Sake plus sushi surprise at Miya’s

For most Japanese restaurants, the sake bomb is a necessary evil — a Western perversion of the honored sake-drinking ritual that brings in droves of college-aged customers all too ready to lose track of the bill in their loud and messy pursuit of inebriation. Even at Samurai, New Haven’s pre-eminent sake bombing institution, the wait staff seem wary of their complicity in the sacrilege of dropping hot sake shots into cheap beer.

For Miya’s head chef Bun Lai, however, the sake bomb is one more way to express his creativity and culinary savvy. Lai reinvents the drink, eschewing heated sake in favor of a chilled sake infusion of his own creation: “Naughty Uncle Mao’s Bottle Rocket.” The icy mixture of the spicy lime sake and beer is fruity and refreshing, ending with a gentle heat. Though still chugged, Miya’s sake bomb can be savored.

Unlike your middle school cafeteria, Miya’s makes mystery meat into delicious dishes. Too bad your lunch lady never served sushi like this.
Aileen Agricola
Unlike your middle school cafeteria, Miya’s makes mystery meat into delicious dishes. Too bad your lunch lady never served sushi like this.

All the dishes served at Miya’s have been similarly transformed by Lai’s skill and originality. Located at 68 Howe Street, Miya’s is by no means a traditional sushi restaurant. Those looking for a simple miso soup and straightforward sushi may be surprised by their absence on the menu. The more adventurous, however, discover a bounty of unique and delicious dishes.

The playfulness of Miya’s food is buttressed by real culinary ability. Lai finds unlikely compliments to his fish — including kimchee, apricot and goat’s cheese. He uses improbable seasonings, too: green tea powder, African spices, even freeze-dried fish. Some of Miya’s best rolls abandon conventional rice and seaweed. The Wabisabi salmon roll is wrapped in grape leaves, which Lai imbues with a spectacular amount of flavor using various broths. The flavor of the leaves harmonizes magnificently with the taste of the avocado and seared salmon and the snap of flying fish caviar.

The crown jewel of Miya’s offerings is the Kanibaba: soft-shelled crab wrapped in swordfish-seasoned potato skins, covered in melted havarti cheese and a lemon dill sauce, accompanied by tiny barge crabs. The barge crabs are a crunchy delicacy and, while the roll is somewhat unwieldy, it’s so delicious that its two-bite size becomes a blessing. “Because man cannot live on rice alone” is Miya’s motto and, after a dinner there, it is hard to disagree.

Unfortunately, part of that is due not to rice’s failings but to Miya’s. Sushi rice should be warm and light, but at Miya’s the rice is cold and dense. For all of the creativity invested in broadening the horizons of sushi, scant attention is paid to this one fundamental. The rice does not ruin any dish, but improvement here would make the restaurant truly superior.

Lai’s creativity is surely the restaurant’s greatest asset, even if not all his dishes are hits. Some dishes are expressly experimental. A gefilte fish-inspired creation — made with fresh yellowtail and snapper and a sauce of a half-dozen herbs and citruses — raised hopes only to taste disappointingly like gefilte fish, despite the complexity of its ingredients. Other dishes are culinary curios, more conceptually interesting than they are tasty. One such offering is the Eskimo sushi — thin tilapia sashimi marinated in beet juice, then served frozen with lime and rock salt. As the sashimi hits the tongue, the taste of salt and cold gives way to the earthy flavor of the beets, but the subtleties of the tilapia are lost among the strong flavors.

What makes Miya’s exceptional, however, is that not even its most madcap offering is anything less than great. The courage to present such radical dishes is rare and admirable, but the ability to make them all appetizing is extraordinary.

Prices range from the affordable to the heart-stopping. The three-dollar eight-piece tuna roll puts Gourmet Heaven to shame, but the majority of offerings are on the pricey side. For those of us without buildings named after our families, it’s generally best to gather a posse and pool resources to enjoy Miya’s more spectacular offerings. Otherwise, Miya’s offers a 10-course sushi dinner Wednesday nights for $28.75 with reservations, which is an excellent (and filling) way to sample the breadth of sushi offerings on a budget.

The wait staff are friendly and accommodating, even if service is sometimes slow. Repeat customers may even get a visit from the chef himself, who sits down to share a sake bomb or his inspiration for the cuisine. The unpretentious excellence of Lai’s food rejects the self-importance of many of New Haven’s restaurants, offering refinement without the dinner jacket. A surprisingly versatile restaurant, Miya’s casual and relaxed atmosphere lends itself to a night with the parents or a special someone as much as it does a weekend pre-game.

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