Review: Pai Men Miyake

Second time’s as charming
By BRIAN DUFF  |  March 23, 2011

STRONG STARTER Brussels sprouts at Pai Men Miyake.

I suppose there will be a time when Portlanders barely remember Masa Miyake's first sushi bar. Housed in its inauspicious little yellow brick building, Miyake was a revelation — the first place in Maine where diners embraced omakase (chef's choice) dining (especially affordable because it is BYOB). Miyake's creativity nudged us toward a new appreciation of seafood like mackerel and urchin, techniques like pickling and curing, and an untold variety of sprigs, sprouts, and seasonings.

So it was inevitable that Pai Men Miyake, the noodle bar that is the chef's second Portland venture, would be scrutinized in this light. A second act can be especially difficult when a first accomplishment seems sui generis, spontaneous, and unexpected. The second is bound to be heavier in spirit: more self-conscious and better funded. Think of Godard's ponderous Week End compared to the lightness of his early film Bande à part.

So while Miyake's reputation in Portland earns the new venture some good faith, it also invites us to give our reactions a critical edge. Does the décor look like expensive consultants designed it? Does the menu seem to follow certain trends in the New York food scene? Maybe. So we might quibble. But the dining room we are quibbling in at Pai Men Miyake is truly handsome, and the dishes we are quibbling about are thoughtful and interesting. As second acts go, it's a good one.

The hardest part of this transition is leaving behind the clear, clean flavors of sushi for the ambiguous depths of ramen. Ramen is having a second act of its own in recent years, as Americans learn to push aside our memories of instant soup and appreciate bowls of toothsome noodles in rich, complex broths. The broths at Miyake offer some appealing complexities, like the slight kelpy sour in the shoyu, or the lingering ginger notes and cloudy creaminess of the tonkotsu. But the savory richness of these broths coexisted with so much salt that that the palate gets a little exhausted. Noodles were just right — neither soft nor chewy — and abundant in the big bowl, so this ramen was filling.

In the American south when they butcher a freshly caught tuna, they often throw away the fattiest part of the belly (the kama). Miyake takes the opposite approach with the pig: pork belly is ubiquitous and the rest of the animal absent (except the curly tail, served with apricot and jalapeño). A thick, tender slice appears in nearly every soup, and also perched on a sliced role in the delicious pork buns. These juicy, fatty slices are terrific, but one would welcome some chewier cuts of pork or maybe some duck in some of the soups.

One reason Miyake's sushi rolls are the best in town is that he forgoes sweet and creamy sauces for a dot of plum sauce and sprigs of kinome. But at his new spot he has embraced mayonnaise, infused with a variety of spices, which pops up all over the menu — on the pork buns, under salt cod fritters, with fried flounder. The mustardy version served with the fritters also had a sharp capery bite. It was terrific with the light, moist, almost gooey balls of fried salt cod. With the flounder a sweeter mayo, and a greasier fry, obscured some interesting flavors of mushroom sauce and garnish.

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