Taking a look at cities across the country, it's abundantly clear that Japanese cuisine is experiencing a growth spurt of popularity at the moment. A closer look reveals something more — a shift in ideals and customer interests, perhaps. Fading from the limelight are purveyors of globby plates of teriyaki and California maki rolls, both of which still define introductory experiences with Japanese food for most Americans. Rather, Izakaya-style establishments have come into focus — a far more accurate glimpse into Japanese culture and cuisine.
By definition, an Izakaya is a casual establishment designed to allow patrons to loosen their ties at the end of a long day and reflect over steaming plates and bowls containing what is often referred to as "Japanese pub fare." Rather than burgers and onion rings, think warming bowls of udon, light and succulent fried chicken, and umami-laden rice balls in fish broth. The differences between East and West stop mostly at the food, however — as with a pub, an Izakaya is a place where you can unwind and be yourself for a bit while leaving pretension at the door.
Though not the first establishment to bring this concept to Maine — that would be the ill-fated Miyake Diner back in 2014, which shuttered after only a handful of months — Izakaya Minato is the first to get it right. Having lived and worked in both Tokyo and San Francisco, Co-owners Thomas Takashi Cooke (chef at Minato) and Elaine Alden bring a clear understanding of Izakaya-style dining to the table. It's as evident in the design of the small space — busy, communal and somehow never cramped — as it is in the food and attention to detail showcased throughout service on any given night.
The menu at Minato is very approachable, even for those who have never dined at an Izakaya. Divided into four main categories — "Starting Off;" "From the Port;" "From the Farm;" "To Finish" — it paints a clear trajectory that would still lead to a near-perfect progression of courses if dishes were to be chosen at random. Though portions are intentionally kept on the smaller side to promote a varied dining experience, nearly every item on the menu is sharable to an extent. The result is a "choose your own adventure" approach to ordering that is quite honestly difficult to mess up.
Minato age dofu — dry-fried tofu with jalapeño, soy sauce and bonito — is an excellent way to start the show, with heady soy and vegetal notes setting the stage for what's to come. Depending upon your preferences, that could be a bright and airy sunomono (cucumber and wakame salad with rice vinegar), or a decadent one-bite uni spoon holding raw Maine sea urchin, ponzu, quail egg and tobiko — a shot from the sea, if you will.
Moving on to the "Port" side of the menu, the chef's choice daily sashimi features a carefully curated, deftly sliced assortment of fish highlighting what's freshest at the moment. As there are no maki or nigiri served at Minato, it's the best bet for patrons arriving with a hankering for sushi — a small bite of tuna poke or sichimi (seared spice-coated tuna over onions with creamy ponzu sauce) would also fit the bill nicely. Gindara Kasuzake, a dish of broiled black cod that has been marinated in sake lees, offers one of the punchier, more unique flavor profiles on the menu and is a must-order.
Punchy, too, are nearly all of the dishes "from the farm." Marinated short rib kalbi momentarily takes things into Korean territory, offering satisfying notes of sweet, smoky char on mineral-forward beef short ribs. Tsukune shiitake — North Spore shiitake mushroom caps stuffed with chicken sausage— are rich, decadent and very shareable. Perhaps nothing can touch the pleasure levels set off by a plate of Minato's take on karaage, presented here as "JFC," or Japanese fried chicken. Deep-fried chunks of floured and well-seasoned boneless thigh meat are served alongside a tangy, fluorescent aioli and offset by a bright pile of shredded cabbage and a squeeze of lemon. It's as close to godliness as fried chicken comes, and a dish I simply cannot stop myself from ordering every time I visit the restaurant. Paired with a plate of kimchi fried rice ("To Finish") and perhaps a starter, it's the perfect way to enjoy Minato as a solo diner.
Choosing a standout dish at Izakaya Minato is challenging given the fact that nearly every menu item offers something unique and discussion-worthy, but the honors must go to the sublimely complex shiromi ankake. An almost gravy-like base of smoky amber dashi sets the scene for tender mushrooms and blisteringly hot fried white fish, topped with a flurry of cooling shaved daikon. It is, at its heart, the very definition of "comfort food," yet distinctly different from the fat and salt-laden dishes typical of the Western usage of that same term.
Missteps are rare at Minato, where consistency in both the kitchen and on the floor means one can expect repeatable, pleasant dining experiences. Some dishes do border on assertive as opposed to balanced — buta kimchi (sautéed pork, cabbage, onions and kimchi) and okonomiyaki (cabbage pancake with bonito and choice of bacon or mushrooms) both occasionally take "sweet and salty" a bit too far. These are exceptions as opposed to rules, however, as the relatively small and stable menu is very clearly designed with balance and harmony of flavors in mind.
As an alternative to ordering off the regular menu, newcomers especially will get a lot of mileage out of the chef's choice omakase, which — at $30/person — remains one of the best bang-for-buck deals on the peninsula. Typically combining off-menu dishes with staple a la carte selections (and always including a sashimi course), it's an excellent vehicle for getting to know the finer points of what the kitchen is capable of.
Despite Portland playing host to at least 10 restaurants which fall under the umbrella of Japanese cuisine, Izakaya Minato has no analogs in the city short of perhaps Mami, which — while serving many similar dishes — is by design a different animal, leaning more toward an in-and-out, counter-service approach. The juxtaposition of casual atmosphere, thoughtful menu planning and refined kitchen technique at Minato is a rare find, and one which consistently impresses.
It is, without a doubt, one of the best dining experiences Portland has to offer.
Izakaya Minato | 54 Washington Ave, Portland | Mon-Thu 5-10 pm; Fri-Sat 5-11 pm | www.izakayaminato.com