Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Miya's Sushi & Chef Bun Lai: Like A Haiku

Sustainable sushi. Aquaculture. Invasive Species. Entomophagy. Ecological Responsibility. Health & Nutrition. 

These are all important topics which have brought national attention to Miya's Sushi and Chef Bun Lai. That attention is well deserved, though Bun suspects that some of the news articles, such as about invasive species and insects, may not actually bring people to the restaurant. Or if they do, it is a very small section of consumers who care about such matters.

After dining and chatting with the personable and humble Bun, I think a more basic and compelling story exists, one that should be inspirational to all of us and make everyone want to support Bun and his restaurant. I believe the main takeaway is that this is a story about one man doing his part to make the world a better place. Like a Japanese haiku, this story is both simple and profound, thought provoking and fascinating.

When I was planning my recent trip to Long Island, I knew that I would be taking the ferry from New London, Connecticut. On my return trip, I planned on returning to New London on a Friday afternoon. I realized that Miya's Sushi, which is located in New Haven close to Yale University, was only about an hour drive from New London so I made reservations to dine there that Friday evening. Iy sounded much better than fighting rush hour traffic all the way home. I had chatted before with Bun on Twitter, and knew that his restaurant was known for sustainable sushi as well as creating dishes with insects. I had seen many positive reviews for Miya's and the menu & concept intrigued me. It turned out to be the right choice, a memorable dinner that fully lived up to my expectations.    

Miya's Sushi was established in 1982, the first sushi bar in New Haven, by Bun's mother, who you can still see working at the restaurant, and who was present the night I dined there. The restaurant is named after Bun's sister, and has remained relatively unchanged over all these years. You can dine outside at picnic tables, or inside in one of their two dining rooms. The main dining room, with a very casual vibe, has numerous tables and a sushi bar. The other dining room is long and narrow, perfect for large groups of people to dine together. There is no pretension here, merely a welcoming ambiance for diners of all types.

About halfway through our dinner at Miya's, Bun arrived at the restaurant and sat down to join us. We talked about the restaurant, his philosophy, and some of the activities in which he participates. I found him to be a genuine person, down-to-earth, and extremely passionate. You can't help but like him. He truly is concerned with doing his part to make the world a better place, from helping those in his community to setting an example for others. Yet he remains humble, and that humility is definitely sincere.

Miya's Sushi reflects Bun's philosophy, his concern for sustainability, nutrition, and community. He seeks to operate the restaurant in an "ecologically responsible manner." As such, he tries to ensure the food they serve is sustainable, though he made it clear that the restaurant is not 100% sustainable, which he believes is an impossible goal. As such, he simply tries to be as sustainable as possible. This has caused some issues with certain customers who think all sushi places should serve seafood such as tuna, salmon and eel.

You currently won't find any of those three items at Miya's as Bun has issue with their sustainability, but there is plenty of excellent sushi available at the restaurant that you won't miss those few items. And Bun is realistic, knowing that you cannot please everyone. In the newest issue of Lucky Peach, there is an article discussing the commonality of certain seafood at sushi restaurants in the U.S. For example, 95% carry Tuna and 93% carry Salmon, placing Miyas's into a tiny minority. Yet only 2% of sushi restaurants carry Tilapia, making Miya's one of those rare few.  

Most of the restaurant's cuisine is sushi and their menu notes: "We use the technique of sushi as a medium to explore what it means to be human." For example, they like combining ingredients from disparate cultures "symbolizing what is possible when people of the world live in harmony with one another." I would also say that to Bun, being human entails being concerned about the health of the world, which is why sustainability is so important to him and the restaurant. The sushi is often intended to be nutritious and healthy, promoting a better quality of life for people. As for the staff at Miya's, diversity is very important to Bun and most of his cooks have been there for at least six years.

Bun mentioned that one of the biggest challenges of sustainability is making it affordable, which is an important aspect to him. It is certainly true that sustainable food products often are more expensive, and that those with lower incomes are subsequently less likely to purchase such items. Bun wants Miya's Sushi to be affordable for most anyone and doesn't want it to become some high-end sushi place where only the wealthy can dine. Based on my experience there, I believe it is a very affordable destination and Bun is succeeding in this objective.

With a mother who is a nutritionist and a father who is a doctor, Bun is also concerned about health and nutrition. He is physically fit, and is careful of what he eats. In addition, he also takes time out to help others, to provide them information to make their lives healthier and better. For example, he teaches about 60 nutrition and cooking classes each year to low income, diabetics, holding those classes in a parking lot in the neighborhood where those people live. He also provides deliveries, over a 20 week period, of fresh vegetables to low income families. He gives back to the community, promoting better health and nutrition, constantly considering how to make this education more effective.

