Did you know that Bamboo Sushi is the world’s first certified-sustainable sushi restaurant? If you didn’t, you certainly will before leaving the expanding Portland-based operation’s sparkling new outpost in San Ramon’s City Center Bishop Ranch. It’s literally written on the walls, splashed throughout the menu, and the first thing waiters declare when they introduce themselves.
The messaging is not subtle and can occasionally induce eye-rolling—using a cashless system to avoid the waste of "printing more paper" seems particularly dubious—but it became clear over the course of our visits that the company’s commitment to sustainability in the seafood industry is heartfelt. Fortunately, for Diablo’s purposes, so is their food.
Since it is the restaurant’s calling card, let’s start with the sushi. You’ll need reading glasses and a cup of strong coffee to absorb the terminology—"aquaculture," "purse-seine," "hook and line," "troll and pole"—but the gist of Bamboo’s sustainable approach is to use seafood that the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program has deemed abundant, well-managed, and caught in environmentally friendly ways. That means a top seller like hamachi (yellowtail) is swapped for the more sustainable kanpachi (amberjack), and items such as steelhead trout, rated "best choice" by Seafood Watch but rarely seen on sushi menus, make it into Bamboo’s selection.
Nearly all the sushi is offered as either two-piece nigiri atop rice or five-piece riceless sashimi, and I tried a variety, starting with the kanpachi. Hamachi is one of my favorites, so I was a little worried that its eco-replacement tasted milder, stringier, and overall less fatty and flavorful. But that’s simply the nature of amberjack versus yellowtail, and the fish itself was undeniably high quality, accented by a dollop of yuzu juice and truffle salt. (Bamboo tops all its sushi with a unique yakumi, a light and bright garnish meant to punctuate that particular fish’s flavor.)
With rare exception, Bamboo’s seafood was of similar, often transcendent quality. And perhaps because of the care taken in highlighting its provenance, I found myself concentrating just a bit more on each offering’s distinctive flavor—something the restaurant seems to encourage by serving the standard sushi trinity of soy sauce, wasabi, and ginger only by request. The scallops, seared lightly on the outside and topped with a citrusy kosho chili sauce, were meltingly tender with delicately luscious, buttery notes. One of the restaurant’s signature dishes, the Ora King salmon, farmed from open-net pens in New Zealand, beautifully splits the difference between the firmer texture and stronger taste of wild-caught salmon and the fattier, smoother flavor of farmed. A topping of olive oil, orange and lemon zest, and sea salt provided the perfect complement. Perhaps the biggest revelation, however, was the remarkably tender steelhead trout, presenting a milder, but just as delicious, alternative to salmon. (Really, the only thing I wouldn’t recommend is the rubbery and bland Arctic surf clam.)
You would be fine sticking to sushi and rolls, but it’s well worth exploring the rest of the menu, which is packed with a variety of fascinating tastes and textures that extend beyond traditional Japanese boundaries and are designed to be eaten family-style. If you’re looking for something a little heftier, go for the cauliflower appetizer. I know—cauliflower. But this is definitely not your mom’s version. Bamboo deep-fries the typically dense florets until they are light and airy on the inside and crispy-crunchy outside. The addictive little quasi–chicken nuggets are then doused with black bean sauce and toasted cashews, with the result tasting for all the world like Chinese orange chicken—but with more depth of flavor, thanks to the fermented bean-based coating’s sweet, spicy, and slightly funky backbone. It’s delicious and generous for $8.
The shishito peppers also give you good bang for your buck. It’s almost become cliché around these parts to serve these mildly spicy green crescents charred and adorned simply with sea salt and olive oil. Bamboo pulls a 180, presenting a maximalist version with peppers that are, yes, charred but then smothered in garlic-miso butter, sprinkled with chunks of bacon, and finished with bonito flakes—wispy shavings of dried tuna flecked poetically atop the heat of the dish. The House on Fire mackerel is similarly vivid: Three slabs of seared skin-on mackerel are dramatically revealed in a puff of lemon charcoal–fueled alderwood smoke within a dim sum–style bamboo steamer basket. It’s a must if you like oily, "fishy" fish, with the smoke lending an interesting layer of barbecue-esque flavor to the juicy mackerel. (The octopus sushi is also skillfully smoked, imparting it with a surprisingly baconlike flavor—as tipped by the waiter who guided us expertly through our meal.)
I also loved the silken tofu, a wonderfully creamy version made in-house and served in a delicious bath of garlic oil, shiitake, and chili oil–spiked XO sauce; the delicate salmon-skin salad, which balanced jerky-like salmon, refreshing grapefruit slices, and crunchy shaved fennel on a bed of garden-fresh greens; and the flavor-packed Wagyu flank steak. Cocktails—check out the strawberry-infused Betty the Rocketship—and desserts are clever and yummy. And the second-story venue is strikingly contemporary, mixing warm wood, cool steel and concrete, colorful tiles, and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking City Center’s green interior courtyard (and the Equinox gym–goers next-door). The service is earnest and knowledgeable, the menu is 98 percent gluten-free, and while quality Japanese is never cheap, you won’t leave Bamboo feeling ripped off or hungry; it even has a weekday happy hour.
Oh, and I almost forgot: The fish is sustainable. bamboosushi.com.