Monthly Archives: February 2017

​Izakaya Minato – Turning Japanese in Maine

A brand new restaurant is always a good reason to go out, but when it’s received as much buzz as Izakaya Minato on Washington Ave. has, a night out to dinner has a little more excitement attached to it. We arrived to a packed house that was indeed buzzing and were told the wait would be an hour and a half or more. However, if I gave my number, they would give me a call if something opened up and it could be as little as 45 minutes in that case. I put in my digits for a table of three – me, the missus, and our friend – and then we walked down the street to grab a drink.

We sat with libations elsewhere and as soon as we ordered a snack, I got the call saying a table was open for us. I ran…okay, walked slowly…down the street and made my appearance alone with the promise that the others would be following behind shortly once our food was ready at the other restaurant. That sounded odd, but it was true.

The ladies arrived after a short wait. I had already given a quick scan to the menu and picked out a few items in which I was interested, through I hadn’t narrowed it down to a reasonable amount yet. I was impressed that there were so many items which sounded tasty to me. A waiter came to greet the full table, offered us a couple specials, and we requested drinks. Our friend ordered a drink from the menu, my wife ordered a green tea, and I stuck with water.

Almost all of the menu items were small plates appropriate for sharing. We had a sense of what we wanted and started by ordering Garlic Edemame – fried soybeans tossed with garlic. Then my wife added Sakana Misoyaki – broiled miso marinated fish. Both she and our friend ordered a special Tuna Poke Bowl with avocado. Our friend also went with Kani Dashimaki – savory crab and egg omelet – and Age Ochazuke – fried rice ball in rich fish broth, topped with ikura or ume boshi. I ordered Minato Age Dofu – fried tofu topped with jalapeno, soy sauce, bonita, and green onions, JFC – Japanese fried chicken, boneless thigh meat, and Kimchi Cha-Han – kimchi fried rice.

Our soybeans came out first.  They are normally only topped with salt elsewhere, but these, pan-fried and laden with a bunch of garlic were absolutely the best edamame I could imagine. The frying and garlic each brought out an essence that transformed them into a much fuller flavored appetizer. They were a hit at the table. After the beans came the Minato Age Dofu. The six beautifully fried pieces of tofu took on great flavor from bonita shreds, green onion, and just a bit of jalapeno. There was too much soy in the bottom of the plate which left the tofu oversalted slighty, but it was still delicious.

Two tuna poke bowls came out with the crab omelet. The ladies loved the cool tuna bowls with avocado, sesame seeds and some spicy heat. I gave a “don’t mind if I do” and tried a couple bites of the conveniently sliced omelet which came with a little pile of kimchi. I didn’t find the egg creation overly inventive – essentially just egg and crab – but it was pretty tasty. It was hard to argue with either ingredient, both of which I find delicious. The kimchi was pretty standard and primarily a garnish to the dish, I suppose.

Next at our table was the fried rice ball. We had it with the ume boshi (Japanese salt plum) as opposed to the ikura (roe). Most of the rice sat in the broth. A chunk of wasabi straddled the side of the bowl and my wife pushed it into the pool. I thought the fish broth with the rice ball was an odd combo, but I couldn’t say it was bad. It was a rather enjoyable twist on the item.

I was lucky to receive my JFC and fried rice fairly close together. The chicken came with ponzu cabbage, sriracha aioli, and lemon. I squeezed a few drops of lemon juice on the battered bird, noting that the piece of citrus I had was almost too small to squeeze. There were at least six pieces of poultry on the plate and they were crisped in a manner which could only be described as absolutely perfect. One bite made me think to myself “miso happy I’m here right now” as the flavors of the chicken completely enveloped my brain in what can only be described as miso madness.

As I was chomping on the chicken, my illustrious bride grabbed a piece, and after taking a bite, stated “this is one of those foods you have you have before you die.” It was hard to disagree. The JFC was ridiculously good and was uber awesome with and without the aioli. The ponzu cabbage was pretty good too as a nice break from the heavier fried chicken.

Taking a left into oncoming rice, I spooned some of the kimchi concoction into my plate. I like the spicy veggie fermentation and fried rice both quite a bit and thought the combination of the two sounded like a fun pairing. I couldn’t have been more right. It had everything good about kimchi – the crunchy veggies, some heat, and a deep flavor – and balanced it beautifully with what would otherwise have been a run-of-the-mill fried rice. In it, we had one dish that elevated both of its main parts.

