Inside the Most Sustainable Sushi Restaurant in the U.S.

Inside the Most Sustainable Sushi Restaurant in the U.S.

Environmentalist and UC Berkeley grad Kristofor Lofgren moved to Portland, Oregon, in 2006 to go to law school. Today, he owns Bamboo Sushi, a cozy, stylish eatery that's been rated as the most sustainable seafood restaurant in the U.S.

Bamboo Sushi's bona fides are overwhelming: Powered by wind energy, certified by the Marine Stewardship Council and legally constituted as a B Corp., Bamboo Sushi has partnerships with the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Blue Ocean Institute and Salmon Nation. Then there's the paper on which the 23-page menu is printed, the reusable chopsticks made of teal, the wood tables….

"Every aspect of the restaurant is certified by an independent third party," declares Kristofor, sounding like the lawyer he didn't become.

But what about the food? Well, Bamboo Sushi catered a reception (sponsored by FMYI) at last week's Net Impact conference in Portland, winning raves from out-of-town visitors like me.

Kristofor LofgrenMore important, reviewers praise the food, as do diners on sites like Yelp. GQ's well-known food critic Alan Richman named the restaurant's Alaska Black Cod with Smoked Soy and Roasted Garlic Glaze one of his five best dishes of 2010, writing:

Finally, a challenger to Nobu Matsuhisa's iconic black cod with miso. The cod is crunchy and fatty. The sauce suggests caramelized sake, if such a seasoning exists. Did I taste butter? Chef says no. Cracking the Japanese naval code in World War II was easy. Getting this recipe is impossible.

 Before I sat down to talk with Kristofor and Brandon Hill, the head chef at Bamboo Sushi, I figured the only way they could afford to be so scrupulous about their seafood was to charge lots of money for it. Turns out I was wrong.

"We can't afford to sell for premium prices because we're not in San Francisco, we're not in L.A., we're not in New York," Kristofor told me. "People are very pragmatic here." The average check, he said, is $30.28.

The restaurant has been profitable almost from the start and "we've grown every year by about 30 percent," he went on. A second Bamboo Sushi will open soon in Portland, and Kristofor plans to expand to San Francisco next year.

Neither Kristofor nor Brandon ever expected to sell seafood. Kristofor, who is 29, is the child of immigrants -- he is half Swedish, half Armenian -- and he told me that his parents urged him to become a professional and not get into business. He had planned to attend Lewis & Clark Law School, which is known for its environmental programs. Brandon, 30, a native of Denver, always liked food -- his first job as a teenager was scooping ice cream -- but said he "grew up hating seafood because it was fish sticks and bad frozen salmon." Only after moving to Seattle, where he trained in a couple of Japanese restaurants, did he come to love sushi.

They met at a prior restaurant where Kristofor was an investor, Brandon was the chef, and they both were frustrated by the poor quality of the fish. "Farmed salmon tastes like mud," says Brandon. "You can't take something that's mediocre and make it phenomenal." Kristofor bought out the owner, they shut it down and reopened in November 2008 -- with the U.S. economy in free fall -- as Bamboo Sushi.

Their desire to operate more sustainably led them to a decision that turned out to be good for the business. Because none of the big wholesalers that serve restaurants up and down the west coast were able to sell them sufficient quantities of fish from well-managed fisheries, they chose to buy directly from fishermen, making long-term deals at fixed prices. It required a lot more work but it enabled them to get higher-quality fish at a lower price, Kristofor says.

You've hard of farm to fork? These guys can now trace their sushi from boat to throat.

It's also secured them lots of favorable attention. Bamboo Sushi was given a 4.5 "blue fish" rating by a website called Fish to Fork that rates seafood restaurants around the world. (By contrast, McCormick & Schmick's gets five "red fish," which is as bad as it gets.) The Fish to Fork people say:

Bamboo Sushi is a beacon of hope and offers a template for every restaurant that wants to become sustainable. It represents the opposite pole from most sushi restaurants.

Kristofor has another big idea that will set Bamboo Sushi apart. He's going to try to improve the quality of oceans by taking a portion of the restaurant's proceeds (and asking for extra donations from diners) to set up marine protected areas. If all goes according to plan, his restaurants will actually help to regenerate marine life, first in a protected area in the Bahamas and later in the Pacific Northwest. This could mean that by eating there, you are actually contributing to the growth of marine life.

And, if you can't make it to Portland, please be careful about the fish you eat. My favorite guide is the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch. Sushi photo via Shutterstock.