Friday, February 17, 2012

Portland, Maine: Pai Men Miyake

Pai Men Miyake
The world has of recent sung the praises of one Miyake restaurant in Portland, Maine. Unusual, even my own gastronomic utopia of this little city, the restaurant boasts having authentic sushi worthy of other more distinguished food centric cities. I've heard it's as good as Japan, and it's all about the rice. I'll confess at this time that I've never eaten at Miyake, and that nothing would bring me more joy. Almost nothing.
The story gets a little more interesting when we learn that the owner of Miyake opened a second restaurant. Now, for me, this was a tremendous disappointment. Expansion, once you have reached a level of caring so deeply about one type of art, often can mean the dropping of ones standards. I was heartbroken, feeling like I would never get to try Miyake at its finest before that precious care in washing and rewashing the rice was passed over. But then I started reading about this second restaurant, and the addition of a farm to the Miyake undertakings. So the second restaurant has a pretty short menu of noodles, and various maki rolls. The website features a single picture of a young woman walking through a longish restaurant with a bowl of noodles. While I find it hard to believe that any restaurant in the US can make the same ramen that I've had overseas, this was intriguing. Also very intriguing... after 5:30, they fire up a yakitori grill with binchotan charcoal. Have you ever had yakitori over in Japan? My bigger half, a child of the Navy, spent a number of his formative years at Yakosuka where he ate chicken bits on skewers to fuel each of a seemingly endless series of growth spurts. Knowing this, it is not unusual that he would choose a dinner at a restaurant in Portland specializing in yakitori over other opportunities to eat sushi or roasted rabbit or wonderful seafood. Our excitement was propeled forward by the knowledge of a sushi master who felt the need to open a yakitori restaurant, who loved yakitori so much he needed to seek out the proper charcoal, who loved yakitori so much that he bought a farm and raised animals for his yakitori. God damn. Off we go.
Seated across from the kitchen
Unfortunately, the troubling bit about all this is that we couldn't find all that much information about the yakitori of this restaurant. Maybe there just isn't that much excitement about yakitori in the US? There's certainly at least the wonder of Yakitori Toto in New York, but why no recognition about Pai Men Miyake? Could it be bad? I find it hard to imagine that a restaurant driven by what I could only conclude as an obsession with a lack of good yakitori restaurants could possibly not live up to the memory of deliciousness that I, and more importantly the bigger half, had experienced back in Japan. This lack of reviews is troubling. Therefore, I'm going to focus on the incredible skewers of meat we had at this place, and hope you are willing to make the journey.
Miso ramen
So, we were seated at a tall table at the back of the restaurant. Owing to my personal obsession with ramen, we had to order a bowl of the miso ramen. When it arrived at the table, it was piping hot. The noodles had the correct amount of spring and chew, and the pork (chashu) was delicious. Unfortunately, as I suspected, the ramen was a bit of a disappointment, as the broth itself tasted overly sweet. This is all a matter of personal preference, and if you have never had ramen, I insist that you try this version. Likewise, if you're a fool for these noodles, you should also try them, because I'd love to hear the assessments of others. But owing to the sweet broth, if you don't really give a damn one way or another, I'd say you can skip it.
Uni special: amazing
What you cannot skip is the uni special if they happen to be serving it on any given day. At $10 dollars, this is an incredibly generous appetizer portion of uni, with about ten or so little morsels of orange creamy goodness artfully stacked into a wooden box, and accompanied by a little wakame salad and a few lemons. The Maine sea urchin is firm and sweet. It has that musty sumthin' sumthin' that should be gross, but at one point you'll find yourself driven by the umami, earthiness of it all. Of course, it's also a touch briny, but just overall creamy and unctuous. Again, the uni appetizer is an excellent way to open your meal at Pai Men Miyake.
