In the Bay Area’s food scene, sustainability is sacred.
Our region has enthusiastically embraced all manner of eco-friendly food measures, including banning nearly all single-use plastics. And we’ve done it with vigor —under a law proposed in 2018, California waiters could go to jail for giving patrons plastic drinking straws.
It’s the only place where I’ve seen someone leave a one-star review on a restaurant’s Yelp page that read, in essence, “The food and experience was great. But I can only leave one star, because the carry-out packaging was not plant-based.”
And we start young, too. My two year old’s preschool has already taught him the minutiae of proper solid waste disposal — he can sort recyclables from green waste more effectively than most big people.
For restaurants in the Bay Area, then, distinguishing yourself based on sustainability is a tough sell. Most patrons would shrug at such surface level niceties as corn-derived packaging and locally grown ingredients — “Sure, that’s great. But even our local McDonald’s does that.”
That’s why I was excited to see Bamboo Sushi, a Portland-based restaurant group, setting up a foothold in the Bay Area with two new restaurants. The second Bay Area location, at City Center Bishop Ranch in the suburban town of San Ramon, opens today. I got a sneak peek behind the scenes of this gem of sustainability (and tasty fish).
Update: This article describes my opening-night visit to Bamboo Sushi. Despite a closure during the pandemic and some supply-chain-related changes to the menu, Bamboo’s San Ramon location is still going strong as of September, 2022.
Bamboo Sushi is the world’s first certified sustainable sushi restaurant. It’s also the first restaurant to gain the coveted B Corp status, which requires businesses to build social responsibility directly into their charters, and weight it as highly as their own profits.
All the fish at Bamboo Sushi is fully sustainable, and many dishes have Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certifications. Much of it is locally caught, too, either around the Bay Area or a bit further North in Bamboo’s home tuft of the Pacific Northwest. This alone is a big deal for sushi. In the world of high-end Japanese food, it’s not unusual to fly fish in from thousands of miles away — sparing no expense — to ensure access to the best possible ingredients.
In fact, some of America’s best local fish is actually put on a plane hours after it’s caught and flown directly to Asia. In some cases, the US even sells its own fish abroad, and then imports lower quality cuts of the same fish to satisfy the less-picky domestic market.
So local souring of sushi-grade fish is already a big step. But Bamboo Sushi goes further, taking sustainability down to the level of packaging, preparation, and even the company’s culture. The restaurant is cash-free, since producing physical currency wastes water resources. Waiters take notes on tablets instead of a paper notepad, and patrons sign on a screen with a stylus, eliminating wasted receipt paper.
Everything is carbon neutral (naturally), and the bar uses only spirits from companies that champion sustainability. Even the toilet paper in the bathrooms is sustainable (no, that’s not a joke — it comes from a company called Cloud Paper and is made from bamboo fiber).
In the Bay Area’s eco-saturated market, Bamboo Sushi takes sustainability to a whole new, more-hardcore level.
Yes, But What About the Fish?
All of this attention to sustainable detail would be for naught, of course, if the food didn’t taste good. Luckily, Bamboo Sushi delivers here, too. It turn out that many of the same business practices that lead to sustainability — like being careful about your suppliers and sourcing things locally — also lead to really excellent food.
Bamboo’s ora king salmon, for example, is some of the best and freshest I’ve ever had — and I’ve eaten a lot of sushi.
It glistens with marbled fat — served on a bed of ice with just a touch of grated ginger — and is meltingly sweet and delicious.
The chirashi was fantastic as well — served in an earthenware bowl over rice, the dish explodes in a vibrant palette of colors.
In one bowl, you’ve got the sweetness of house-made tamago, the oiliness of mackerel, the salty richness of cooked crab, the charred flavors of octopus, and the fatty depth of tuna. Oh, and bursts of salty goodness from a little pocket of salmon roe.
