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John Golden

John Golden writes about food and has a highly opinionated blog, The Golden Dish.

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Posted: January 16, 2015

Miyake flagship still the quintessence of fine Japanese fusion fare in Portland

After the closing of Miyake Diner, the Miyake empire is down to two very good restaurant including the noodle and dumpling house, Pai Men and Miyake Restaurant. There you’ll find the haute fusion fare for which chef Masa Miyake has made his reputation and garnered national acclaim.

Written by: John Golden

I was surprised when I entered the dramatically striking dining room of Miyake’s Fore Street  outpost for dinner and was casually greeted by the hostess who didn’t ask if I wanted to hang up my bulky winter jacket.  It was 9 degrees outside and the room, I noticed, had as many coats dangling from the chairs as the diners who sat in them.

A beautifully austere dining room is marred by coats on the backs of chairs

A beautifully austere dining room is marred by coats on the backs of chairs

I’m contemplating a campaign aimed at Portland’s finer dining establishments urging them to follow what may be an arcane rule of etiquette.  No, it’s not about the fripperies of vichyssoise and gossip at our most stylish restaurants.

It’s this: hang up your coat.  You enter places like Hugo’s, Central Provisions, Miyake, et al, where dinner is a guaranteed $100-plus per person and where the luxe of these dining rooms  dissolve into looking like gin halls with a sea of hooded winter parkas draped over the backs of chairs like the goiter.  It’s just plain sloppy.  Look at these pictures below and see what visual havoc we’ve wrought!

Coat offenders: (Top) diners at the bar at Ebb and Flow; (bottom left to right) Bramhall, Bao, Bao and Miyake

Coat offenders: (Top) diners at the bar at Ebb and Flow; (bottom left to right) Bramhall, Bao, Bao and Miyake

To their credit, Five Fifty Five and Back Bay Grill take your coats when you enter; you’re given a ticket as your outer- garment is whisked away to the coat room.  That’s how it should be done. A few acts of civility might eve lose some baseball caps.

A packed dining room at Five Fifty-Five but no coats on the back of chairs

A packed dining room at Five Fifty-Five but no coats on the back of chairs because the hostess takes your coat when you arrive

There is an exception, one that is the flight of certain stylish women.  I learned this long ago as a 20-something young man escorting a woman to dinner at a fine restaurant in New York.  She was swathed in mink and when the maître d’ asked if she wanted to check her coat, she glared at him as though he’d just pinched her backside.  She slid into our banquette and the coat slipped off her shoulders into a puffy pile on the tufted chair.

With or without the coat debacle in question, two successive meals proved that Masa Miyake—and his jolly house of Japanese fusion–is in fairly fine form at his namesake restaurant.

Chef, proprietor, Masa Miyake at Miyake

Chef, proprietor, Masa Miyake at Miyake

At dinner, seated at the bar, with my coat, gloves, hat and scarf stuffed around my chair, I began an 8-course omakase menu.  At $65 it’s a relative bargain compared to a meal of similar stature at any of New York’s posh omakase bars where it’s at least double the price to dine.

Line chefs behind the dining counter' and a visiting couple from Chicago who visiting Portland, especially for seafood at our restaurants

Line chefs behind the dining counter’ and a visiting couple from Chicago dining at the bar, visiting Portland

You’re not told what you’ll be eating so the element of surprise is part of the drill.  That’s when the abilities of the wait staff are important.  In Miyake’s early days, the wait staff practically pontificated on what the kitchen was cooking. One waiter in particular has followed Miyake around to all of his establishments, though I haven’t seen him lately. One time, without asking, I received a written list from him of the dishes he served.  I suppose he knew why I was there and wanted to be sure I got it right in a review.

The service this time, though proficient and courteous, didn’t display the same fervor.  As each dish arrived the waitress recited its ingredients competently,but  talking so fast it was hard to follow.  In fact, the restaurant seemed understaffed with a lot of ground to cover, even with only 15 diners in the room.