But soon after these two dishes were consumed, we were all in, ready to sample nearly a full tour of their yakitori menu. I will recommend that you adopt an ordering strategy when coming here, only because we failed in this respect. Yakitori is best when it is piping hot, straight off the grill. If the skewers are left for a moment to cool, then the special flavors and intent of the owner, I think are somewhat lost. So our mistake was to order a shit ton of the skewers at one time, and have them arrived nearly all at once. Some grew cold, and we were sad... not because they were bad, but because we should have known better. So take it from this glutton. Order about four at a time, and inform your server that you'll more than likely be ordering quite a bit more as the night progresses but want to pace yourself. There, I said it. Profit from my mistakes.
Bottom to top: Ebi (shrimp),
 kamo (duck breast),
tebasaki (chicken wings)
The first plate that arrived at the table were the ebi (black tiger shrimp), kamo (duck breast), and tebasaki (chicken wings). Piping hot, the plate of three skewers gave clue into what we were in for. The shrimp, perhaps the least exciting of all of the items, was perfectly cooked, and touched with the salty sweetness of a sauce used for all of the yakitori offerings. There was no scent of charcoal; just the bite of a lovingly grilled wonderful piece of sweet shrimp. The duck was tender, and pink on the inside, savory and a bit gamy, as you would expect with any fine piece of duck breast. Again, it was complemented wonderfully with that salty sauce. The third skewer of two chicken wings was something I was a little surprised that the bigger half wanted to order. But in fact, the charcoal-grilled wings, again with the special sauce, is my paragon of a perfect teriyaki chicken wing. The skin is slightly charred, and has a hint of crispness. The meat underneath is juicy and moist, and of course the whole lot is a joy to eat, sticky fingers and all.
Bottom to top:
Motsu (pork intestine),
butahoho (jowl),
butabara (belly), bonjiri
(chicken tail), kawa (skin)
The second plate was chock full of items, a few of which we would have to order again.
The butabara (pork belly) and butahoho (jowl) were both heavenly. The pork is sweet. It's clean, and undeniably delicious. The fattiness of it is evident, but not over powering, mainly because the time and care has been taken to properly char the meat on the grill. The sauce, which by now I am convinced I could spread it on construction paper and have a wonderful snack, complemented both items perfectly, bringing out the wonderful flavor of pork that has been raised in fresh air on a happy farm.
But then there were other items on the plate. Let's consider the bonjiri (chicken tail). Now, I am not quite as fond of the pope's nose as my bigger half. Usually, it's just a big mouth full of fat, and a reminder that cholesterol is going to play a major part in my later years. However, this was delicious. Perfect parcels of flavor, stacked one on top of another, we were told is an item that quickly disappears as the night progresses. And I can understand why.  They are sweet. They are charred to give you more of a flavor of crispy chicken skin than you would normally experience if you were to pull the butt off of a roasted bird. On first bite, you enjoy that charred outer bit, and then progress to a burst of warmed saltiness in the middle. Order this.
The next item, again focusing in on a chicken item, was a single skewer, with chicken skin, accordioned down the stick. Who does not love chicken skin? We choose not to eat it due to the cholestorol monster or something called "a diet." I think you owe it to yourself. The carefully winded skin is crisped on the outer edges, dipped in the sweet sauce, and gives you the greatest feeling of eating the crisped bit of a wonderful piece of bacon. This is a treat, if ever there was one. It is decadent, and you deserve it.
Motsu (intestine), modeled
by the bigger half
The gem on this plate, however, was the motsu (intestine). Despite being a tremendous fan of intestines in general, I cannot say that I've enjoyed finer chicken bits. They were cleaned perfectly, sliced thin, and stacked on that skewer. There is the wonderful kiss of the charcoal, and what you are left with is the perfect bar snack. It is, again, fatty. But it's more than that. It's tender and meaty, and perhaps the most gentle push that anyone might need into the world of the nasty bits. Imagine for yourself a perfect stack of little circles of sweet and salty, deeply flavored, squeak-between-your-teeth bliss. I think you will love the motsu. And yes, we ordered a second round of this item near the end because it was so good.
The last plate that we had also had some heavy hitters.
