As the host ushered me to my seat at Miyake last week, a pair of visiting restaurateurs seated at the next table paused their ping-pong rally of compliments. The bushy-bearded one in suspenders nodded at me, then continued: “Seriously though, dude, I think you have a better palate than I do. You figured this out in about a minute,” he said, gesturing with his chopsticks at the plate of cold-smoked Arctic char set between them both.

“I know we’re here to ‘borrow’ ideas, but that one was tough,” conceded the skinny, pomaded one. “It looks like it’s gonna be one thing, then it turns out it to be totally different. It’s like ‘Whoosh, surprise!’ ”

Later that evening, I’d learn what he meant, when I was served the same dish as part of that night’s omakase, the chef’s tasting menu ($78). Ochre pearls that appear to be caviar are actually pickled mustard seeds, their tang redoubled by a curd-like yuzu gel. Together, the two components exclaim their tartness in all caps, a mission statement to offset the cherrywood smoke and savory glaze on the crisp-skinned fish. In one mouthful, both a slap and a caress.

Superimposing contrasting ideas lies at the heart of what makes chef/owner Masa Miyake’s eponymous restaurant one of the city’s most enduringly successful restaurants, nearly 14 years after it opened in its first home on Spring Street in Portland’s West End.

Walk too quickly past Miyake’s current digs – a former furniture store in the heart of the Old Port – and you’ll miss the whispered clues that this is more than a fancy sushi joint. Start with the pristine, plate-glass window, its interior lined in translucent white roller blinds drawn asymmetrically to different lengths, or the stacks of mammoth rice sacks flopped nonchalantly into the field-of-view of passing pedestrians.

It may be one of the city’s most expensive restaurants, but Miyake revels in toying with the pieties of formal dining. If you’re after a multicourse sushi or sashimi meal presented with artful, kaiseki-style plating and pacing, you can absolutely find that. But equally, Miyake is a place where more casual dishes thrive, powered not by visual flourishes, but by their connection to the principles of washoku, or, in part, seasonal cooking.

Take the yaki uni, nobody’s candidate for most beautiful dish of the year, a cold-smoked cedar box of mineral, vibrant orange sea urchin “tongues” blanketed with an Italian-inspired layer of truffle-infused mascarpone, scallions and golf-tee-shaped enoki mushroom tips ($14). It is not a perfect plate – some strips of the peak-season, Maine-sourced uni are improperly separated, so that pulling one drags out a tangle of three, even four at a time – but what matters here are the gorgeous, heady flavors and ductile textures.

Then, as if to confound expectations, the homely-yet-tasty yaki uni is served as part of the same omakase meal as a nigiri platter laid out with a painterly eye for color, shape and balance. Aligned in Morse code dashes along the plate, three portions of pressed, delicately vinegared rice: the first draped with a pale coral slice of dainty kinmedai snapper, flown in that morning from Toyosu (formerly Tsukiji) Market in Tokyo; the next, a soy-basted slice of otoro (tuna belly); and the last, a glistening, butterflied sweet botan shrimp (each $6-8, if ordered a la carte).

Smoked Arctic Char: “In one mouthful, both a slap and a caress.” Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Every dish seems to offer a tiny mosaic of contradictions. Across several plates, these dissonances keep the meal interesting, even when, occasionally, dishes fall short of their potential.

During my recent omakase dinner, I was wowed by the sight of a pottery cup of savory Maine crab chawanmushi custard finished with a fluttery sheet of gold leaf. Conceptually, it’s a nesting doll of clever references: Miyake’s visiting deputy chef is named Kanazawa, also the name of a Japanese city known for both gold leaf and crab (which, not accidentally, is “kani” in Japanese). Brilliantly conceived but nearly flavorless, the chawanmushi left me bored after a few mouthfuls. Even after excavating a single, slippery green gingko nut at the custard’s center, I set down my spoon as I realized that it, too, was bland.

Other dishes, like the isobe age, a crunchy, tempura-battered roulade of flounder, tasted fantastic, but were difficult to eat. Here, a soggy mess of spinach at each roll’s center waterlogged the fish and its crust, leaving flounder shrapnel everywhere.

Five years ago, in a four-and-a-halfstar review of Miyake, this paper’s former critic noted similar difficulties managing another unwieldy dish, the butabura (seared pork belly) served with a smear of celery root purée ($17). Not much has changed, except that now, the smoky, sweet pork comes topped with a crisp fried oyster. The dish remains as appealingly fatty and well-grilled as ever and continues to be a frustrating test of manual dexterity.

Chef’s Choice Sashimi on a recent evening. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

More troubling are a few wobbles on the chef’s choice sashimi platter ($22), normally one of Miyake’s strongest dishes. Alongside superb elements like a single slice of barely marinated salmon propped up against a half-moon of lemon, a firm white strip of kampachi with a fine-spun brininess, and a ringed sake cup filled with slightly nutty cubes of ankimo (monkfish liver), I encountered two off-key components. The first, a rose-bordered slice of tai (sea bream) with a questionable funkiness, and the second, a curvy chunk of heat-kissed lobster tail whose flavor was snuffed out by garlic oil.

All the more puzzling, considering that, in the demi-chirashi ($21), a toasted-sesame-sprinkled bowl of sticky sushi rice topped with yet more sashimi, every ingredient – from soy-marinated shiitake mushrooms to mackerel, tamago (a sweet egg omelette) and tobiko (pinpricks of orange caviar) – is extraordinary in every regard.

Bounahra Kim prepares a Chef’s Choice Sashimi on a February evening at Miyake. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

As a light, a la carte meal, the demi-chirashi makes an excellent option. Combine it with a tiny pitcher of warm, yeasty Ozeki Junmai sake ($13), and you’ve got a template for enjoying dinner at Miyake at a (relative) bargain price.

Indeed, perhaps we’ve been thinking about Miyake the wrong way all along. Just ask general manager Courtney Packer: “Sometimes people think maybe it’s only a spot for a special occasion, or that there has to be a real reason to come here …that it’s fancier than it is,” she says. “I don’t think it needs to be seen that way. Yes, there are people who want to splurge and go all out, but we also have a lot of regulars who get just one dish and have a favorite sake on the menu. In that way, it can be an accessible restaurant.”

I’ve spent the past week mentally assembling my own version of a Miyake regular’s meal. One morning, I’ll settle on an order of the fiery binchotan (tabletop charcoal grill) seared kamo aburi (duck breasts), with their crisp-and-citrusy, yuzu-kosho-slathered exterior ($17). (How Miyake-san’s team manages to achieve such a precise, pink bulls-eye at the meat’s center every time is one of life’s great mysteries.)

Another day, I’ll switch to his spicy mustard-dressed slivers of raw salmon strewn with capers, amaranth microgreens and chiffonade of oba (shiso) ($14). Really, each component is there to support the dish’s actual star: a single preserved yamamomo – a sangria-colored Japanese berry, knobbly and burstingly sweet like an astringent black currant. What looks like a fish dish turns out to be all about fruit.

Whoosh, surprise!

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of three recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.
Contact him at: [email protected]

Twitter: @AndrewRossME


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