Bun owns some land on the shore, where he can forage and fish, and also owns a boat which he takes out for fishing trips. On his farmland, most everything is wild growth which Bun can collect and use at the restaurant. Bun sometimes also goes on foraging trips across the country, gathering whatever is available. Some of the restaurant ingredients couldn't be any fresher. And it all helps to keep costs down at the restaurant.

Despite the importance of all of these matters, there is one final test that must be passed. Does the food at Miya's Sushi taste good? For if the food fails, then everything else is for naught. I am pleased to report that the food excels and that it is a worthy culinary destination.

Our table was located right next to this cool chalk mural, though be warned that the chalk will rub off on your skin or clothes if you inadvertently brush against it. Once you sit down, you will find that the food menu is a small book, filled with information on the restaurant and some of Bun's thoughts concerning certain ingredients and dishes. You might learn of the inspiration for a specific maki roll, or the reasons why he uses peanut butter. For a more leisurely perusal of the menu, you can check it out online.

The menu is broken down in several categories, including Appetizers (9 choices at $3-$10), Nigiri (9 choices at $2-$4 a piece), Sashimi (6 choices at $5-$15), Main Course (4 choices, essentially tasting menus, at $22-$65), Rolls Of A Lifetime (34 choices at $5-$12), Sushi For The Masses (8 choices at $3-$5), and Dessert (2 choices at $5-$8).

The Main Course choices provide some excellent values, such as the Blue Plate Especial, which delivers a 10 piece sample of Miya's classics, along with soup and salad, for only $22. Some of the more expensive Main Courses include Sake pairings. The Rolls Of A Lifetime entail a diverse and creative list of maki rolls, including many items you have probably never seen at any other sushi restaurant. And the Sushi For The Masses provides inexpensive sushi, though still good quality, which almost anyone can afford. Bun wants to ensure that Miya's remains affordable no matter the size of your wallet or pocketbook.

The drinks menu is smaller than the food menu, but still contains interesting information about the drinks they serve. You can order one of their 4 Homemade Soda Pops ($5/glass, $12/pitcher) such as the Pickled Ginger Soda Pop, made with homemade maple syrup, or the Macha Soda Pop, made with green tea, lime and stevia. I tried both of these sodas and was pleased with their flavors, neither being overly sweet, and they were refreshing.

They carry 3 Beers ($4-$6/glass, $9-$14/pitcher), including Pabst Blue Ribbon, which they describe as "classic swill", and two Connecticut brews, from Half Full Brewery and Thimble Island Brewery. They also stock 6 Wines ($8/glass, $18-$24/bottle), from California, France, Portugal and Chile. You can also BYOB for a corkage fee of $10 per 375ml bottle (so $20 for the usual sized wine bottle).

To my delight, they have 7 Sake selections ($10/glass, $22/small bottle, $44/large bottle), and once again these reflect Bun's creativity streak. Apparently using Ozeki sake as the base, they create infused Sakes and are always experimenting with new flavors. I'll be discussing most of those infused Sake later in this post. I ordered the Sake Sampler ($44), which provides an ample selection of the various Sakes for 2 people. The Sampler is an excellent way, at a reasonable price, to try the Sake bounty at Miya's.

To my dismay, they carry a Sake Bomb ($5), which is a glass of Pabst Blue Ribbon and a shot of their Chinese Firecracker Sake, though the shot glass is not placed above the tall glass of beer on a pair of chopsticks. It is more just a pairing of beer and Sake, though they suggest pouring the Sake into the glass of beer. The menu is amusing though, stating that "The brilliance in the original sake bomb is that it brings people together. The problem is that it tastes so bad."

Though they do not carry spirits, they create 5 Cocktails ($7-$10/glass, $15-$24/pitcher) which are made with Sake and beer. I tasted a couple of these cocktails and will also discuss them later in this review.

The Appetizers section includes some of the only non-sushi items, including soups, salads, and more. We began with the Tokyo Fro ($5), described as "tasty curls of crispy potatoes." This hefty mound of thin and crispy potato slices is topped by a tomato aioli and scallions. It is not a hot dish as you might expect, but it is still compelling and addictive, with an intriguing tomato flavor and a nice crunch. Despite the size of the dish, you are likely to devour all of it.

We also began with our first Sake, the Emerald Witches' Lips, which is flavored with hand picked white pine needles. With a mild sweetness, the pine taste was noticeable, though mild, and appealing, reminding me of an herbal digestif. A nice start to our Sake sampler.

