December 20, 2010

Taste & Tell: Pai Men Miyake means delicious meat-happy meals

By N.L. ENGLISH

This story was updated at 1 p.m. Dec. 20 to correct a description of the restaurant's hot drinks. It does not serve coffee.

click image to enlarge

Gemma Hancock, a server at Pai Men Miyake, 188 State St. in Portland, displays a ramen dish and a bowl of spicy miso. The popular new Japanese restaurant is an attractive space, with exposed brick, handsome wood details and artfully arranged metalwork swooping from the ceiling.

John Ewing/ Staff Photographer

DINING REVIEW

PAI MEN MIYAKE, 188 State St., Portland. 541-9204; Miyakenoodlebar.com

RATING: ****

HOURS: Open Monday to Friday noon to 10 p.m., Saturday noon to 4 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m., Sunday noon to 9 p.m.

CREDIT CARDS: Visa, Mastercard, American Express and Discover

PRICE RANGE: $7 to $11

VEGETARIAN DISHES: Yes

GLUTEN-FREE: Available by request

KIDS: As long as they like dumplings and noodles, they can be happy here.

RESERVATIONS: Not taken except for parties of six or more

BAR: Beer, wine and sake

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes

BOTTOM LINE: Tasty dishes are founded on pork and its rich fat, spice and miso, with noodle soups in big hot earthenware bowls worth bowing over.

Rating based on a five-star scale. It is the policy of the Maine Sunday Telegram to visit an establishment twice if the first dining experience was unsatisfactory.

 

Pai Men Miyake opened to an onslaught of customers and attention a few months ago, and all the excitement made it a challenge to wait out the allotted time that's always observed for new restaurants before visiting for a review dinner.

A calm, tranquil and experienced pleasure awaited us when we did. Pai Men has clearly found its way to delicious meals (at least with the stuff on the short menu that I tasted), and its friendly, quick servers took care of us with aplomb.

Addressing an emergency of raging appetites, a server who showed us to our table took an immediate order for pork buns and gyoza (pork dumplings). It was good luck that both appeared while my dinner companion was off in the restroom, allowing me to wolf much of both down in peace. And both were good.

Gyoza ($6), stuffed generously with chopped pork and cabbage, showed off golden-brown crescents of thin, perfectly pleated wonton wrapper that were fried deeply on one side and tender on the other. A shallow bowl of dipping sauce gave the light touch of soy sauce and Mirin vinegar, and let the pork flavor ring.

But the pork buns ($9) were best of the two. They had fatty pork belly with a crisp browned edge sandwiched in a soft, neutral rice-flour bun with copious amounts of Gochujang mayonnaise and seasoned with fermented chili paste.

Thin-sliced sour pickles cut the fat, but a lettuce leaf seemed extraneous. And if I did the arranging, I would put the same size slice of pork into each of three smaller steamed buns, to let the pork dominate each bite.

Squash dumpling appetizer ($8) with ground pork, miso and Rinkosan vinegar is an appetizer on a new menu.

Once we started to feel human again, we could appreciate the gorgeous interior: one wall of exposed brick and the opposite wall lined with end-grain, reddish wood blocks set at curving depths. Far above us, swooping metal sculptures presented an abstract expression of the heating pipes and ventilation ducts.

The sake expert wasn't around so we didn't hear much about the 16 sakes listed, and relied on printed descriptions.

Smaller bottles were 330 milliliters -- a little less than a cup and a half, and the same size as half a bottle of wine. With an alcohol content of around 15 percent, that equals three generous glasses of wine. Another sake called Ai No Hime, "Princess of Love" ($16), is 187 milliliters, or about 3/4 of a cup.

If you go to the bottom of the page, you'll find the least expensive 330 milliliter bottles to get your mouth started on rice wine. Or try the standby Gekkikian ($6) served hot, something American Japanese restaurants trained us to like and now want us to abandon, because only poor quality sake is served that way.

For $15, you can try three 1.5-ounce glasses of different sakes, an even better way to inch past that hot sake habit.

Or stick to the good wine, the best of three reds at $8 a glass being Italo Pietrantonj Montepulciano d'Abruzzo or the whites, like Henri Bourgeois Sauvignon blanc ($7 a glass, $28 a bottle).

Unagi don ($10) made my night, with an oblong of tender, savory eel; a soft, almost liquid poached egg; the utterly fantastic pearly sushi rice called Kagayaki; and slivers of scallion. The eel is farmed and shipped frozen from Japan by True World Foods and marinated here.

(Continued on page 2)

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