chefs at a glowing sushi bar toward the back of the restaurant top wagyu nigiri with caviar. Under a tsunami of a curved slat wall, bartenders finish cocktails with a dome of smoke or a rose-shaped sphere of ice. For him, high-end dining isn’t just about glamour; it’s about what it means to celebrate.
“During the pandemic, I got to see the impact we have with our guests. People visit because of birthdays, because they beat cancer,” Ochoa says. “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
Ochoa, a Florida transplant with Colombian roots, got his start in ritzy Miami restaurants, steakhouses and special occasion spots from Douglas Rodriguez and Michael Mina. Now living in the opposite corner of the country, Ochoa wants to create something memorable and festive, and he’s enlisted the help of notable local talents. Chef Luna Contreras, formerly of lauded San Francisco restaurants, is now known for her pop-up Chelo; she’ll be in the kitchen alongside pastry chef Gabriella Martinez, a.k.a. the mind behind dessert pop-up Sweet Creature. Ochoa also brought some chefs with him: sous chef Juah Oh, who worked with Ochoa at a number of restaurants in Florida, agreed to follow him to Oregon, as did sushi chef and fellow Komodo alum Erich Hentschel. “I came from a city that was very hardcore,” Ochoa says. “Here, we can just focus on working together.”
While Ochoa was growing up in Medellín, Colombia, he would fall asleep in the oven. He has multiple chefs in his family, and knew he wanted to cook from an early age. “I belonged in the kitchen,” he says. “In Colombia, everything is about food, all about closing the streets, roasting whole pigs.”
When they moved from Colombia to Florida when Ochoa was 12, his family made and sold Colombian food in Miami Beach. As a teenager, he took a job in the kitchen at De Rodriguez Ocean, owned by “the godfather of Nuevo Latino cuisine,” Douglas Rodriguez. “My chef believed in me,” he says. “He believed in my commitment.”
From there, Ochoa made his way through a number of lauded Miami restaurants. The chef left De Rodriguez to serve as a line cook at the Mandarin Oriental, most notably at Forbes darling Azul. From there, he popped around a number of hotel restaurants, including BLT Steak. Hoping to learn more about Asian cuisines and culinary techniques, he started to work at Zuma, stepping away to travel through Thailand and become the executive chef at Komodo. He worked for Michael Mina through the beginning of the pandemic, before becoming the executive chef at Papi Steak, owned by prolific Miami restaurateur David Grutman.
His desire to move to Portland was born out of a road trip with his wife. While driving around Oregon, the two spent a week in the city, falling in love with the trees, the food carts, the scenery. So when he got the call to open Janken, he and his wife packed their six dogs in an RV and drove north.
Ochoa quickly fell in with a group of Portland culinary up-and-comers. He met Gabriella Martinez at Portland Flea, enamored with her bonbons. Martinez introduced him to Contreras; the three of them collaborated on a pop-up with Nan Chaison. He asked them if they wanted to come work for the restaurant, and they agreed. “We have a great team,” he says. “We are all working with our hearts.”
The resulting menu is eclectic, pulling most of its inspiration from Korean and Japanese cuisine. At the sushi bar, Hentschel rolls burdock and radish kimbap, topping pillows of rice with fatty tuna, Hokkaido scallops, sea urchin. Flashier nigiri include a maguro “foie gras” with shiso and smoked wagyu with uni and caviar. Caviar also arrives at the table in an elaborate ice-filled tray, accompanied by quail eggs, latkes, blinis, and various other accoutrement.
Out of the kitchen, a three-hour-braised octopus gets transformed into takoyaki; the braising liquid turns into a dashi, which goes in the takoyaki batter. Kurobuta pork belly comes paired with rum-compressed pineapple and black garlic tare; the ribs, on the other hand, are served braised-then-crispy-fried, finished with chile hoisin.
Shared plates, served with grandeur, are a crucial component of the menu. Kimchi, vegan and fermented in-house, appears in a sizzling fried rice with Jidori egg; servers toss the rice at the table, let it sizzle for less than a minute, and serve, to give it a light crisp. While steaks come with chimichurri and ponzu emulsion, short rib ssam includes kimchi, lettuce, and ssamjang. But the restaurant’s duck is clearly meant to be the star: Jurgielewicz ducks salt-cure for a minimum of four hours, before they’re stuffed with star anise and sewn shut. Chefs paint the ducks with red and black vinegar, salt, and sugar, followed by a 24-hour air dry and, eventually, a roast. The skin is scalded to ensure that crispy skin, landing at the table with the classic Pekin accompaniments: hoisin, scallion, cucumbers, pancakes.
On the dessert menu, Martinez is in fine form, and those familiar with her pop-up will recognize her creative voice quickly: Strawberry cheesecake bingsu gets a foundation of cheesecake, with tart vanilla shave ice, strawberry compote, and graham cracker crumb. The restaurant’s “chocolate bar” arrives with dulce de leche and cacao nibs. Sorbets come in flavors like guava yuzu.
All of the above arrive at tables surrounding an enormous cherry blossom tree, sitting at the heart of the restaurant.
“This place is here for everybody,” Ochoa says. “That’s important for us.”
Janken is located at 250 NW 13th Avenue; reservations are available now.