Our last plate to come out was the miso marinated fish. The trapezoidal piece of ocean occupant was crusty on the outside and flakey on the inside. A bite found some smoke in the magnificently prepared plate. Super flavorful, but still preserving the natural essence of the fish, it was a dish with which I found no fault. It also received high marks from my counterparts.

It took a while, but we finished everything we ordered. I was stunned that the bill for Mrs. Portlandeater and I only came to $40 before tip with the most expensive item running up the tab only $7. It was a very fair price and the food was exquisite. It was all very good at worst and chicken and fried rice were absolute showstoppers. I heard from traveling friends that the food at Izakaya Minato is as good as what they had in Japan. I have no way to confirm that, but I can tell you my meal was an awesome display of culinary brilliance. I’m going again to try much more of the menu. And soon.

Stay hungry.

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​Sichuan Kitchen – Chinese with a style all its own

​Is Chinese food an underdeveloped market in Portland? I’d say so. There’s not an overwhelming amount of go-to Chinese restaurants in the area and that is even more true if you’re not just looking for take-out. The opening of Sichuan Kitchen on Congress St. adds another one into the fold. I wanted to try it, so I dragged my wife there for a visit.  My hope was that it offered something different from what was already here in town.

The menu offered small plates, salads, vegetables, entrees, and noodles and rice and had both items that looked familiar and those that were new to me. Neither of us took long to figure out what we wanted. We decided to share Sichuan Cucumber Salad – crispy, juicy cucumbers and fresh garlic. I wanted to try their Zhong dumplings – pork loin dumplings served in an aromatic sauce. For her main course, she decided on the Sichuan Poached Fish – Swai fish fillets (a delicate white fish) cooked in a special broth with chilis, Sichuan peppercorns, and yellow bean sprouts. I went with the Gong Bao Chicken – chicken, peanuts, scallions, and a sweet and sour sauce with chili spice and peppercorns. Despite the slight name alteration, it appeared to be similar to the Kung Pao Chicken at most local Chinese restaurants.

Before the waitress left our table, my wife ordered some tea. The one on the menu was E-mei Kafengt – light jasmine floral aromatics, sweetness of early spring green tea. It didn’t take long for that to come out, and though I normally detest tea in any form, I decided to try it. It wasn’t half bad. It had a weak, floral taste and smell. I wasn’t dying to drink alot, but I must admit that I wasn’t turned off by beverage which was a first for me when it came to tea.

Cucumber salad came out first. The cukes were neatly sliced and sitting in what appeared to be a chili oil. My first piece confirmed my visual assessment. The veggies were very fresh and the main portion of the dressing was certainly chili oil, which offered a reasonably pleasant spice. I tasted the tiniest hint of sweetness somewhere in there too. I liked that the plate deviated from similar dishes I’d had at other restaurants in that it wasn’t particularly sugary.

Next to come out were my dumplings. There were five in a small bowl covered in what appeared to be the same oil that was on the cucumber salad. I tried one and it did have similar taste. Again, they were less sweet than I was used to because they didn’t come with the traditional dumpling sauce. Still, I found them pleasing because they were different and lacked significant sweetness.

Main courses arrived in due time and I couldn’t wait to try my chicken dish. The meal was heavy on peanuts which I liked. It wasn’t particularly spicy, but definitely flavorful with chicken that was a little leaner than I was used to. The sauce was not all that different than the norm except – and I suppose a theme was developing – it wasn’t quite as sweet, though certainly still the most so of the night.

Once I finished my food, my wife offered me some of hers. I pulled the bowl of fish soup over and was shocked. It wasn’t just that the bowl was massive, but it was also filled with tons of fish and vegetables. Sure, there was some broth, but there were more of the other omnivore delights than I could believe. Undoubtedly, there was enough for two or more hungry eaters. Clearly heavily infused with chili oil, the fish was beautifully prepared. I loved its delicate flavor and its ability to take on the nuances of the soup which consisted primarily of the various pepper flavors.

A few bites in, the soup presented a problem. Despite the excellent flavor, my mouth was consumed by a prickle. Try as I might to avoid the peewee pellets of peppercorn, there were a plethora of them in there and they were overpowering the dish. It was a bit disheartening as the concoction was quite delicious with a nice touch of heat and the peppercorn flavor was actually great, but the quantity of the whole spice in the bowl was just too much to handle.

I tried my best to work though eating the rest of the fish and a few sprouts, but it was difficult and I gave up. Other than that, I thought the meal to be quite enjoyable. Sichuan Kitchen used chili oil heavily in the dishes we had, but they were good so it was hard to complain. There are plenty of other dishes available without that. Our meal focused less on the candied flavors of typical Chinese restaurants and more on a version of the relatively mild peppers and, as they implied on the menu, balanced flavors. It was true. Except for the peppercorns, no one flavor stood out in any dish – the heat was not overwhelming, nor the sweetness.

