On a stroll through Tokyo’s Yanaka neighborhood a few years ago, my guide, Yasuko-san, gestured toward the subway stop at the top of the hill and told me disdainfully, “In Japan, you can always tell when you’re close to a train station because every broom closet and backyard shed gets converted into an izakaya.” No space, she insisted, was too small for yet another beer-and-sake focused gastropub.

It’s no surprise then that a little jostling and bumping make up part of the izakaya dining experience. Portland’s Izakaya Minato, a recent addition to the profusion of new restaurants along Washington Avenue, is no exception. With 37 seats and narrow paths meandering through two dining rooms, space – personal and otherwise – is at a premium.

But chef/owner Thomas Takashi Cooke and his wife, general manager Elaine Alden, wanted it that way. “We really liked that it was small. It gives it a Japanese feel, and it would actually be pretty spacious in Japan. But we also really loved that it has two separate parts because of the walled stairway. We could create a lively space and then a more intimate space,” Cooke said.

Anchored by the bar and the fully exposed, three-person kitchen, Minato’s front room is indeed a rollickingly animated space, especially when the restaurant is full (which is most of the time). On the other hand, the back room manages to feel more serene, with small tables and banquette seating that, like something out of a cramped model apartment in an IKEA showroom, double as storage for wine. It’s obvious that Cooke and Alden have thought through every spatial detail of the restaurant – including what Cooke jokingly calls “the Tetris blocks that fit together in our refrigerator.”

That same sensibility comes through in Alden’s bar program, a thoughtful, precisely composed menu of cocktails, a few wines, beers by the bottle, and of course, sakes that represent all the major styles of the fermented rice beverage, including rustic Junmai, alcohol-fortified Honjozo and complex Ginzo and Daiginjo. Among the most versatile of the single pours is the Sawanoi ($11 for 6 ounces/$20 for 12), a refined, Ginjo-style that makes an excellent match for most of the dishes on the menu.

You’ll even find an unfiltered Nigori sake ($8/$14) here – the key ingredient in Minato’s tropical-adjacent Nigori Colada ($10), made with shiso-infused rum, yuzu and the cloudy sake that lends the cocktail a pleasantly yogurty, probiotic flavor. It’s just the thing to have nearby if you’re working your way through a bowl of garlic-heavy, slightly greasy edamame ($5), or the super savory squid with ramps ($9) a seasonal special that purrs along the back of your throat with rich brothiness while simultaneously convulsing your sinuses with wasabi.

For the choice-averse, Minato offers what might be the best restaurant value in town: an omakase tasting menu at $30 per person. Over four or five courses, Cooke and his team send out full meal’s worth of dishes that vary from evening to evening. On a recent visit, my dinner guest and I opted for the omakase, as did a woman at a neighboring table, who explained her choice to her friends: “I’m not like people who are totally happy ordering something like lasagna where every bite is the same for the whole meal. But I don’t have any sort of culinary intelligence to guide me. When a waiter comes to the table, I’m like a dog, and all I hear is ‘Blah blah blah noodle blah blah ginger,’ and I get lost. So (the omakase) is exactly what I need.”

Letting the kitchen choose your meal also guarantees that you’ll receive at least one dish that does not appear on the à la carte menu. Mine included an amuse bouche of buttery Kona kampachi (Hawaiian farmed yellowtail), served raw and bracing with a shaving of jalapeño, a miniature cube of avocado and a tart yuzu dressing. It was the perfect dish to tee up a sashimi selection (market price) of firm-fleshed, delicate Tai snapper, tuna and barely seared albacore. Taken together, the plate emphasizes Cooke’s tacit understanding of how to showcase even subtle flavors and textures of unseasoned fish.

His unusual shiromi ankake ($9) – flaky pieces of deep-fried cod served in thickened dashi stock with mushrooms and grated daikon – echoes the same deliberate approach to seafood. “It’s a classic, but in Japan, they’d probably use something with more fat, like mackerel. I wanted to use white fish to give it a more New England feel,” Cooke said.

Not all dishes feel quite so well-considered. Take the Minato age dofu ($5), tightly compressed tofu rectangles fried crisp and craggy, topped with jalapeño, soy, green onions and ginger, a dish Cooke was inspired to make after reading an article on a punk rocker who opened his own izakaya. The problematic element here is the too-generous pile of finely shaven bonito flakes that – like sawdust used to soak up spilled oil on a garage floor – thirstily absorb nearly all the sauce and dry out the dish.

Minato age dofu is composed of fried tofu rectangles topped with jalapeño, soy, green onions and ginger.

There is a lot to love about the JFC, Japanese-style fried chicken ($7), prepared by marinating boneless thigh meat in soy, sake and mirin, followed by a potato starch dredge and a quick deep fry. What results is crunchy, weepingly juicy finger food. Unfortunately, it tastes flat – until you pick up the lemon wedge and squeeze out every drop. Only then do the flavors come into focus: a malty sweetness from the meat and a spicy heat from shichi-mi togarashi in the coating. Dip a piece into the spicy Kewpie mayonnaise and it gets even better. But don’t forget the lemon; it isn’t (and shouldn’t be) optional.

Dessert strikes another minor off-note. Little Bee Honey Ice Cream in the Deering Center neighborhood makes all of Minato’s frozen treats, like an appealingly tart strawberry-shiso sorbet ($4). The shiso flavor is faint, but that’s not the issue. Each scoop comes to the table in a plastic-lidded, white cardboard take-out cup with a small wooden paddle for a spoon. You may recall being served ice cream in just this fashion at your elementary school cafeteria. My dinner guest called it “almost embarrassing in contrast with how every single other dish was served on such beautiful plates and bowls – even the owner’s handmade sake cups.”

The presentation makes dessert feel like an afterthought. But perhaps it is, and that’s how it should be. After all, at approximately 20 items, Minato’s menu is about as long as three cooks can handle. Another plated dish might be a bridge too far.

And more to the point, izakayas have no tradition of eating dessert after a meal. Instead, if you’re still hungry after nibbling on lots of little plates, you order either noodles or rice. This is why the penultimate (pre-sorbet) omakase course we were served was fried rice, a fatty delight that overloaded all my lizard brain’s pleasure circuitry with shaggy chunks of egg and strips of caramelized pork belly – leftover scraps from the slow-braised Buta no Kakuni ($8). Cooke explained, “If we don’t sell all of (it), I’ll take all the bits out and use it in the fried rice. Nothing goes to waste here.” Not sweet, chewy scraps of pork, not space on the menu, and certainly not a single square inch of precious real estate.

Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at:


Twitter: @AndrewRossME

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.