The new inner Washington Avenue spot couldn’t be cooler.
Normally, we wouldn’t write about somewhere so soon after opening, but a number of factors, including a heavy snowfall that precluded traveling off-peninsula, left us with little choice than to try the East End’s newest “it” spot, Izakaya Minato.
To be honest, we were looking for any excuse to go there and weren’t the only ones. Before 7 p.m., every seat was filled, and apparently it’s been that way since it opened last week. By contrast, next door, Terlingua – the ultra-hip Latin barbecue place with amazing margaritas where you’re usually praying for a barstool on your way over – was as dead as you’d imagine anywhere would be on super snowy Tuesday.
Not Izakaya Minato. And it’s no surprise. You couldn’t come up with a concept that would appeal more to Portlanders right now. Izakaya is a Japanese portmanteau that translates to “stay sake shop,” meaning a place you can buy sake and also drink it. It’s evolved into the Japanese version of a gastropub and, yes, it’s mostly about the food – shareable smallish plates, including salads, soup, sashimi and some hot stuff.
But it’s set up like a pub. Looking in from inner Washington Avenue, all you see is a room dominated by a bar that looks onto the kitchen. There’s a communal table to fill up the empty space, but it feels like that’s for the people who got cut from the team.
There’s also a dining room in back, and thank god or half the folks who trekked out on this treacherous night thinking they’d have the place to themselves would have been left out in the snow.
Ideally, Izakaya Minato would be best enjoyed when you’re looking to linger over drinks but hungry enough to have some snacks. If you’re anything like my party, you’ll accidentally end up eating half the menu, and that’s OK because everything’s fairly light (save the signature “JFC” aka Japanese fried chicken, but the gloriously fried thighs will barely register as junk food amid all the fresh fish and vegetables).
OK, so the drinks, because that’s what we’re here to talk about: The cocktail menu comprises three “refreshers” and three “sippers,” ranging in price from $8 to $11. They’re all unique takes on familiar recipes, like the plum vesper, a martini with gin and vodka as well as plum sake, and the Nikka highball, which combines coffee whiskey and soda. The menu of eight wines (half white, half red) all come by the glass ($8 to $11) or by the bottle ($32 to $58), and there are three beers on tap (Sapporo for $5 and two locals for $7, which this day came from Bunker and Allagash), as well as other Japanese beers in bottles, including the 24-ounce Hitachino white ale.
Then there’s the sake. You can get a sample of three for $14, but then you miss out on the fun of choosing your own ceramic cup, a selection of which your server brings in a little crate, all of them slightly different sizes, shapes and designs. Apparently, it’s a thing, as is having your miso soup at the end of your meal and drinking it straight from the bowl without a spoon. Act like you’ve always known that, and you’ll be the coolest person at the coolest new place in Portland.
Speaking of cool, despite the number of customers and the fact that the place had only been open a week, the service was calm and coordinated. Everything came out quickly, and no one seemed frantic amid the upbeat music and minimalist decor.
The main reason we don’t write about places this soon after opening is to give them a chance to work out the kinks, but if there still are any, they weren’t apparent. The only misfire I could find was on their website, which said “coming soon,” when anyone could see it has clearly arrived.
WHAT: Izakaya Minato
WHERE: 54 Washington Ave., Portland
HOURS: 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, closed Sunday
AMENITIES: Bar seating, communal table, small dining room in back, open kitchen, unique cocktails, shareable plates.
BOTTOM LINE: The Japanese version of a gastropub, this place is the hottest spot in Portland, serving up sake, cocktails, local beer and amazing snacks that, in abundance, can serve as dinner.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESSIBLE: Yes