Restaurant Reviews :
by Robert Rich, January 2004, for MV Voice and PA Weekly
Rowdy and affordable: Miyake lives on
When Miyake opened in 1985, it offered the best sushi bargain in Palo Alto. It occupied a room so narrow that patrons could barely squeeze between the sushi-boat bar and a single row of tables.
I have a warm connection with Miyake. My wife and I ate there on our first date, 15 years ago. For a recent graduate without big funding, it provided an affordable balance between good food and casual vibe.
Sometimes the noise would get deafening in that little room, hardly a romantic environment. All staff would yell a loud greeting when customers walked in. After a bit too much sake, some customers would yell even louder.
I remember one Halloween when all the male servers dressed in drag, and played their roles to the hilt. The two female employees rolled their eyes as the more convincing waiters flirted with diners.
When Miyake moved across the street a decade later, they found a venue large enough to contain the rowdy energy, especially on weekends. Our recent visits on weekday evenings found the energy lackluster by comparison. That is to say, my wife and I could actually have a conversation without yelling.
On Friday and Saturday, however, students still emerge from campus, and the party seems louder than ever. Disco lights swirl overhead as twenty-somethings down sake-bombs (glasses of beer charged with a cup of sake.)
I wondered if Miyake's food matched my memories: good enough to satisfy sushi cravings on a student budget. I found that my tastes have matured a bit since college days. I noticed where Miyake cuts corners; yet I could still appreciate the quality offered at these budget prices.
Miyake's sushi menu has over 100 items, with enough variety to please almost anyone. With many selections priced under $2.50, I found it easy to try a wide variety without blowing my budget.
Overall, the fish tasted fresh and the presentation seemed workmanlike. Some of the pieces of nigiri were torn in half, showing signs of imperfect knife handling (probably sawing back and forth rather than making each cut with a single stroke.) Considering the price, I shouldn't nitpick.
All of the nigiri came with a generous daub of wasabi pinched between the fish and rice. Needless to say, Miyake doesn't use the expensive true wasabi root, but the cheaper green horseradish ubiquitous in American sushi restaurants.
I often add heavy doses of wasabi to my soy sauce for dipping, but these nigiri had enough already -- sometimes almost too much, dominating the delicate fish. Luckily I love the ensuing headrush; but purist sushi lovers might find this treatment heavy handed.
Not wanting to dwell on flaws, I should mention a few minor disappointments. The edamame (whole soy pods) seemed unfresh and flavorless. The cold unsalted beans failed to pop easily from their pods, as they do when freshly boiled.
Likewise, the unagi nigiri (freshwater eel, $2.45) arrived cold and lacked the usual drizzle of sweet teriaki sauce. I prefer unagi that comes freshly broiled and warm. With its sweet fattiness, it feels like dessert.
Apart from these quibbles, I enjoyed the broad selection of bargain sushi. The Poki Maki (spicy tuna roll, $2.15) had a generous filling of feisty fish. The firm-fleshed Saba (pickled mackerel, $1.95) tasted light and slightly fishy, as it should. Albacore, yellowtail and red snapper showed clean fresh flavors.
Some slightly pricier items offer more complexity. Mirugai nigiri (long neck clam, $4.95) crunched pleasantly in the mouth with a rich buttery flavor. Soft shell crab rolls ($4.95) had a generous filling of crispy breaded fried crab, with sprigs of mustard sprouts adding freshness.
A special treat accompanied the amaebi (sweet shrimp, $3.95). A few minutes after the two translucent raw shrimp arrived on their lozenges of rice, their two heads showed up in a fingerbowl of shredded cabbage, breaded and deep fried. Crunching shell and all in the mouth, these offered decorative textural contrast.
Numerous house specialty sushi have cute names with Silicon Valley references, like Apple roll (tuna, crab, avacado, cucumber, $7.50), Intel roll (unagi, yellowtail, roe, green onion, sprouts, wild carrot, $7.50), and other such permutations.
Miyake offers an additional four page menu filled with non-sushi dishes ranging from udon, sukiyaki, teriyaki, salads, bento combinations and more. Wanting to try a range of cooked offerings, on later visits I tried beef sukiyaki ($8) and the huge combination Enkai Set ($12.95)
The Enkai Set must count among the better dinner bargains in Palo Alto. This large subdivided tray holds enough courses to feed two people, or perhaps one hungry college linebacker.
After miso soup and tsukemono salad (shredded greens with sesame wasabi dressing), the combination arrived with six pieces of tuna sashimi, vegetable tempura with butterfly shrimp, three small gyoza (potstickers), an entire cutlet of chicken breast teriyaki, and a filet of teriyaki salmon. Additions included pickled cabbage, edamame, half orange and a bowl of rice.
All items arrived hot off the grill. The tempura sizzled with hot oil and crisp breading, but the oil tasted a bit overused. The chicken and salmon tasted excellent, with good char from the grill. The teriyaki sauce imparted a balanced light flavor, neither too salty nor too sweet.
The beef sukiyaki arrived in a wide iron pot, brimming with thinly sliced lean beef, soft tofu, cabbage, green onions and clear bean thread noodles, all floating in clear sweet beef broth. Although the meat was a bit overcooked and tough, it came in generous portions.
For an extra $4, hungry carnivores can order an additional plate of beef or chicken to augment the sukiyaki, although I found no shortfall in this generous pot of warming comfort food.
Discussing the food alone, I'm ignoring the real reason for Miyake's success. Miyake comes to life when the party crowd appears on Friday and Saturday nights, awakening to its unique blend of tasty cheap sushi and a rowdy good time.
To help lubricate the party, Miyake's drinks come bargain-priced like their food, only $2.55 for hot sake or beer. Cold unfiltered sake costs only $4.95 per bottle (Berkeley-made Sho Chiku Bai brand.)
When I ordered sake on a recent visit, my cup had a crack that made it leak like a dribble glass. When I remarked it to the server, he promptly compensated with a free additional beaker of the hot rice wine. Overall, service was excellent, if somewhat dispirited during calmer hours.
I personally prefer a quiet meal to beer-chugging and yelling; so, I visited at off-hours to test the food on its own. Honestly, Miyake can seem a bit drab off peak. Come on a weekend to see a completely different world, deafeningly loud and vibrant. Combining good cheap Japanese food with frat-party energy, Miyake stands apart.