Monday, March 10, 2014
Most of us embraced the arrival of Pai Men Miyake’s noodle house in a big way when it opened in 2010. While the Fore St. Miyake Restaurant is the bigger and more expansive venue as Chef Masa Miyake’s haute palace of Japanese fusion cooking, Pai men has kept, in comparison, a lower culinary profile.
The bar at Pai Men Miyake
But it has morphed way beyond being just an outpost for ramen, dumplings and imaginative vegetable preparations. On any given night the menu soars with specialty dishes that are so different from what you can get anywhere else in town.
The huddle at the front-room tables with the wall of foggy windows facing the street
The prior week, TV cooking show host Andrew Zimmern was in town and hosted a big dinner there that a friend of mine attended, coming away with a glowing report on an extraordinary feast of Miyake specialties corralled by the peripatetic Zimmern. Hearing about it prompted me to go and see for myself.
My dinner last Friday was pure revelation. That night the menu was packed with entrees that took deep advantage of Miyake’s Freeport farm where pork and guinea hen are raised and nurtured. Some of the divine dishes included Casco Bay whelks, with Miyake Farm guanciale, seared Brussels sprouts, garlic and lemon butter sauce and Miyake Farm guinea hog porchetta with an ethereal eggplant vinaigrette, housemade crackling and sugar pumpkin shiso.
Guinea hog porchetta
This is one of the most popular restaurants in Portland and navigating the crowds takes some doing. From 6 to around 8:30 p.m., it’s jammed with a lively crew of diners. The restaurant gets so steamed up the windows facing the street are like a wall of fog. Something about the ventilation system must produce this weird effect.
Monday I went with a friend who likes to eat early (6 p.m.) and we had the pick of where to sit up front instead of the bar or high tops along the side. We had to change tables twice, however, because the wafts of frigid air coming in as diners entered the front door was too drafty. We finally settled at a table near the bar and enjoyed a terrific meal.
We started with the pork belly buns (nikuman), which are pan fried and served with a deliciously syrupy eel sauce and a scattering of scallions. The filling was actually dry — not up to snuff in fact — and the buns were too doughy.
Pan-fried pork buns with eel sauce and scallions
The tempura fried smelts, a special that evening, were surprisingly bland; the mustard emulsion helped as did the grating of daikon.
Tempura fried smelts with almond in browned butter emulsion
A better dish was another special of vegetable fried rice. It was prepared with assorted vegetables cut into miniscule dice and “onsen tomago” — meaning a poached egg over a mélange of crispy rice that was as wonderfully crunchy as candy brittle. The eggs was perfectly cooked where the white had the consistency of a fine custard and the yolk was a coddle of creaminess. This was a spectacular dish.
The next dish was revelatory. Listed under ramen, “mazeman” was a breathtaking bowl filled with scallops, aka miso dashi — a luxurious soup broth enriched with spicy porchetta, yam croquettes, miso cured egg, uni cream, wakame and menma (seaweed and simmered bamboo shoots). This was certainly the evening’s highlight. We finished with dessert, which were donatsu — cake donuts with cinnamon glaze, which were fine but not extraordinary.
Vegetable fried rice
My latest visit occurred last night. A special that evening was ocean perch, seared and served with smoked bluefish rillettes that were creamy and well smoked with a crispy wedge of the perch. What brought the two together was a brilliant devise of ground almonds in browned butter. I found myself trying to use my chop sticks to sop up the last slurps of this incredible sauce and managed to render my plate clean.
Smoked bluefish rillettes with ocean perch with almond browned butter emulsion
The second special was a trio or squid: spiced braised squid mantle, marinated squid tentacle and tempura fried squid wings topped with fried enoki mushrooms. You have to love squid in its purest form to dig this dish.
A trio of squid
Sous chef Will White
Sitting at the bar watching the kitchen crew at work makes it very difficult to curb your appetite. I wanted to have it all. One of the sous chefs, Will White, working in front of me, guided me through my selections and urged me to have the vegetable dumplings (yasai gyoza). These pan fried stunners were absolutely delicious and enticing, filled with shredded carrots, cabbage and ginger. That topped off another tantalizingly dramatic dinner at Pai Men Miyake.
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.