Thursday January 10, 2013 | 06:30 PM

Nestled along a shadowy, sullen stretch of Congress Street a stone’s throw from Longfellow Square’s restaurant row, Kushiya Benkay is a compelling newcomer to Portland’s roster of Japanese restaurants.

Inside, its warm tones of brick-faced walls and open kitchen offer a very 1970s look from an era when bare-brick walls were de rigeur.   Throw in some hanging Noguchi lanterns and the look would be complete.  Instead the room is accented with  glass-sculpture lighting fixtures that look  like disco balls.  It’s an interesting counterpoint hanging from a wood-raftered ceiling.  Still, it’s a splash of fun that cheers up the room’s rustic surfaces.

 
The sister restaurant to sushi emporium Benkay on India Street, Kushiya serves what management describes as Japanese pub fare including yakitori (skewers of grilled meats) and kushikatsu (breaded, deep-fried and skewered meats and fish). 

Beyond that the seven-page embossed tablet-like heavily illustrated menu features a full range of Japanese fare.

My first dining venture at Kushiya Benkay was at lunchtime where a lunch box special at $11 offered an extremely filling and satisfying meal.  It included a very tasty miso soup, two skewers of yakitori, vegetable tempura, pickled cucumber salad and a selection of maki rolls.

Bento box at lunch

Bento box at dinner

At subsequent lunches with friends they enjoyed similar lunch boxes but I went further afield and explored the a la carte menu.

For the most part I was not disappointed.  The Philli maki roll of smoked salmon with cream cheese was a cute take on bagels, lox and cream cheese (without the bread, of course). I also tried a deep-fried skewer of tuna kushikatsu, which was disappointing.  Tuna—and any other dense fish—does not benefit from this method. It was overcooked and dry like sawdust.

But that was the only blooper.  The chicken and vegetable tempuras were perfectly made—moist and very full of flavor   And the grilled yakitori of glazed beef were much more than glorified kebobs on a stick.  It balanced sweet and savory elements with crunch and texture.

Smoked salmon maki rolls with tuna kushikatsu in the background

Dinner can be very satisfying with moderately priced options to choose from.  When I went with a friend for dinner recently the room was fairly full, and there was a nice buzz to this essentially charming neighborhood restaurant. 

Navigating the menu, as in most Japanese restaurants, is exhausting, with page after page of soups, salads, appetizers, rolls, sushi-sashimi and various specials.  I haven’t tried these but some specialty dishes include a few gimmicky offerings like the Rock n’ Roll (tuna, grilled salmon, imitation crab, eel, cream cheese, avocado and cumber roll with tempura flakes) or the Volcano Roll—avocado with scallops, scallions and   tobiko in a sweet and spicy sauce.

Seafood pancakes

That night we took the easy route and ordered the dinner version of the bento box.  This had it all with choices from four columns in which to devise a good meal.  We had chicken yakitori, shrimp and vegetable tempura, pork dumplings and a variety of maki rolls.  Each dish was satisfying and full of nice flavors.  What more could you want for this relatively cost-effective meal for two boxes at $17 each?

We did splurge on a first course, however, of  seafood pancakes.  Out came an impressive platter of glistening wedges with a soulful filling of squid, shrimp, scallops and scallions. 

I rarely order dessert in Asian restaurants unless there’s something compelling to try.  In this case the Petite Azuki was hard to resist.  It had layers of chocolate cake, sweet pastry filling, thin cookie wafer and strands of glistening chocolate sauce.  Not too much and not cloying, it was restrained opulence well done.

Sweet course, petite azuki

Kushiya Benkay is a very intimate and likable restaurant.   The wait staff is good and so very gracious.  And the food is not complicated by the usual kickshaws of more sophisticated, trendier fusion fare found in so many other places around town.

 

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John Golden has written about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for Downeast magazine, the Boston Globe, Cottages and Gardens magazine, Gourmet magazine, Cuisine magazine, the New York Times and the New York Post.

In his highly opinionated blog, John reports on his experiences dining out all over Maine and his visits with food personalities, farmers and farmers’ markets throughout the state.

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