Chef Ryan Roadhouse spent a short amount of time studying in Japan, but the bulk of his training took place in the least expected of places: Tulsa, OK, Denver, CO, and Jackson Hole, WY—not cities known for a culture of Japanese food. Yet the diaspora of Japanese chefs he apprenticed with, specifically in Tulsa and Denver, have inspired the Illinois native to find his own voice within the inherently rigid structure of Japanese culinary technique.
Now living in Portland, OR, Roadhouse owns and operates Nodoguro, an intensely creative and ambitious Japanese restaurant that started out as a pop-up, turned into a brick-and-mortar, went back to being a pop-up after losing its lease, and is now newly reopened in a permanent space. Here, Roadhouse is able to expand on what he's most celebrated for: experimental and playful tasting menus inspired by esoteric themes. So far he's delved into David Lynch's "Twin Peaks," Studio Ghibli (a.k.a. the "Disney of Japan"), and the novels of Haruki Murakami at his dinners.
"We started Nodoguro as a nine-course tasting menu out of a little commissary kitchen space," says Roadhouse. The themes came later.
His Japanese Food Revelations
During Roadhouse's time at Sushi Den, his mentor, Toshi Kizaki, sent him to Japan in order to get a more immersive look at the food and styles of cooking. "What a lot of people don't know about Japanese food is that it's very specialized and compartmentalized," says Roadhouse, "but if you go to a Japanese restaurant [in the U.S.], they tend to have a little bit of everything. They offer a wide cross-section of what people recognize as Japanese food."
The Japanese chefs who dedicate themselves to a craft within a craft were hugely inspirational for Roadhouse—but that was simply not something he could himself emulate at Sushi Den, where a typical Friday night sees over 700 customers.
But that's when Roadhouse came across Urasawa in Beverly HIlls. "It's a restaurant with just 10 seats, which you see in Japan quite a bit, but you don't see in America very often," he says. He decided to take spend some time at Urasawa to see how they ran their kitchen, leaving certain he wanted to try and do something smaller, more precise, and perhaps even a bit theatrical.
His Journey Finding Creativity in Limitation
So far he's delved into David Lynch's "Twin Peaks," Studio Ghibli (a.k.a. the "Disney of Japan"), and the novels of Haruki Murakami at his dinners.
Before breaking away to launch Nodoguro in Portland, where he now lives with his wife, Roadhouse spent some more time bouncing around from Colorado to Wyoming. "We started Nodoguro as a nine-course tasting menu out of a little commissary kitchen space," says Roadhouse. The themes came later. Roadhouse's wife, Elena, took a vested interest in the motifs of the decor at each dinner. The adornments started simply—dandelions, fireflies—but they quickly became more ambitious when she pitched author Haruki Murakami as a theme.
In researching, Roadhouse came across a Tokyo art show in which an artist had created schematics of the way food worked in Murakami's novels. "I ended up abandoning what I was really supposed to do, which was figure what we were going to put on the tables," says Roadhouse. "I ended up digging into details of the food, creating a menu just from this information. It really spurred my creativity because it made me think about things in ways that I wouldn't have before."
His Current Dalí Menu
On the heels of the Murakami menu, Roadhouse challenged himself with odes to Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" and David Lynch's cult favorite "Twin Peaks." In the end, Roadhouse even had the intimidating honor of replicating the entire menu for David Lynch himself. "I created that menu by isolating every food reference throughout 'Twin Peaks,' and then, through the process of elimination, taking the words and putting them together randomly, and making the dishes that way," says Roadhouse. "He was really excited about the food, making funny comments about how he doesn't get invited to fun, free dinners anymore!"
Originally published in 1973, Les Diners de Gala, is an eccentric, surrealist cookbook written and illustrated by Salvador Dalí—and it's also the launching pad for the latest tasting menu at Nodoguro. "This book is really, really dated," explains Roadhouse. "If you go through it, and read the recipes, a lot of them are actually nonsense!"
Roadhouse read the entire book on a road trip, highlighting particular names of dishes that struck him, like "Curry Conger of the Rising Sun." "We poach off little eels—a reference to conger eels—cut them into little bites, make a reduction out of the eel, and infuse with bacon fat and toasted curry." While you'll find plenty of imagination in each course, don't expect the dishes to look like replicas of Dalí paintings on the plate. That would be too easy.
Here, a look at Roadhouse's 11-course Dalí dinner in its entirety.
Dalí's Original Dish: Oyster a la BrolattiRoadhouse's
Interpretation: Shigoku Oyster with Pickled Green Strawberry Mignonette
Dalí's Original Dish: Soft Quiche
Roadhouse's Interpretation: Egg Tofu with Soy Cured Salmon Roe and Wasabi
Dalí's Original Dish: Prawn Parfait
Roadhouse's Interpretation: Soft Prawn Sashimi with Whipped Avocado, Grilled Asparagus, Yuzu Miso, and Prawn Head
Dalí's Original Dish: Jellied Codfish
Roadhouse's Interpretation: Sandwich of Cherry Smoked Cod, Eggplant, and Soba
Dalí's Original Dish: Salad Composed According to Alexander Dumas
Roadhouse's Interpretation: Potato Sunomono with Egg Yolk, Seaweed, and Pickled Garlic
Dalí's Original Dish: Crab Meat with Mushroom
Roadhouse's Interpretation: Dungeness Crab with Butter Emulsion, Morel Mushrooms, and Summer Squash.
Dalí's Original Dish: Stuffed Cabbage with Pigeon
Roadhouse's Interpretation: Pigeon of the Sea with Grilled Mackerel and Fermented Carrot and Cabbage with Citrus Soy
Dalí's Original Dish: Curry Conger of the Rising Sun
Roadhouse's Interpretation: Poached Eel with Eel Bone Reduction and Bacon Fat with Toasted Curry Bacon and Fava Rice
Dalí's Original Dish: Pig's Ear Soup
Roadhouse's Interpretation: Ham Hock and Daikon Soup with Kyoto Miso and Onion
Dalí's Original Dish: Tortilla with Burned Sardine
Roadhouse's Interpretation: Dashi Omelette with Toasted Chirimen Jako
Dalí's Original Dish: Fruit Cream
Roadhouse's Interpretation: Genmai Cheesecake with Toasted Soybean Powder, Matcha Syrup, and Whipped Strawberry
For more Nodoguro, see nodoguropdx.com.