Can we still learn new things from Japan? Time could be running out – what with a White House eagerly awaiting the Event-that-will-change-political-narratives and justify a defense-heavy budget. An escalation of tensions with North Korea could do the trick, with Tokyo (and Seoul) bearing most of the risk if missiles fly and armies move.
But we have already squeezed Japan for so much knowledge: The once-challenging bright and clean flavors of sushi are now a grab-and-go lunch. That under-roasted coffee thing is everywhere. Who doesn’t work by the principles of kaizen these days? Or dabble in light-Buddhism and ethno-nationalism? Our cars – even Chevys! – are now as good Hondas, and our cartoon movies have narratives as sophisticated as any film by Miyazaki. According to internet browsing data that Congress recently liberated from onerous privacy protections, even Japanese porn seems dull now – edged out more efficiently-cruel Russian productions.
So the fact that every splashy new Japanese restaurant is an “izakaya” – a casual sake-place with comfort food – signals perhaps not a new lesson but a recess from school. The new Izakaya Minato, for example, mostly wants to please you rather than challenge you. You know it when you bite into the greasy, juicy, fried chicken thigh you just dragged through some Big Mac-ish sauce. It’s like a nugget, but, y'know, really good. And they know it: the menu calls it the JFC. A plate of kalbi offers analogously simple pleasures: in this case salty and chewy beef with a hint of sweet in the sauce.
Perhaps most pleasing and comforting of all is the okonomiyaki. The pancake was pleasantly light on egg and flour and the cabbage had a bit of crunch. Kewpie mayo offered some tang and spice, and a brown sauce some sweet. Flakes of bonito, which curled and swayed eerily as the steam rose from below, joined seaweed in lending some salt and funk.
The bonito also enlivened big beige pieces of dofu – given a perfect light fry and creamy through the center, served with nice dark salty sauce. And the salty dried seaweed reappeared atop a great little bowl of poke. The creamy mix of tuna and avocado had a sesame oil aroma, and salmon roe added some pop.
Soy cured egg yolk over rice.
One lesson to gain from Minato is they have put carbs in their place: with dessert and the other empty calories. There on the right side of the menu, and the end of the meal, are the noodles and rice – the latter served by the bowlful with just the right clumpiness, adorned by your choice of roe, a sour ume bashi plum, or a quivering deep-yellow yolk.
The dark secret of the izakaya trend is that little sake is ordered at these spots named for the drink. The appeal of salty-sweet rice wine is one Japanese lesson Americans won’t absorb. But Minato has some nice choices for those who would try, like a Wakatake daiginjo that was fruity and sweet or a Kariho junmai that tasted of both the ocean and children’s medicine.
That we avoid the one challenging aspect of this comforting trend in Japanese cuisine confirms that we go to the izakaya not to learn, but to take rest from the challenges of modern multicultural life. The wood-filled space is lovely, but so much of atmosphere is people, and it’s the same Mainers all around you – whether at the kitchen-side communal table or in the dining room next door.
Perhaps the ultimate lesson we can learn from Japan is the lesson of resignation itself. Americans seem poised to imitate Japanese cultural and demographic decline: abandoning both marriage and procreation and refusing to welcome outsiders. Of course it would be nice if American’s learned some new and unexpected lesson from Japan. And soon our government could decide young Americans should do so – while running across its islands in a radiation suit, next to a tank.
Izakaya Minato | 54 Washington Ave. | Mon-Thu 5-10 p.m.; Fri-Sat 5-11 p.m. | 207-613-9939 | Dishes mostly $7 -$14