Kushiya Benkay is Portland sushi standard-bearer Benkay’s newest venture, and the restaurant offers a budget-friendly feast for meat-on-stick lovers. (The Japanese word “kushi” translates to “skewer.”)
No longer run-down and dive-tastic, the reclaimed Congress Street locale includes exposed brick, delicately arranged colored tiles and a tin ceiling accentuated by rough-hewn wooden beams. I encourage diners to look up and admire the modern glass light fixtures — part chandelier and part sculpture.
All of these elements add architectural interest and create a modern, elegant and intimate dining space. Chef Ando himself pointed out these details during my visit, obviously proud of the demanding physical work involved in creating such an environment, and I do not blame him. If I personally hoisted those heavy ceiling beams, I would brag too.
Ando’s work has paid off. When a friend asked for birthday dinner party suggestions (downtown, casual, quiet and nice but not crazy expensive), I was thrilled to recommend Kushiya Benkay.
Because the restaurant is a Benkay brainchild, sushi figures prominently on the menu. I have no doubt the extensive sushi options are terrific, and if reputation holds, I would wager among the best in the area. The specialty drinks, including the lethal-sounding Benkay T — a version of Long Island Iced Tea with a sake addition ($8) — also sound like a good time.
But I came for skewers. There are 28 varieties on the menu, and it breaks down into yakitori and kushikatsu. Yakitori is straight-up grilled meat, and kushikatsu is the breaded and deep-fried counterpart. Veggie lovers need not worry; there are meat-free options available — shiitake mushroom, garlic and atsuage (tofu) among them.
Each order is served on a petite (about 8-inch-long) stick, and while standards like chicken (the “tori” of yakitori) in dark meat, tender, wing, heart, skin and liver varieties exist, I encourage diners to step out of the comfort zone with shisamo (smelt) or uzura (quail egg).
Where else in Maine can you order smelt on a stick? At the very least, try the Berkshire pork belly, because the combination of pork belly substance and skewer delivery unites the best aspects of thick rich-tasting bacon with the ease of grease-free fingertips.
At between $2.50 to $3 per skewer, it is also worth the risk to sample. While the cost can add up quickly, the concept of trying many things is fun.
Straight-up chicken skin, for instance, in all its salty and crispy-chewy glory. Or the neat row of golden garlic cloves, each so fragrant and soft. Yakitori skewers include a three-portioned tray of dipping options — green tea salt and two sauces — savory miso-based and a thicker, sweeter chili variety.
(In the absence of definitive skewer etiquette, I am told it is not required to delicately remove each piece of meat, nor is it considered bad form to gnaw directly from the stick. The only universal skewer rule is, as with any food, “no double dipping.”)
After much consideration and sampling, my personal favorite is the deep-fried and breaded scallops from the kushikatsu list. Served as a three-headed lollipop with a side of creamy wasabi mayo to smooth any potentially heavy texture, I could have made an entire meal from this dish alone.
When asked for appetizer recommendations, Ando directed our table to the Kara-age, or fried chicken ($6.50), and I am glad he did. Six (non-skewered) pieces of breaded and fried chicken were served alongside another light and tangy dipping sauce, and it felt like chicken nuggets for grown-ups.
Kimchee ($3.50) is also on the appetizer menu, and the portion of cabbage salad is substantial, pungent and spicy. It was an exceptionally well-prepared relish and lovely complement for the meat-heavy offerings. Ando’s take on fried calamari ($9) is worth noting too. The ample mound of calamari in its impossibly delicate, near-greaseless coating made me forget for just a moment that I was eating fried food.
Save room for dessert, because the Red Bean Chocolate Cake ($6.50) is sweet artwork. Presented in three stacked layers on a chocolate syrup puddle, the bean-based cake is rich, the icing is creamy, and the soft candy topping adds a pleasant finish.
Similarly, the Green Tea Fried Ice Cream ($6) is another refreshing end of meal choice: A mini-ice cream log delicately battered and sliced.
While I have never visited Japan, I am told by ex-pats (and experts) that Kushiya Benkay offers a solid approximation of the traditional Japanese yakitori bar experience. Given the price of airline tickets and the hassle of international travel, I am thrilled that instead of flying halfway across the world, I can just drive down Congress Street.
Shonna Milliken Humphrey is a Maine freelance writer and author of the novel “Show Me Good Land.”