Left to right:
Kokoro (chicken heart), kimo (liver),
negima (leg and scallion)
The chicken thigh is your classic yakitori. Do you like dark meat? I do. It's minerally. The poultry flavor comes through to let you know what you're eating... and I would consider a poultry spectrum to span from chicken breast to thigh to duck breast to pigeon. Just saying, when sampling the chicken thigh skewer at this restaurant, you're hitting a quality marker in that spectrum where the delicate flavors are still very easy to detect. I would order this and recommend that you use it as your one item to really appreciate how fine the chicken that they raise on the farm is, and how wonderful that frigging sauce is. We also ordered the chicken leg interspersed with thick spring onion, another classic yakitori offering. Again, the thigh meat was incredible. But you'll understand at Pai Men Miyake why the Japanese love this combination of onion and chicken meat so deeply. The grilled onion really brings out the sweetness of the vegetable, with a charred outer layer that would be difficult and damn near impossible to replicate at home without the use of that wonderful, scentless binchotan charcoal.
Our final three items were excellent.
Chicken thigh (left),
beef tongue (right)
Do you like beef tongue (gyu tan)? Have you ever had it? It's wonderful in a sandwich, like the most succulent slice of roast beef when done properly. But have you had think chunks grilled up on a yakitori grill and dipped in that same salty, sweet sauce? The meat was rather lean, and wonderfully prepared to give it that ever so tender and delicate bit of chew. I highly recommend the beef tongue skewer.
Kimo (chicken liver)
While I was terribly disappointed that Pai Men Miyake was all out of sunagimo (gizzard), they did have kimo (liver). I was impressed again by the cooking technique of the small restaurant. I happen to love liver a little too much. Unfortunately, I think older generations tend to order a big portion of liver and onions and it's just too much. It usually arrives overcooked and with a concentration of minerals that I don't find all that appealing. Now I know that the super-smooshed-on-the-flat-top-grill liver and onions is beef liver, and should not be compared to the delicate chicken livers we ate here, but I think that we can all agree that liver in general has a very distinct taste. It's earthy and rich, and with a bit of a grainy texture if cooked for too long. The liver that arrives on a skewer at this restaurant is left with a pinkness in the center of each morse, clearly a welcome sight from a chef with a delicate hand. The liver is juicy and again, because it has been raised in a properly environment and watched over by a skilled chef at the grill, it is wholesome and the ideal of clean healthy chicken flavors. You may think me insane, but there is a linkage between the flavor of the chicken thigh and that which was experienced in the chicken liver. For lack of better description, imagine a wonderful sweet and buttery chicken liver mousse, but in a more solid form and given a run on a fantastic grill. The chicken liver was flawless, and yes, we went in for a second order after the first was consumed in seconds.
Kokoro (chicken heart)
Kokoro. Say it with me. Kokoro. It's fun to say and now you're sophisticated. Kokoro, kokoro, kokoro. You've just ordered the skewer of chicken hearts, and these were my favorite of the evening. Just like the liver, they had the same flavor of healthy and happy and (dare I say) more muscle to fat ratio chickens. They hearts were delivered with a proper char of that sauce on the outer more chewy bit of each piece. The inside of the chicken hearts were perfectly rosy and tender. Hearts, as many of us know, can turn into 25 cent bouncy balls out of a grocery store machine if cooked too long. Likewise, if not cooked enough, the retention of blood in the vessels can scare the crap out of you. These were timed perfectly. The chew, the savory, fill-your-mouth essence of each heart was incredible. They were less minerally than the livers, and therefore tasted a bit more like a fine piece of meat.
So that was our tour of the yakitori at Pai Men Miyake. I think it's the best yakitori that I've had in the Northeast, and not all that harsh on the wallet either. It would be perfect to visit with friends, or even to sit by the bar by yourself, with the entire restaurant exuding a sort of chill, just be yourself vibe. I have to commend the chef, and thank him for his obsession to make something that was not available without a train or plane or hours long car ride years prior, now only a short while away in Portland, Maine.

Pai Men Miyake
188 State Street
Portland, Maine

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