Miyake himself was in the kitchen aided by three others in the line who chop, sauté, baste and grill with precision.  Each dish emerges as a minimalist’s canvas as precise as the refinement of flavor in each preparation.

To commence my dinner was an amuse bouche of Kombu squash and fried sea kelp, a morsel of utterly focused simplicity. However, the texture of the squash was somewhat mealy and undercooked.  The sweeter sheath of sea kelp was, however, divine.

The sea urchin—uni in Japan—that’s served here is not from the precious waters of Santa Barbara or the island of Hokkaido but, rather, right here, local from Maine.  It’s become one of our most prized and coveted exports.

Kombu squash and sea urchin

Kombu squash and sea urchin

It’s an acquired taste, however.   Close your eyes and its creamy slippery texture is akin to raw slushy oysters but the fishy taste hits your tongue unforgivingly.  Some chefs serve it with a raw quail egg on top, mitigating some of the starkness of flavor.  At Miyake it’s served unadulterated and it’s a prized morsel worth getting to know.

The sashimi platter—served on the usual stone slab—was a study of freshness and simplicity, with raw fish, some local, beautifully curated and presented.  Lobster, king salmon, snapper, Hamachi, sea bass and blue fin were expertly cut.  It’s the current millennial power food, the sustenance for billionaires who can pay for the best and most exotic species. You won’t get heart disease, diabetes or obesity from eating raw fish.  It’s all that in spades at Miyake for a relatively low price compared to raw fish bars in big cities who charge a king’s ransom for the privilege.   Well, it’s one of the perks of living in Maine.

Sashimi including lobster, blue fin, hamachi, king salmon and sea bass, red snapper

Sashimi including lobster, blue fin, hamachi, king salmon and sea bass, red snapper

While daubs of raw fish are like a palate cleanser as more complex dishes arrived in an omakase tasting menu, the egg custard “soup” that followed was a true mash of exotica.  It’s coddled egg white custard enriched with enoki mushrooms, lobster, ginger and little stars of real gold leaf.

The texture could be off putting and I thought it needed more ginger to make it interesting.  Still, it was one of the more unusual courses in the progression, one which I might want to try again.

The soup bowl of manila clams was a lusty counterpoint as the next course.  I drank the sweet broth right out of the bowl after plucking the clams from the shell.

Egg custard and manila clams

Egg custard and manila clams

Perhaps my favorite was the grilled local oyster (Damariscotta, I believe), with a broth of carrot juice and radish.  After slurping down the whole oyster, I savored the broth left in the shell.

Grilled local oyster

Grilled local oyster

The final courses were all hearty helpings of meat and fish.  The duck with mushrooms and seaweed and then the grilled swordfish with pickled vegetables set on a puree of miso spinach and ginger were two outstanding dishes.  Dessert was unnecessary because the remains of a fine French Sauvignon Blanc that accompanied my entire meal were all that I needed.

Glazed swordfish over spinach puree; duck with mushrooms and seaweed

Glazed swordfish over spinach puree; duck with mushrooms and seaweed

With tax, tip and wine, dinner was slightly over $100, which made my superb lunch the following day a downright bargain.  At $18, the six little dishes that filled the bento box were as good if not better than my previous dinner.

What’s offered can change daily because it’s another invention left up to the chef.  Snapper, sea bass and blue fin tuna were stuffed into a small bowl.  A salad of greens and juicy, sweet  kumatoes (a deep reddish brown tomato) complemented the salad bowl with the Miyake house dressing of vinegar, miso and mustard.  There were sushi rolls with delightful peels of pickled ginger; glazed salmon and salmon skin with a little crispy cone filled with salmon roe and slices of duck over seaweed.  The soup was an oyster in a carrot juice dashi that was practically angelic.

Luncheon bento box

Luncheon bento box

This was a lot of food and between dinner and the following lunch it awakened my palate to some very good Japanese cooking, upholding that the Portland dining firmament shines so brightly at this posh fusion dining room—perhaps not as brilliantly as when it first opened.  But then genius is so unpredictable.

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