Our meal came to about $60 before tip which seemed pricy at first glance, but the soup was easily enough for two. I’d definitely give Sichuan Kitchen another shot. The first one was pretty successful. I might pass on the poached fish unless they cut back on the peppercorns, but otherwise their food is well thought out and somewhat unique to the area. The atmosphere is relatively bland, but the food isn’t. In the end, it was more than good enough for me to plan a return visit.

Stay hungry.

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Salty Sally’s – Last minute Saturday brunch

“Can I take you out to lunch when I get home?” The text brought a tiny tear to my eye. My wife wanted to treat me to a mid-day meal. Sure, she owed me for dinner from the night before, but I had already forgotten about that, so a lunch on her sounded like a legitimate bonus. She didn’t like any of my suggestions about where to go though, so when she suggested Salty Sally’s on Congress St., I was okay with finally trying it. We had considered a visit a half dozen times before, but this time it would actually happen.

The restaurant had tables on the left, a seating island in the middle, and a bar along the right side. The restaurant touts itself as a bar and grill, but had more of a bar and diner feel to me, not that it mattered. The waiter/bartender came around and provided menus and waters. The menu was for brunch and reinforced my initial thoughts about it as a diner. It didn’t offer anything too fascinating, just a reasonable selection of breakfast and lunch options, occasionally with a little twist or turn.

While we were looking at the menus, we declined drinks and accepted a review of the specials. There were two, and one of them – Creme Brulee French Toast – sounded crazier and sweeter than any dessert I could imagine. After some internal debate, I passed and looked for something a little more breakfast and a little less diabetes. One of the breakfast burritos or a breakfast sandwich on an extra large English muffin sounded pretty good, but in the end, I decided I wanted an omelet. The only one I saw was the Chili and Cheddar Omelet with hash browns, and I was okay with that. Mrs. Portlandeater went with a favorite lunch item – Grilled Cheese (mozzarella, meunster, and gouda) with tomato bisque.

Before leaving our table, the waiter informed me that the hash browns in my order were actually tater tots. I told him that was great and my mouth started watering. I’m not sure there’s a deep fried food I enjoy more than tater tots, so I was hardly concerned. He left and we waited for our goods. The restaurant was about half full with a few patrons walking in and out as we relaxed with hunger our only concern. When a couple tables got their food before us, I became a little jealous, but attempted to exhibit a reasonable amount of patience.

Our meals arrived before long and I found myself with a folded egg encasement and potato puffs. My wife’s soup was topped with some shredded cheese and a nicely toasted sandwich. I tried a tot immediately and was super pleased at how well fried they were – crispy and crunchy. I threw down some ketchup and sriracha to dip some of the rest into. Then I readied for battle against the omelet. Not sure I’d ever had a chili omelet, I approached cautiously, separating a manageable amount from the rest of it, hoping the bean and beef concoction wouldn’t fall out. I tried a bite and was pleasantly surprised by the nice smooth chili. It wasn’t overly spicy-hot, but had plenty of flavor. A smattering of cheese added a fine finishing touch.

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I swept through my food like a tornado, finding it to be just the amount of sustenance I needed. My wife had a little of hers left over and I went for a taste of that, taking the remaining portion of the grilled cheese for a spin. There was plenty of cheese, but the best part was that I could pick out each one easily. The combination of them all made for a small army of cheesy awesome. A sip of the bisque brought forth some creamy tomato, a little basil, and a tiny bit of cheese topper. It was a pretty fine example of the lunch standard.

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We finished all we had minus a few drops of bisque and decided that was enough. It was a solid meal and most certainly enough for the time being. The cost came to just a smidge over 20 clams before tip. I suppose that’s pretty inexpensive considering I can’t remember the last time I got meal with table service for that price for two. The food was good – not fine dining, but high quality, well executed, and mildly inventive. The casual, relaxed atmosphere seemed amply suited for drinks, a meal, or both. Though I can’t say how they are at other times, Saturday around lunch was a good hour to be there since it wasn’t overly busy. Go there for an omelet, a sandwich, or try the decadent French toast special.

Stay hungry.