One of the other appetizers we ordered was the Tatsugage ($5), ginger sesame fried chicken, which has to be one of the best examples of this dish I can remember eating in many years. The chicken was so tender and moist, with a crisp, flavorful and spicy hot coating. Many other examples of this dish I have tasted before tend to be dry, but this dish was far from the case. I was tempted to order another bowl of this chicken as I enjoyed it so much. Highly recommended.

More Sake then began arriving, including some gently warmed Ozeki Sake. They understand the proper way to hear Sake. As for infused Sake, we first received the Dragon Lady Sake, which is made with ginger, lemongrass, and honey Sake. It had a prominent ginger flavor, with a hint of sweetness, and made for a good palate cleanser. The flavors were well balanced, which was a common element of all of their infused Sakes.

The Chinese Firecracker Sake is a blend of home grown hot chili peppers, lemons, limes, citron, lemongrass, and honey. It was one of my favorite Sakes, a complex and intriguing blend of citrus and underlying heat. The mild sweetness helped to balance the spiciness, and the citrus provided some nice acidity. I brought a bottle of this Sake home with me and shared it with some of my wine loving friends, and it was a big hit. We also got to try one of their new experiments, a Pineapple & Sumac Berry Sake, which I thought was a winner. Pineapple and Sake made for an excellent combination.

Next, we ordered a selection of Nigiri, including:
--Kimchi pepper seared Arctic Char (Iceland), $2 a piece
--Smelt with ginger garlic sauvignon sauce, $3 a piece
--Raw Alaskan Spot Prawn, topped with roe, $4 a piece
--Mackerel with fresh ginger and chives, $3 a piece
--Scallop, $3 a piece

They also serve Buffalo nigiri, which I would have ordered, but it was not available that evening. The rice they use is an intriguing brown rice-centered mixture with quinoa, amaranth, oat grains and flax seed. In addition, it does not contain any sugar, which is commonly used in sushi rice in most other restaurants. I think this rice mixture added some nuttiness to the nigiri, and it will appeal to almost any sushi lover. Don't worry about it being too grainy or tough. It has a pleasant taste and texture.

All of the nigiri seemed fresh, and it was all tender and tasty. The Smelt was enhanced by its flavorful sauce and the Scallop nearly melted in my mouth. I would recommend all of the different nigiri I tried and I don't think you will miss the fact that they don't serve tuna or salmon. The nigiri is also served with homemade pickled ginger that is made with maple syrup, giving some sweetness to the usual pungent ginger.

The Best Crunchy Roll Ever is made from scallops, crispy fava bean tempura seasoned with home grown chilis, avocado and Iranian ghormeh sabze. I don't think I have ever had ghormeh sabze before, which is a kind of herb stew, and have never seen sushi made with it either. The roll was a nice mix of creamy and crunchy, with an interesting taste of herbs and spices. The ghormeh sabze worked very well in this dish.

Our next Sake was one which our server stated was one of their least popular, the Ultraviolet Kisses Sake. It is made to be ocean-salty, with homegrown red aged shiso and sour plum. The idea of this Sake is to reflect the problem that the oceans have seen a 30% increase in acidity due to the activity of man. This Sake has a ph of 8.179, the same the oceans had before the increase, and it also has the same salinity content of the South China Sea. I enjoyed this Sake, thinking that it was like an oyster in a glass, a briny burst of flavor with a mild sweetness underlying the salinity. I understand why many don't like this Sake as much, as the brininess can be off putting, but others like me will love the taste.

We received a couple of Cocktails, including the Kama Sutra (made from fresh pureed berries, Sake and beer) and the Korean Hong Kee Punch (made with fresh watermelon Sake, beer and splash of Chinese Firecracker Sake). The beer is noticeable in both cocktails, and I preferred the Hong Kee as I like the watermelon and hint of spiciness. If you enjoy beer, these cocktails will probably appeal to you.

The Baked Sweet Potato Roll ($3) lacks the crunchiness of the usual Tempura Sweet Potato rolls you find at many other sushi joints. Instead, you get a soft and creamy treat, with the sweetness of the potato. A nice change of pace.

Entomophagy is basically the eating of insects as food, and it is seen as an extremely sustainable option, though many people, especially in the U.S., possess a psychological barrier against eating insects. It is hard enough to get people to eat a sustainable choice like rabbit, never mind to get them to eat bugs like crickets and spiders. However, there are several organizations and companies which are trying to promote eating insects, and it is something that bears further examination. As Bun is an advocate of entomophagy, Miya's Sushi carries a couple items that use insects. I recommend that you open your mind and give those insect dishes a try before dismissing them, and you might find yourself becoming a convert.

