The nigiri tasting at Mr. Tuna, located in Portland’s Public Market on Monument Square. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

“Nothing,” the thirty-something woman said to me, politely translating what our chef told her husband and son a few stools down. I’d learn later during our meal that evening in Japan that the couple were famous – he was an ’80s-era metal guitarist, and she was a fashion designer. Together, they owned a share in the eight-seat restaurant where we had just taken our first sip of sake. Apparently, their wiggly preteen son had recently expressed an interest in someday becoming a chef. Hence the career advice. “Chef says, ‘Nothing is what you should smell when you walk into a sushi restaurant, nothing. A little rice, that’s OK … maybe. But if you smell fish, leave.’ ”

In Portland’s Public Market, where chef/owner Jordan Rubin has been operating his brick-and-mortar business for the past four years, the rule absolutely doesn’t apply. Walk inside, take the dozen steps to Mr. Tuna’s sushi counter, and chances are good that you’ll smell lemongrass and pho broth, curried oxtails and fried chicken filtering down from vendors upstairs. The steel-and-wood, 28-seat dining room and open kitchen might belong to Rubin and co-owner Marisa Lewiecki, but the air here is communal.

I don’t mind the neighbors’ cooking odors. They’re a tiny compromise, especially if they mean that Mr. Tuna can serve sushi someplace other than its original trio of food carts (long since exchanged for larger, truck-like trailers that park on Portland’s Eastern Prom and in Brunswick). For the most part, Rubin doesn’t seem to mind, either.

“This area of Portland is highly dependent on foot traffic and people in office buildings. There isn’t a ton of parking on Monument Square, so I think of it like something you’d see in Japan, where you can walk into the most unsuspecting place, like a shopping center or a train station with multiple culinary businesses, and have one of the best meals of your life. It is really about the quality of the food and nothing else for us right now,” he said.

Indeed, Rubin’s commitment to excellent ingredients and the precise, hard-earned techniques he has refined over two decades of working with raw fish have earned him a reputation befitting his nickname, which if you haven’t guessed yet, is “Mr. Tuna.”

I first tasted Rubin’s take on sushi in 2017, after he concluded a successful run as crudo chef at Solo Italiano. Then, as now, his mobile kitchens sold conical temaki (hand rolls) exclusively – the only exception being Brunswick’s “Maki Wednesdays.” And then, as now, I have been impressed by Rubin’s aptitude for clean knifework, creative flavors and delicately seasoned rice.

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The Japanese potato salad at Mr. Tuna. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

On Monument Square, with plenty of kitchen space, Rubin’s menu is substantially more varied, yet still short enough to keep diners from getting overwhelmed. Terrific temaki are still here, served in compostable containers that hold the nori, rice and fillings in a portable “taco” shape that is easy to hold without spilling (approx. $15 for three). But when I visit or order takeout from Mr. Tuna, I rarely opt for the temaki I’d find at his trucks.

Instead, I choose appetizers like tangy, slippery sunomono ($7), a muddled cucumber salad loaded with tender wakame seaweed and spring onions, or Bibb lettuce cups filled with spicy fried shrimp, avocado and crunchy shards of handmade tempura flakes ($18, including a donation to nonprofit Black Owned Maine). Or my favorite small plate, a Japanese convenience-store classic: umami-charged potato salad that gets its kick from yamagobo (pickled burdock root), Kewpie mayonnaise and bonito flakes.

I also try to sample a few of the maki rolls that now make up about a third of Rubin and Lewiecki’s menu (which changes with the seasons). The sweet-and-smoky, grilled-pineapple-topped Blackbeard’s Delight roll ($22 for eight large pieces) is among the restaurant’s best and most creative, introducing novel ingredients (fruit?!) and techniques (blitzing wasabi with heavy cream) without overwhelming the star, a slab of blackened tuna. The spicy scallop and Maine crab maki ($13 for six pieces) is another evergreen favorite that works better as an uramaki (maki with the seaweed on the inside of the roll) than it does as a fat hand roll.

Tuna mango maki at Mr. Tuna. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

There’s little on the menu that isn’t worth ordering. I’m not a fan of the Salmon of Capistrano sushi “burrito” ($17), really just a large-format spicy salmon maki that loses most of its appeal in translation; it tastes mostly of rice. The tuna mango maki ($12) also seems to lack punch (and salt), although both dishes would probably constitute the best menu items at most of Portland’s other sushi joints.

