Friday January 31, 2014 | 07:15 AM

At long last the Miyake Diner has opened, having risen from the Phoenix of its past as the original Miyake Food Factory space on 120 Spring St.  The hurley-burley of reconstruction is over, presenting a tiny new dining facility where the impecunious fringe can cohabit with the gold-bugs of gastronomy—a herding of the flock forever faithful.

The corner table and dining bar at Miyake Diner

Expecting another dazzler like Miyake’s two other dining halls, I found the look  plain by comparison.  It’s more like a cozy hole in the wall rather than an architectural visage, whereas Pai Men Miyake and the Fore St. Miyake  are so intriguing.

With 10 seats at a dining bar and a large picnic table in the corner, the room accommodates 16 to 18 people depending on how many cram into that one lone table.

Chairs at the dining counter--serviceable but not the most comfortable

The place is as dark as a dive--perhaps purposely to evoke Miyake’s interpretation of an Americanized izakaya—or gastro pub, in this case somewhat roughhewn.  

I went the first night it opened last week.  I had already eaten dinner elsewhere—and a big waist-popping one at that—but I just had to try it in my First Look regimen where I go to a restaurant on Day One and then revisit sometime later when the dust settles.

It was after 10 in the evening, but the place was SRO, not hard to achieve in a space that only seats the chosen few.  There were a few familiar faces--other first-nighters like Pom of Pom’s Thai Taste who goes to all restaurant debuts as frequently as envelopes get opened. But, hey, she’s beautiful, sweet, and smart and shared the experience with family and friends to enjoy the labors of Miyake’s newest kitchen.

Manning the dining counter like an impresario was fellow food critic, Joe Ricchio, baton in hand, moonlighting as chief server and bottle washer and always ready with cosmopolitan quips on the tip of his tongue. He urged that I try the okonomiyaki, a vegetable pancake with cabbage, scallion, Maine scallops and bacon. That and some sake was all that I had.

Okonomiyake, Japanese pancake

The dish was beautifully presented, typical of Miyake’s sense of design.  It was, however, lukewarm and leaden--missing the chef’s usual finesse of flavor and lightness.

About a week later I went again, this time for dinner.  This area of Spring St. where the diner is located is probably one of the most difficult sections of the city in which to park.  Spaces are taken first by residents who live in the vicinity and the rest occupied by habitués of the surrounding clubs and restaurants like the Flask dance bar and watering hole or the congenial Little Tap House, two hot spots for divergent night crawlers.  And if there is an event at the State Theatre on Congress St., the opportunities to park are nearly nil, leaving three options: walk, de-plane from a chopper landing on the avenue or take your chances with a Portland taxi. 

This time my dinner began with the swordfish belly, a part of the fish that is so trendy nowadays.   Here it’s called swordfish toro misoni--braised in miso and ginger, delicate and refined.

Swordfish belly

I followed Joe’s suggestion to have a Japanese beer accompanied by a shot of sake, a combination that I wouldn’t necessarily recommend.  The sake was served in a square wooden cube-like receptacle called a masu, a typical sake drinking cup in Japan.

Many authentic Japanese beers available

Masu, the Japanese wooden sake cup

Once again I tried the cabbage pancakes (okonomiyaki) and they were much better this time.

This was followed by grilled chicken wings, a very simple and tasty dish, and with it I ordered potato salad—indubitably an incongruous devise at a Japanese eatery.  It was mixed with pickled vegetables, which amounted to tasting like an old southern mammy’s potato salad with sweet pickles.  I loved it and it was perfect with the wings.  

Chicken wings

Potato salad with pickled vegetables

The star dish of the evening was a curried vegetable dumpling stuffed with carrots, daikon and burdock and bathed in an eel sauce.   The filling was dense, the flavors were full and the dumpling was gossamer light.

Curried vegetable dumpling, the star of the show

Dessert was sake chocolate cake.  This was a dense wedge and a dead-ringer for the dreaded flourless chocolate cake so popular with chocoholics. But it was very good.

Sake chocolate cake

Miyake Diner is definitely still a work in progress.  Its casual airs as a do-drop-in-anytime until 1:00 AM will surely become another Portland scene stealer where good food will serve hungry aspirants well.

The simplicity of potted plants in front of the street-side window

 

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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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