Sushi purists, stop reading. Japanese cuisine experts too. In fact, any person who self-identifies as a foodie might consider avoiding this essay entirely. My words will be upsetting, and I prefer to get ahead of the criticism. Minami is not for you. For the more flexible palate, read on.
When Minami Japanese Grill and Supreme Buffet opened in a South Portland strip mall, I was suspicious. Like home gyms and spray tans — great ideas too easily lost in the execution — “all you can eat” sushi sounded like a recipe for culinary disaster.
And, given the premise of sushi itself — elegant, imaginative and prepared to order in decidedly Japanese fashion — as well as the abundance of expert sushi options nearby, why would I make a point to try a sushi buffet near the mall?
Minami translates to “south,” and, honestly, that is exactly where I expected the dining experience to head.
Because my expectations were so low, I was pleasantly surprised.
The restaurant space was open, modern and contemporary in tone. With dark wood, textile prints in brown shades and low ambient lighting, Minami’s decor lacked all traditional buffet trappings. No fluorescent lights, no cafeteria dinnerware and no stained suspended ceilings.
Better yet, there were no industrial steam trays in either of the two spacious buffet sections. Cold items were situated to the left and hot items to the right, with a hibachi grill in the center. In lieu of the steam trays, Minami presented its food on white oblong ceramic platters that were refreshed frequently.
This attentive atmosphere caused my mind to open significantly to the buffet offerings.
Sure, they included the requisite tower of crab legs and a mammoth bowl of defrosted shrimp, but Minami’s wok-fried whole mini-crabs were as much a surprise as the deep-fried frog legs. For the adventurous, beef tripe is also on the table.
At a cost of $16.95 for an unlimited dinner buffet ($10.95 for lunch), this is a terrific value spot for people wishing to sample potentially unfamiliar items.
But first, the server. She was excellent. Funny, welcoming and in possession of a dry sense of humor that matched our rowdy crowd. She rolled with our long list of questions and our friend’s late arrival, and her light-hearted sass was among the best parts of the experience.
She explained that the buffet price also included hibachi menu items (vegetables, chicken, steak or shrimp) and kabobs (chicken, beef or shrimp) made to order — with instructions to just mark the table’s paper slip with up to three servings in each category.
While the buffet is clearly the best value, the long menu contains 200 items that range from dumpling soup to the Tokyo Monster (billed as the biggest maki roll in Maine), from California rolls to Donburi and Katsu rice bowls.
From the menu, we ordered soba noodles with fried tofu and the rib-eye steak hibachi. Both entrees were served with miso soup, and the steak included a quaint and tasty side salad. While the miso soup was lovely — savory and comforting — the rib-eye, requested medium rare, arrived extremely well-done, a disappointing and chewy gray piece of meat.
The soba noodles, while not the best I have tasted, were also not the worst. The pile of toothsome buckwheat noodles, greasy from the hibachi grill, arrived with a garnish of parsley, lime and grape tomatoes. The portion was enormous, and could easily have fed the whole table.
So back to the buffet. I counted more than 50 items, excluding desserts, salads and soup.
Most of the sushi itself was thin and limp-looking. But worth noting is the Kani Su sushi roll — the crabmeat rolled in paper thin cucumber slices was delicate and truly among the best I have ever sampled. The Pepper Tuna Roll, with its tuna slice and rice rolled in a spicy pepper crust, was also much better than expected. I returned for a second helping of both.
While the fried frog legs were tender and — yes — tasted like chicken, the bones were too similar to sardine bones for my palate, and the grainy texture prevented me from embracing the experience.
Tokyo Chicken, with its robust barbecue marinade, and crispy battered tempura shrimp rounded out the dining experience.
One of the best aspects of Minami is the beverages — specifically, the frosty bottles of Kirin Light and Sapporo. I doubt either would appeal to beer enthusiasts, but both were cold and thirst-quenching — and for a timid palate, perfect entry-level Japanese beer.
Mixed drinks earned their own extensive menu, as well as warning labels. Minami limits orders of Long Island Iced Teas and Grateful Deads to two per person.
Bargain drinkers take note: On Mondays and Wednesdays, most beer and mixed drinks cost just $1 with any full-priced buffet order.
As a culinary destination, I cannot endorse Minami without explanation. Nor, given the high quality of sushi competition in the greater Portland area, can I laud the sushi itself.
But by gauging buffet-restaurant apples to buffet-restaurant apples, Minami shines. And if you find yourself starving near the mall and hankering for a cold Japanese beer, Minami is just fine.
Better than fine, actually.
Minami is a buffet restaurant game-changer.
Shonna Milliken Humphrey is a Maine freelance writer and author of the novel “Show Me Good Land.