With Rubin and Lewiecki’s other local businesses, Crispy Gai and Bar Futo demanding time and attention, it is truly remarkable that Mr. Tuna is as consistently great as it is. Many North American sushi restaurants never transcend mediocrity, largely because top-notch sushi demands the sort of esoteric knife skills and attention-to-detail that few restaurateurs bother to acquire, and their kitchen staff almost never do. Yet somehow, three food trucks and a storefront haven’t diluted the high standard of sushi at Mr. Tuna.

Rubin chalks that up to training and intelligent hiring. “I hire people who understand consistency, and who always strive to get better,” he said. “We’re lucky with the caliber of cooks we have here. There is just not a large pool of sushi chefs in New England, and Maine, then Portland…it’s even smaller. So even though most of the guys who work with us don’t have formal sushi experience, we hire people who have run their own restaurants, people who are seasoned experts already and who just need to be taught about the world of sushi. They have the foundations already.”

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It’s a brilliant tactic, one that pays dividends at all the Mr. Tuna kitchens, but most especially on Monument Square, where difficult-to-master Edo-mae nigiri (traditional Tokyo-style sushi with fish draped over an elongated mound of rice) is the highlight of the menu.

Sweet, aromatic unagi (grilled eel) nigiri ($8 for two pieces) and mineral uni (sea urchin) nigiri ($16 for two) showcase a layered balance between seafood and tendrils of subtle acidity from a blend of three styles of vinegar. If you can’t decide, do what I do: Order the $28 chef’s choice tasting box. Seven pieces of nigiri come nestled together, each with a different cut of seafood, each crowned with a garnish about the size of a pencil eraser.

Last week, I took a decidedly upscale balsa-wood-and-cardboard nigiri tasting box home to share with some guests. “You know,” my cookbook author friend remarked as she tucked into what she called the best scallop sushi she’d ever eaten, “We’re lucky to have Mr. Tuna in town.”

I agreed, then made a plan to go back to the Public Market the next night to taste that green yuzu-kosho-dotted scallop, along with a slice of amberjack with quick-pickled daikon, and a buttery length of yellowtail barely kissed with scallion and ginger.

I don’t know who was in the kitchen preparing this particular tasting box, but they had taken Rubin’s training seriously. I opened the cover and took in a deep lungful.

Yep, there it was: nothing.

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Customers at Mr. Tuna in the Public Market sit at the sushi counter, where they can watch the sushi chefs prepare meals. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

RATING: ****
WHERE: 28 Monument Sq., Portland. (207) 805-1240. mrtunamaine.com
SERVING: Daily 11 a.m. – 8 p.m.
PRICE RANGE: Small plates: $6-$18. Bento boxes and larger dishes: $16-38
NOISE LEVEL: Afterschool tutoring
VEGETARIAN: Some dishes
RESERVATIONS: None
BAR: Beer, wine and sake
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes
BOTTOM LINE: If you’ve spent time outdoors in Portland recently, you’ve likely encountered one of Jordan Rubin and Marisa Lewiecki’s Mr. Tuna food trucks. As successful as the trucks have been, their ubiquity seems to have distracted diners. “You wouldn’t believe the number of people who come up to us at the trucks and say, ‘Hey, you should open a restaurant,’ ” Rubin said. “Yeah, we did. Over four years ago.” If you’re a fan of Mr. Tuna and you haven’t been to the Monument Square location inside the Portland Public Market, drop what you’re doing. The restaurant’s menu is medium-sized and includes some of Southern Maine’s best sushi, including tightly rolled, thoughtfully composed maki like spicy scallop and Maine crab; hamachi with marinated shishito peppers ($11 for six pieces); and smoky-sweet, pineapple-topped Blackbeard’s Delight. Consistency and execution are phenomenal at Mr. Tuna, which allows them to pull off high-wire dishes like Edo-style yellowtail nigiri, simple salmon belly, and luxuriously creamy sea urchin. For a casual restaurant in a shared building, the quality of food at Mr. Tuna is unparalleled. Don’t miss out.


Ratings follow this scale and take into consideration food, atmosphere, service, value and type of restaurant (a casual bistro will be judged as a casual bistro, an expensive upscale restaurant as such):

* Poor
** Fair
*** Good
**** Excellent
***** Extraordinary

The Maine Sunday Telegram visits each restaurant once; if the first meal was unsatisfactory, the reviewer returns for a second. The reviewer makes every attempt to dine anonymously and never accepts free food or drink.


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 five recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association.

Contact him at: [email protected]
Twitter: @AndrewRossME


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