Sushi cravings are powerful and apt to strike at strange times—like while showering, or listening to This American Life. "God, sushi sounds really good right now," you think, as Ira introduces a story about the life-affirming power of swimming lessons. Once the thought has taken hold, it's like there's a sushi-shaped hole in your stomach, and only rice and fish and pickled ginger will do. There are plenty of options in town, depending on your specific sushi needs: Saburo for fist-sized portions; Mio, the Burgerville of Portland sushi; Yakuza or Masu on the hipster tip; Hiroshi if you've got money to spend; Sushi Land Marinepolis you're into hunting and gathering your food.
Let's add newcomer Bara to the list as a great spot for a date—affordable yet still kind of classy, good quality but obscure enough to make you seem cultured for knowing about it, located within easy walking distance of a handful of good bars in case dinner goes well enough to make it to a nightcap. Just—I'm sure I don't have to tell you this—make sure your chopstick skills are up to speed.
A wallflower of a restaurant in the bustling Clinton 'hood, Bara is tucked coyly into a converted Victorian with wood floors and a porch for outdoor dining on sunny days. Decorated in mild purples and greens, the pleasant dining room has 10 or so tables and a sushi bar—if it were busy, I could see the wait getting pretty long. For some reason, though, Bara was almost completely empty on a recent Friday night, save for one or two other couples, and a few servers trying valiantly not to look totally bored.
My friend and I began our romantic little Bara meal with a salad of cucumber and deep red tuna, tossed with sesame seeds, chili oil, and coarse grains of salt, which nicely accentuated the freshness of the tuna without overpowering its subtle flavor. An appetizer of tender clams cooked in ginger and garlic inspired an un-Japanese wish for a hunk of bread to mop up some of the broth. From the sushi bar, all the nigiri we tried was quite good: The yellowtail had that surprisingly buttery texture that indicates freshness, while the crab was sweet and tender.
Specialty rolls are also available, as well as a "chef's choice," which will get you a big platter of whatever is freshest that day (a great bet if you're planning on reserving the private tatami room and sharing dinner with a few friends).
Bara also offers the standard yakisoba/teriyaki type options for the sushiphobes out there. I realized that the only time I ever eat yakisoba noodles is while drunk at festivals down at the waterfront, and I usually feel kind of sick afterward. I was appropriately impressed with Bara, whose yakisoba features actual vegetables—fresh ones, like zucchini and bell peppers, topped with a decent portion of grilled chicken.
The price is just about right, for the quality; two of us got in and out with a decent amount of food for under $40 (that's without drinks, though wine, beer, and sake are available). So the next time you and your special someone get a hankering to feed each other hunks of raw fish, make sure you give Bara a try.