By Lance Sparks

In Japanese folklore, Tanuki plays a rather minor but significant role. We focus on this deity because Tanuki, the shape-shifting raccoon dog, god of cheer and prosperity—and of restaurants—graces and protects Izakaya Oyazi, the charming Japanese restaurant at 259 E 5th, in Eugene’s old Granary Building.

Tanuki’s first blessing was Oyazi’s enterprising owners, Chef Preston Shin and his wife, Chef Sunny Moon. The couple also owns Sushi Pure, directly across from Oyazi. Preston had the task of remodeling the space formerly occupied by Jo Federigo’s, transforming it into a warm, welcoming environment. Good for Tanuki, too, because Preston scattered the iconic figurines throughout the restaurant: an antique wooden Tanuki stands in the handsome sake bar; a porcelain Tanuki greets customers by the front door; another Tanuki, in full Viking regalia, peeks out from a shelf of sake bottles; downstairs, a gnomish clay Tanuki watches over the music venue and downstairs bar. Tanuki is clearly doing his job.

Izakaya Oyazi for Eugene Magazine

Preston and Sunny say that, in Japan, an izakaya is a kind of bar, “relaxed, informal, a place where people go for good drinks, little plates of food, like tapas, meant to be shared with others.” But this is bar food to the third power, way beyond burgers and fries. At Izakaya Oyazi, all the dishes involve fresh ingredients and crafty cooking, some style, and attention to flavors and texture; apparently, Tanuki doesn’t much like chips drizzled with cheap cheese. Go figure.

Preston says, “I am a very lucky man.” He is particularly proud of Sunny’s gifts. “She is the best chef I’ve ever met,” he says, and he’s met many, having traveled extensively across Asia, eating in restaurants wherever he went, always looking for flavor. After many years, Preston concludes, “This is it.”

Preston claims that Sunny possesses the chef’s equivalent of perfect pitch, an acute palate that enables her to taste any food and know “what ingredient was added or what was left out.” Sunny credits her Japanese grandmother and her Korean mother with teaching her about food, flavors, and cooking. Growing up in her home in Seoul, Sunny says she loved the food her grandmother prepared, but “I couldn’t find it anywhere else.” She’d been unaware that her grandmother was teaching her the cuisine of western Japan, the Osaka side, not the eastern, Tokyo-style found in most Japanese restaurants in the U.S. and Korea. Meanwhile, Sunny’s mother added Korean twists to grandmother’s recipes; for example, Oyazi’s superb house-made dumplings are Korean-style, especially in the flavorful filling’s ingredients.

Tanuki has also favored Izakaya Oyazi with a superb staff, top to bottom. At the top stands Landen Shadel, the co-manager, who is smiling, energetic, and competent. Born in Sand Point, Idaho, Shadel oversees the whole Oyazi operation, waits tables, tends bar, does whatever needs doing. Co-manager Chelsey Buystedt shoulders some of his load. She’s an Oregon native (Hermiston) who came to Eugene to attend the University of Oregon, majoring in dance; she glides through the restaurant, up and down the stairs, answering the phone, taking reservations, and serving tables. Together, Shadel and Buystedt, with the help of other staff members, spread hospitality and encourage cheer.

Tanuki rules: Any izakaya guest achieves greater cheer when served good food with good drinks. Izakaya Oyazi scores high marks on both counts.

Oyazi’s guests select dishes from an extensive menu shaped by Sunny’s pitch-perfect palate, deep experience, and skills as a cook. Preston also cooks..“No MSG, all very healthy ingredients,” he says. “People leave feeling good.” The dumplings are superb, the wrapping delicate, the filling bursting with flavor. Beef Galbi ($9.95), a Korean dish, uses top-quality beef, achieving a buttery mouthfeel. The box sushi is distinctly western Japanese. Every little dish aims at perfection in ingredients, preparation, and flavors. Sunny and Preston agree: “Eugene people know food. We have to be very good.”

The drinks are also exceptional, from cocktails—including quite rare Korean cocktails—to a wide selection of sakes. Sake knowledge is a bit arcane, but Landen says he’s been impressed by how many guests understand the drink and “know just what they want.” If you’re a sake pro, Oyazi will meet your needs. For rookies, introductions to sake are best made through sampler flights: three sakes of varying quality (depending on the rice and water used, but all tasty), served with one cold, one room temperature, and one hot. Izakaya Oyazi specializes in sake, and its sake bar is elegant and attractive, with lots of windows overlooking Fifth Street.

Tanuki also watches over the sake bar while disguised as a baseball player, so eat, drink, relax, and have fun. Tanuki blesses good times.

259 E 5th Ave.