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Simple confusion

Japanese cooking and thought at Miyake
By BRIAN DUFF  |  August 29, 2007
Japanese cooking and thought at Miyake

Food Factory Miyake | 129 Spring St, Portland | 207.871.9170 | Tues-Thurs noon-3, 5-9; Fri noon-3, 5-9:30; Sat 4-9:30 | Visa/MC | BYOB
The opening of Food Factory Miyake coincides with a surge of writing about sushi. Some of the best is by sometimes-Mainer Trevor Corson. While his new book The Zen of Fish is largely about pretty white girls learning to cut fish, his recent op-ed in the New York Times urged Americans to transform our relationship with Japanese guys when we can find them behind a counter. “We should sit at the bar and ask the chef questions about everything,” he advised — and called on Japanese chefs to participate in “candid conversation ... across the sushi bar.”
Corson knows his sushi, but here I cannot agree. We should not go to sushi bars seeking clarity. Confusion and ambiguity are essential to the Japanese experience. Great Japanese literature cares only for the flawed, the fleeting, and the tragically misunderstood — the torturous longing of love’s inscrutable beginnings, or the pain of its inexplicable demise. Even the Japanese language is designed for uncertainty. Sentences often have no stated subject. There is no difference between singular and plural or present and future. In reading Basho’s perfect haiku “Kare–eda–ni” you cannot be certain if there is one or many crows perched on that withered branch (or branches!).

Food Factory’s chef-owner Masa Miyake seems like a fine person for us to confuse and be confused by in delicious ways. We asked him to send out the fish he recommended — though we had to ask him from afar, through his waiter Will (a suitable stand-in for Ralph Macchio), because the tiny bar fills up fast. The whole Factory — modestly and pleasantly appointed with Japanese touches, upscale plastic tables, and brick painted pale green — is pretty small.

The sushi arrived arranged simply and elegantly on a long white plate. Miyake had prepared us an interesting variety. The Japanese sardine was neither oily nor salty like the American version. Its taste was light, clean, and almost flavorless. Scallops, whiter than the rice they flopped upon, were creamy and sweet. The mackerel (the true staple fish of the Japanese diet) looked distinctive with its scored skin attached. It had a complex briny-salty taste unlike any of the other fish. Striped sea bass had a truly unusual texture, not quite chewy but sort of dense.

We were not surprised to find the classic bluefin sashimi on our plate, but it did not have that silky, almost sherberty texture one expects. It was a touch chewier, though not unpleasantly so, and had a hint of metallic aftertaste. We were a little surprised to see two varieties of salmon (three if you count the roe), since many sushi chefs only serve it raw when requested due to salmon’s tendency for parasites. The sockeye had the slightly oily and salty taste, and the familiar tender, almost melty-fattiness. The Arctic char was paler and had a subtler flavor. We enjoyed the salty roe, though it offered a bit more slime than crunchy pop.

Miyake is doing rolls with admirable restraint. He eschews syrupy sauces for a tiny dollop of bright red plum sauce. In place of the minty sprigs of kinome you find in Japan, he sprinkled peppery sprouts of radish that cut though the fattiness of the seared salmon in the “salmon lady roll.” The “Masa spicy tuna roll” did not have so much chili as to overwhelm the smoky smell and charred flavor of the seared yellowtail on top. The runny tiramisu made with green tea powder is the best dessert I have had in a sushi place in a while.

To enjoy Food Factory Miyake there is no need for a garrulous inquisitiveness that would shock sushi’s original patrons — the Edo-period elite who played an after-dinner game in which they revealed their guesses about what the chef had given them to eat. Rather than seeking spontaneous seminars, dinner at chef-owned spots like Miyake or King of the Roll can resemble another Japanese game, described by Proust in Recherche, in which indistinct balls of paper are placed in water and unwind into unexpected shapes as they moisten. So should we, at the sushi bar, just soak it in and see what emerges.

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Brian Duff:

  Topics: Restaurant Reviews , Culture and Lifestyle , Food and Cooking , Ethnic Cuisines ,  More more >
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