The cocktails stand out, too — both for sustainable ingredients and innovation. I had the Cats Without Attitude, which is topped with a pea shoot and a piece of honeycomb caked in fennel pollen.
Even staples like blistered Shishito peppers are done in innovative ways. Everyone cooks Shishitos the same — blistering the skins, and then serving them with some kind of creamy yogurt sauce to cut the spiciness of the occasional hot pepper.
Bamboo Sushi does things differently, contrasting the peppers’ powerful taste with rich umami flavors — bonito flakes and thick cuts of bacon adorn their Shishitos. It’s a bit like the Portland staple of roasted Brussels sprouts, but with a Japanese flair.
Even the tamago — another dish that’s usually an afterthought done in the same way at every restaurant — is presented differently here, topped with a cocoa powder mixture that brings out its sweetness.
At the end of the meal, decadent fusion desserts await. Among the most popular is a “brownie”, which combines a French chocolate souffle with candied ginger and rich sesame.
Some of the best dishes at Bamboo Sushi, though, are the simplest. The foraged seaweed platter — an appetizer — consists of a variety of colorful seaweeds foraged from around the Oregon coast, topped with salty salmon roe and a vinaigrette.
Hailing from the East Coast and living out here for years, I’ve spent a lot of time around both oceans. To me, the ocean back East are associated with the sulfury, muddy undertones of an Atlantic low tide. The Pacific, in contrast, has more of a briny, earthen smell, evoking kelp forests and tidepools. If you’ve ever stood in the Monterrey Bay Aquarium, you’ve experienced what I’m describing.
The foraged seaweed at Bamboo Sushi captures this essence of the Pacific perfectly, and transfigures it into a salad you can have for $11. It’s a transcendent dish, and notable for its extreme simplicity . It’s literally a hunk pulled from the ocean — carefully and sustainably, I’m sure — and presented to you on a plate.
Other aspects of the experience at Bamboo Sushi have these same elements of elegant simplicity.
For a few dollars, you can have real wasabi ground for you at your table. It’s a dirty secret of the Japanese food industry that most “wasabi” in the United States is actually horseradish dyed green. And when you do get real wasabi here, it’s usually dried and flown in from Japan.
Not at Bamboo. Their wasabi is grown at “an undisclosed location” in Oregon, and carefully grated into a tiny pile for you table-side.
It’s infinitely more subtle and less overpowering than the fake stuff, and makes a perfect compliment to the nigiri and other fish dishes.
While I loved the colorful chirashi bowl, it was the simplest dishes at Bamboo that really stood out — the unadorned slices of salmon and MSC certified albacore, the foraged seaweed, and the little mound of freshly grated wasabi prepared right in front of me.
Culture is Key
That’s where the sustainability aspect really shines. Anyone with enough money and resources could probably source sustainable fish. But it takes a deeper devotion to the concept to take something as simple as a mound of seaweed or a stick of root vegetable and turn it into something remarkable.
In the end, that’s the key — Bamboo Sushi isn’t just about finding sustainable ingredients, it’s about building a culture around the concept of sustainability.
If you care about the environment, that’s great, and reason enough to go. But even if you don’t, that culture — and the thousands of little choices it breeds, each carefully considered— make for an experience and a place that can deliver you something extraordinary.
The lesson here applies beyond the world of sushi. By consciously choosing the core principles around which a business is built — and ensuring that everything the business does meshes with these principles — founders can create a culture that extends from the biggest decisions made in a boardroom to the thousands of little choices each staff member makes every day.
Here the culture delivers amazing fish. But elsewhere, the same idea could apply to anyone who wants to build an excellent product or a consistent customer experience.
I’ll definitely be heading back to Bamboo Sushi. And given the way the company is clearly set up, I expect that each time, they’ll surprise me with something new and unexpected — and a fresh perspective on what it means to be sustainable.
Oh, and regardless of what else they come up with, I’ll definitely be leaving with some of the ora salmon, too. I’m already dreaming about it.