The agedashi tofu at Sushi Miyagi looks alive.
The pile of gauzy bonito flakes on top of the squares of silken tofu are gently wilting into the heat of the tofu and the dark tentsuyu broth below. "It's moving!" my dining companion cried out softly, almost in fear.
10600 Bellaire Boulevard, #115, 281-933-9112.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays.
Sashimi plate (no shellfish): $31.00
Agedashi tofu: $5.50
Shrimp shumai: $5.00
Houston maki: $ $11.00
Sweetie creamy maki: $7.00
Kakiagi (udon and tempura) lunch special: $9.50
Sushi lunch special: $9.50
"It's just tofu; calm down," I said, laughing. Agedashi tofu is one of my favorite dishes to order in a Japanese restaurant, for many reasons. For one thing, the quality of the highly traditional dish, which has been a part of Japanese cuisine for more than 200 years, indicates how good the rest of the food will be. If the kitchen can turn out good age, it can probably make other dishes equally well, from chawan mushi to simple sashimi.
Another reason I enjoy ordering age is to turn even the most devout carnivores onto the pleasures of tofu, which is rarely palatable. With age, the silken tofu squares are lightly dusted with cornstarch and then deep-fried, oh so quickly, until they've got the thinnest coat on the outside. It's just enough to make them stand on their own in a dusky pool of hot broth, smelling of dashi and soy and warm things. With a few bonito (a type of Japanese tuna) flakes and green onions on top, it's a meal that warms the belly and changes the mind.
"I've never had this before," my dining companion wondered aloud. "But it tastes familiar. Do you know what I mean? It tastes like I've had it a million times. It tastes comfortable." We ate in silence for a while, enjoying the agedashi tofu and the quiet.
Sushi Miyagi is perhaps the most nondescript sushi restaurant in Houston. And agedashi tofu isn't the only thing the small kitchen is doing right.
Sushi Miyagi opened its doors about two-and-a-half years ago in new Chinatown, close to the Halliburton compound. The owner, who, like Madonna or Cher, goes only by Miyagi, refers to it as "the Vietnamese section" of town, which is far more accurate.
Miyagi and his wife, Mrs. Miyagi, run the restaurant themselves in true mom-and-pop style. In the evenings, Sushi Miyagi is a blissful oasis of calm in the crazed dining rooms of Chinatown. The mint-green walls, soft music, broad smiles and colorful artwork (made my Mrs. Miyagi herself) will make you feel you've been taken in for the night by a kind Japanese family. Mrs. Miyagi takes your order and calls it out gently to Miyagi, who answers with a soft but firm, "Hai." He then gets to work behind the sushi bar, creating fanciful landscapes of birds and other creatures out of carrots or lime alongside the fresh slices of salmon and red snapper.
Miyagi, who has been a sushi chef for more than 30 years by his own estimation, originally hails from Okinawa. The chain of islands to the south of Japan is famous for its seafood diet, and Miyagi is proud of his cultural heritage and the sushi skills he's perfected over the last three decades. He brings his fish in twice a week from a local seafood market and from a Dallas import-export company that gets him the fish straight from Japan. He named the restaurant Sushi Miyagi — and goes only by Miyagi, an extremely common name in the Ryukyu islands — to let other Japanese know that an Okinawan runs this place.
But pride doesn't take the place of business sense. Miyagi knows he has to compete with other sushi restaurants in town — places that are mostly Chinese-run and geared toward a broadly American palate — and the highly accessible menu reflects this. Traditional Japanese dishes like dengaku and usuzukuri line up alongside rolls like the Houston maki and the Shaggy Dog.
"Look!" I said to my friend, holding up a bright-green leaf. I had plucked it from my plate of sashimi, where half a dozen of the nearly palm-size leaves were separating my salmon from my sea bream, my tuna from my yellow tail.
"It's a leaf. So what?"
"It's a shiso leaf!" I said. "I love shiso leaves! Smell it!" I rubbed the leaf between my fingers, then put them to his nose. The scent of shiso is vaguely similar to that of mint. It's clean, refreshing, almost soapy and just a bit floral. It's an intoxicating smell, and one you don't find too often in Houston's Japanese restaurants.
On my first visit, I was surprised to see such traditional touches on the menu and in the food. I didn't yet realize that Sushi Miyagi was owned and run by Japanese. Most sushi restaurants here are run by Chinese people, merely because Chinese immigrants outnumber Japanese by about 15 to one. There were only an estimated 4,000 Japanese in Houston as of 2008, as compared to more than 82,000 Vietnamese and more than 65,000 Chinese.
So to find a restaurant like Sushi Miyagi that's owned and operated by Japanese, serving incredibly fresh fish and a lineup of affordable, traditional Japanese dishes in an ultra-casual, relaxed setting is a rare treat.
Our agedashi tofu that first night was accompanied by a simple dish of shrimp shumai. The shumai wrappers weren't too doughy or too thin, too sticky or too slimy. Their texture reminded me of the perfect little banh cuon — steamed rice paper rolls — at Huynh. The shrimp inside was delicate, just a touch briny, and, when dipped into the wonderfully sweet-savory ginger soy sauce, perfection.
We couldn't stop ourselves from ordering a Houston maki — we have to try our city's namesake dish, after all — and my dining companion and I devoured it almost embarrassingly quickly. The roll is mostly just fatty salmon and avocado, with a little bit of sesame seed, nori paper and rice — your basic roll. But the quality of the salmon and avocado was outstanding; both melted like butter the instant they hit my tongue, mingling happily with the slightly spicy mayonnaise that laced the roll.
The sashimi plate, which you can order with or without shellfish, was almost a dream come true. My only minor quibble was that the fish was served too cold, something that was rectified on a repeat visit. But I couldn't be dissatisfied with — once again — the quality of the fish or the generous size of the slices. Red snapper, mackerel, halibut, salmon, two kinds of tuna — the wooden block was overflowing with enormous slices of fish. Whimsical creations, like a phoenix carved from a carrot, made me smile. Miyagi clearly puts his heart and soul into making each plate of sashimi.
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While dinner here can be on the quiet side, lunch is definitely more lively. Nearby office workers come out for the generous lunch specials — which also are offered on Saturdays — that will net a table full of food for $8 or $9.
The udon here is rich, simple, sturdy stuff that will prop you up after a long morning. I happily passed a few lunch hours here slurping up the fat, thick noodles and dotting my broth with ever more chili flakes. Sushi and California rolls — more average lunchtime fare — are good, if uninspiring. But that's not why you come here.
One day at lunch, my dining companion and I chose a non-traditional roll to go with our lunch of udon, tempura and sushi: a sweet potato roll. On the menu, it's called a Sweetie Creamy Maki. It came out to our table cloaked in shockingly pink rice paper, contrasting with the green of the avocado and the bright-orange sweet potato mash. Each piece was cut into the shape of a teardrop, arranged artfully on the plate in a spiral design. It was visually compelling, certainly, but would it taste good?
The answer was a resounding yes. Avocado, cream cheese and sweet potato, wrapped in rice and served with a touch of tentsuyu sauce, all mixed astonishingly well. I loved this flavor combination of sweet and earthy and — as the menu said — incredibly creamy. It's little surprises like this that dot the menu and make Sushi Miyagi even more of an adventure.