I was willing to taste the insect dishes, starting with the Nine Spice Sashimi ($10), which is made with a sustainable fish and is topped by a spicy citrus soy sauce with green onions. Our dish contained Mozambique Tilapia grown by students of the Bridgeport Aquaculture School. Bun uses Tilapia, in part, because it is an ancient fish of African origin, and may be the oldest farm raised fish in the world, having been farmed by the Egyptians. One caveat is that you need to eat this dish in a timely fashion, or it will tend to become ceviche due to the citrus.

For an additional $5, you can top this dish with spicy, crispy, black soldier fly larvae, which I chose to do. They raise the larvae themselves and all it does is add a crunchy texture, and maybe a little nuttiness, to the dish. Unless you knew what was on the dish, you wouldn't suspect the small, black items were larvae. There is also plenty of thin sliced, and silky smooth, tilapia, with an appealing blend of citrus and spices, with a mild heat. Another highly recommended dish, and you definitely should go with the larvae.

The only other insect dish on the menu that evening was the Crickleberry Brie Roll (2 pieces for $5), which is made from crickets, strawberries and Brie. The crickets are more noticeable in this roll, as you can see the legs/antennae sticking out, but that shouldn't be an obstacle to you. The roll is crunchy and creamy, with hints of red fruit and a slight nutty taste. I very much enjoyed this roll and would recommend it as well. In the book Edible, the author Daniella Martin says, "Crickets are kind of the chicken of the edible insect world."

I was a bit hesitant about eating jellyfish sushi, concerned that it might have an unappealing gelatinous texture, but I tried it anyways. The Cannonball Jellyfish Nigiri ($3/piece) is topped by a spicy roasted sesame marinade. This jellyfish, which is also known as the Cabbage Head Jellyfish, is fished in the waters off Georgia (and Cannonball is a more appetizing name). I found that this jellyfish had more of a texture like a gummy bear, a springiness which wasn't actually gelatinous. And with the marinade, it was also delicious, with a compelling marinade, and something I would order again. I would also seek out other dishes made from Cannonball Jellyfish.

Another Sake came to our table, the Water of Life, which is made with honey sweetened ginseng that was wild foraged in West Virginia. This was one of the sweetest of the Sakes, but balanced with an intriguing herbal component.

Chef Bun is also a proponent of eating invasive species, those plants and animals which often are introduced into a new community, sometimes inadvertently, and which then cause damage to the ecology. By eating invasive species, we can help protect our environment. For example, lionfish are one of the more well known invasive fishes, and Bun serves it at Miya's when available. Unfortunately, they didn't have any the evening I dined there. Hopefully they will the next time I visit.

The Kanibaba ($12) uses another invasive species, the Asian shore crab, which was gathered on the Connecticut shore. The dish also is made with Maryland blue crab meat, stuffed in potato skin infused with Asian shore crab stock, and topped with Jersey cow's milk cheese and a lemon dill sauce. This is another of Bun's well balanced dishes, a nice blend of crunchiness and creaminess, with tasty spices. I like the presentation of this dish too, as it does seem to resemble a cool sea scene.

Returning to a couple appetizers, we enjoyed the Salad Days ($5), a large plate of greens tossed with a delicious and light wild ramp and basil dressing. We also enjoyed the Pumpkin Miso Soup ($3), made with slow roasted pumpkins, sweet potato, and acorn squash. With a bisque-like texture, the soup was full of flavor, with hints of sweetness, nuttiness and a touch of smokiness. Bun was apparently hungry, devouring, on his own, two salads and three bowls of soup.

The final couple of items we ate included the Wabisabi (4 pieces/$10), a roll of kimchee seared arctic char wrapped in wild foraged pickled grape leaves. The grape leaves provided a leafy texture to the arctic char, which had an intriguing fermented taste. Lots of umami there. The Voompa (4 pieces/$10) is made from spicy crunchy eggplant, vegan cheese, avocado, home grown chilis, and Iranian ghormeh sabze. Another maki roll balancing crunchiness and creaminess. It seems that Bun likes creating rolls with different textures, and he succeeds in balancing them well.

After all of this food, I didn't have any room remaining for dessert so I will have to try it on my next visit.

Chef Bun Lai was a gracious host, and my experience at Miya's Sushi was memorable, delicious and enlightening. They offer creative cuisine which is sustainable, affordable, and tasty. Their drinks menu, especially the infused Sakes, complement the food as well as showcase more creativity. I have great respect for Bun, and all that he does to make the world a better place. His passion, dedication and devotion are inspiring. Miya's Sushi receives my highest recommendation and as summer approaches, I strongly urge my readers to make Miya's one of their vacation destinations.

(Disclaimer: Though I paid for a portion of my dinner, Chef Bun Lai also provided us a number of complimentary dishes.)

Miya's Japanese Restaurant on Urbanspoon