​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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