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Big Fin Poké – A little slice of Hawaii

Hawaiian food has been a genre left untouched in the Portland area…until now. Big Fin Poke (pronounced po-kay) on Main St. in Westbrook, offers the first look at the previously unheralded food that many local residents have seen. Opening at the end of December and offering “Hawaiian style sushi”, the restaurant creates an interesting niche all by itself while filling in a space just outside the big city that could use a little more food life. Knowing that it was a casual, counter service restaurant and maybe a healthier choice than most, it seemed like the right place to eat so we didn’t have to spend a lot of time fussing with menus, table service, and heartburn. We headed over and also made last minute plans for a friend to join us there.

It took a while, but we found a parking space in the public parking area behind the buildings across the street and made the walk over. My first impression of the joint upon entering was that it was both lively and colorful. With a big pink logo’d wall on the right and a giant colorful menu behind the counter, I was primed to learn about the Pacific provisions. While waiting in line to get to the counter and get a better view of the menu, we passed the drink cooler and picked out some waters.

Once we got to the front, there were decisions to make. I had to decide on a bowl with rice, a salad bowl with romaine, or a pokiritto with rice in a seaweed wrap. I chose the rice bowl and took the large over the small. Next, I had to choose if I wanted to order one of the BFP “favorites” – predetermined combos to make life simple – or create my own. I thought it would be fun to create my own. I went with brown rice and for proteins, I avoided the raw fish, instead choosing beef, chicken, and tofu since the large bowl came with up to three. For sauce, I kept it simple with the Big Fin Shoyu. The tougher choices with lots more options came last. For mix ins, I decided to go with cilantro, jalapeno, and green onion. As toppings I chose kimchi, seaweed salad, and crab salad. For crunch, I got crispy onion, crispy garlic, and wasabi peas. After all that, I accepted the offer of sesame seeds on top.

After I ordered, my wife picked her meal, going with the small Hawaiian Original with tuna, sweet onion, green onion, chili flakes, sesame oil, seaweed, and Hawaiian sea salt. Our friend took the large Gyudon Beef – thinly sliced beef cooked with onions in a sake shoyu sauce over rice. They had the opportunity to get mix ins, toppings, and crunch on theirs too. Throughout the process of the bowls being created, what stood out to me was that they were pretty large. Even the small bowl was fairly sizable. While the additions beyond the protein and sauce were distributed in small-ish amounts, the bowl was already relatively full before those went in and we were able to choose as many as we wanted.

We paid and found a table to sit at. I asked where the silverware was located and was pointed to a small counter where I also found napkins, gluten free soy sauce and sriracha. I decided to take a little cup of the spicy red stuff, but didn’t need any soy since I figured my shoyu would cover that. The first moments after sitting were reserved for inspecting my bowl and the others at the table. Everyone had created masterpieces. My wife said the tuna was very fresh and our friend commented that the beef was tasty.

I started eating by trying my toppings. I particularly enjoyed the seaweed salad. Next, I wanted to try the proteins. The tofu wasn’t bad, but was easily made better with a little sriracha supplement. The beef was excellent, taking on the flavor of the shoyu sauce it was cooked with. It was part soy and part sweet spice, which I found to be really nice. Lastly, I tried the chicken which was crunchy and breaded. My first bite was stunning. The chicken had a sweet flavor that was just outstanding, filling my senses and besting even the taste of the beef. I was sold. 

The bowl was particularly enjoyable as I got to more and more of it. The rice and sauce complimented each other spectacularly, the jalapeno added a slight additional heat, and the wasabi peas were a nice addition. The crispy garlic and onions bits went a long way, adding much more umph than I expected. With its many parts, it was easy to forget everything I had on there until I tasted it, but it all seemed to work together in a way which made the meal fun and a nice change of pace from the table service restaurants I often visit.

The meals at BFP are $10.99 or $13.99 depending on whether you order a small or a large. I found the large to be sufficient for someone who was quite hungry. The food was super fresh and that will undoubtedly be the key to their success long term. With raw fish and vegetables in particular, it will be a necessity, but that seems to be what they’re all about. If they keep doing it up, the positive reviews and steady business will almost certainly continue. If you’re looking for something a little healthier, a bit outside the usual, and just, plain yummy concoctions, consider Big Fin Poke and enjoy food that will make you feel like you’ve done something good for yourself.

Stay hungry.

Hungry for more? Get notified whenever Peterpeterportlandeater releases a new blog entry by clicking the “follow” button on the right side of this page after entering your email address directly above it. Seriously, do it. What are you waiting for?

Feel free to email me at peterpeterportlandeater@yahoo.com with any thoughts, suggestions, criticisms, or otherwise helpful info or post your thoughts below. Also, like the Peterpeterportlandeater page on Facebook and follow @portlandeater on Twitter. You can now also find me at pppe.bangordailynews.com.