By Kathy Gunst
Photographed by Ted Axelrod
From our January 2012 issue
Masa Miyake’s extraordinary sushi restaurant in downtown Portland, Miyake, inspires a degree of fanaticism rarely found even in the Maine food scene. Consider this anonymous diner’s comment on the website Yelp.com:
“Someday you will die. And when your eternal soul finally gets around to checking out that great sushi bar in the sky, you’re likely to discover that the sushi there, while quite tasty, isn’t all that you had hoped for. And when you complain to the nearest deity about this, he’s sure to ask, ‘Why didn’t you just go to Maine instead?’”
Indeed, some of the freshest, most vibrant flavors in Maine are found at Miyake. Masa Miyake was born in Japan and trained in both French and classical Japanese cuisine. He first came to Maine on vacation. “It reminded me of Japan,” he says. “Same weather. Plus all the seafood.” He was raising two young children in Queens, New York, when he decided to relocate. “I realized I can’t stay there with children,” he explains in heavily inflected English.
Miyake moved his restaurant to a larger home on Fore Street near the Portland Harbor Hotel in July. It’s an intimate room, sleek, spare, and uncluttered in the Japanese style.
Under a decorative perforated white drop ceiling, black leather-backed dining room chairs are pulled up to the dark wood tables. The only splash of color comes from the food that dramatically pops out against the duo-chromatic decor.
On a recent night, the five-course tasting menu (a deal at fifty dollars) began with a sushi plate that included lobster tail, cooked for just a few minutes and served inside the shell drizzled with garlic atop a piece of seaweed. The lobster shared the plate with melt-in-your-mouth sea bass, hamachi (yellowtail), fluke, and salmon.
New England bluefish, served with grilled summer corn and tender pieces of lobster sitting in a lemony seafood broth, followed. The dish was topped with a square of grilled bluefish skin that was as crisp and as appealing as a gourmet potato chip.
Grilled trout was accompanied by perfectly cooked garden beets and sautéed beet greens. Next came grilled swordfish and grilled Japanese pepper topped with a miso-teriyaki glaze, and farm-raised guinea hen with a potato-guinea hen gratin and a paintbrush stroke of eggplant puree.
Dinner ended with three types of tuna, ranging in fattiness from just a touch to the butteriest raw fish imaginable.
What impresses most about Miyake’s creations is his mastery of a wide range of techniques and the quality of the ingredients. This isn’t your standard fish. It glistens. The spicy tuna roll combines tender tuna with creamy avocado slices, topped with seared yellowtail, toasted almonds, plum paste, and radish sprouts. The combination of color, texture, and flavors makes you rethink sushi.
When asked why his fish is superior to that found in other restaurants, Masa Miyake says the secret is in the temperature of his refrigerator. “We keep ours at twenty-eight to thirty-two degrees and everyone else is at thirty-four to thirty-six. Those six degrees make a difference to keep fish fresh for three to four days.” In addition, he says, “I try to buy only Maine fish and local all the time, but there’s just not enough variety so we also order from Japan twice a week.”
Freshness matters here. Almost all the vegetables, as well as the pork, chicken, duck, quail, and guinea hen are raised on the three-acre Miyake Farm in Freeport that opened in March of 2011. For fall and winter, Masa Miyake has introduced dishes with kuri squash (similar to a sweet, rich acorn squash), beets, cabbage, spinach, carrots, and gobo (burdock root).
Miyake opened in the fall of 2010 in a more casual spot, Pai men Miyake, that specializes in ramen, the Japanese noodle dish. You can take a stool at the bar and watch the noodle soups being assembled or sit at one of the tables and look out at Longfellow Square. It’s an affordable way to taste Miyake’s food, a perfect spot for lunch or dinner. Salads, made with tender fresh greens, are topped with a light miso-mustard dressing. The tonkotsu ramen offers a large bowl of rich, superbly flavored pork broth (made from Miyake Farm pigs), filled with slabs of tender pork belly, scallions, ginger, mushrooms, and egg, but the most important element of ramen, the noodles, were a bit of a disappointment — not much better than standard. (One would hope Pai men Miyake, which translates to “one hundred noodles,” would make its own noodles, but only those in the sliced duck breast plate are house-made.) The pork bun (a riff on the Korean classic), a soft steamed bun filled with tender pork belly, spicy pepper relish, and mayonnaise, more than made up for this weakness, though.
Miyake and Pai men Miyake hold important places in the ever-evolving Portland food scene. According to Masa Miyake, “Portland has lots of good chefs . . . I am lucky to be here. It looks like Portland is going to be another San Francisco — very sophisticated here.”