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Erik Neilson

Erik Neilson is a writer, musician and passionate food-head based in Portland.

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Posted: April 19, 2018

The new Benkay improved by a bar

Written by: Erik Neilson

In addition to a sushi bar, Benkay’s new East End location has traditional bar seating.
Photos by Erik Neilson

I’ll be honest, I was nervous upon hearing last year that Benkay would be moving to a new location. With the popular sushi bar having sat at 2 India St. for a period of 20 years, the news raised some eyebrows against a backdrop of rapid development at the base of the East End. Would the new Benkay maintain its homey sense of charm, complete with water views, a familiar house smell and multi-tiered dining areas that made the room feel alive, even when it wasn’t busy?

Would Benkay even re-open at all?

Thankfully, this particular story of urban revitalization seems to have a happy ending. Rather than being housed in a building of questionable structural integrity, Benkay is now located on the 3,200-square-foot first floor of a brand new construction project at 16 Middle St. The space is sprawling without feeling cavernous, designed to accommodate large amounts of guests at once without ever feeling as if the room is crowded.

Walk through the doors, and you’ll be greeted by the glistening armor of a large samurai sculpture – more friendly and welcoming than imposing. The restaurant’s iconic logo remains the same.

In fact, just about everything regulars know and love about the old Benkay has returned, from Chef Ando and team’s delicate knife work to the ultra-attentive waitstaff that makes each meal feel suitably special. Most notable, however, is the addition of a new satellite bar adjacent to the long and well-lit sushi bar. The two seating areas feel quite different from one another: one, a visual spectacle and constant interaction with the kitchen; the other, a quiet corner of the restaurant in which to enjoy a roll or two and perhaps a glass of sake (beer, wine and cocktails are also available).

The sake tasting special at Benkay gets you three generous shots for $10.

Speaking of sake, Benkay boasts an impressive list of over 20 unique bottles. One of the best ways to learn more about Japanese rice wine is to order what appears to be a new “sake tasting” special. For just $10, you can choose any three bottles on the list and are then poured a generous shot of each. Recommended: Murai Family Nigori Genshu for opaque, unfiltered heat and Komatsu Tatewaki cedar-aged Junmai Ginjo for a light, juniper-like sake that is very impressive at this price point.

With its new bar and expansive, squeaky clean space, Benkay has become a choose-your-own-adventure dining experience to some extent. Want to get the most out of what the restaurant has to offer? Sit in front of Ando at the sushi bar and let him wow you with a full omakase (chef’s choice sushi tasting). Otherwise, post up at the adjacent bar with a few orders of nigiri and a Sapporo, watch the Red Sox continue adding to their streak on the overhanging TV and smile, because Benkay is back.

Benkay

WHERE: 16 Middle St.
PHONE: (207) 773-5555
WEBSITE: sushiman.com
HOURS: 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. to close Monday through Friday; 11:30 a.m. to close Saturday and Sunday
AMENITIES: Full bar, traditional sushi bar, casual atmosphere, flat-screen TV, extensive sake selection
BOTTOM LINE: Benkay’s new space is a step up from its old home on India Street, thanks in large part to the addition of a dedicated bar area.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes

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