July 29, 2012

Dine Out Maine: Japanese buffet a pleasant surprise

By SHONNA MILLIKEN HUMPHREY

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. 

click image to enlarge

Minami in South Portland features a buffet that includes more than 50 items. Diners also can order from a long menu.

John Ewing/Staff Photographer

"DINING REVIEW

MINAMI JAPANESE GRILL

AND SUPREME BUFFET

415 Philbrook Ave.,

South Portland; 619-8338

***

HOURS: Lunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily; dinner, 4 to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday and 4 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday

PRICE RANGE: Buffet, $16.95 for dinner and $10.95 for lunch; 200 menu items range from $2.50 to $28, with most entrees in the $10 to $20 range.

BAR: Full bar, with an extensive cocktail menu

CREDIT CARDS: All major

KIDS: Yes, children's menu

VEGETARIAN: Yes. Nice selection of gluten-free options too.

RESERVATIONS: No

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes

BOTTOM LINE: Minami offers a value-conscious, if less than authentic, sushi experience convenient to South Portland mall-side shopping. Gauged solely as a buffet, the space is clean, dishes are frequently replenished and the offerings both abundant and unusual.

Ratings follow this scale: * Poor  ** Fair  ***Good   **** Excellent  ***** Extraordinary

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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