Food: When size doesn't matter... at Miyazaki
Miyazaki, IA Evergreen Street, Cork (021) 4312716
When Ross Lewis of Chapter One tweets that he's eaten great Japanese food in Cork, you sit up and take notice. And, if you're like me, you book yourself on a train sharpish. Although there are a few places that make a reasonable fist of it, I've yet to find truly excellent Japanese food in Dublin.
You can't miss Miyazaki on Evergreen Street; it's the place with the giant mural of a geisha on the wall outside. The artist is Neisha Azzopardi and the mural is rather lovely.
The interior is spare and modern, with only five stools at a counter that runs across the front window. It's not so much a restaurant as a takeaway with a few seats, but not everything on the menu is available to be taken away as some dishes don't travel well.
As I'm trying to figure out what to order (I want everything on the menu but am eating alone, so tough choices have to be made), a chap comes in and surveys the room. He examines the contents of the fridge stacked with bento boxes for takeout, reads the list of specials chalked on the board, and, through the hatch, observes the raised kitchen in which chef Takashi Miyazaki is hard at work. Then he approaches the server waiting to take orders. "Er," he says, "I think I might just have chips."
Sadly for him, there are no chips. Instead there is authentic Japanese food prepared according to the traditional 'Washoku' cooking culture of Japan, which is listed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. At the heart of this cuisine, and of Takashi Miyazaki's cooking, is dashi broth, which he makes each morning from Kombu seaweed, adding bonito flakes at the end. Dashi is the very essence of umami, the fifth taste, which translates into English as 'yummy deliciousness and a pleasant, savoury taste.'
I start with daily okazu, a selection of cold vegetable side dishes. There's meaty, flavoursome aubergine in a sauce sweetened with mirin (a rice wine similar to sake, but with less alcohol and more sugar), beansprouts, shreds of carrot and burdock root tossed in a sesame oil dressing, a wakame seaweed salad with tiny dried fish called shirasu (a type of whitebait that's salted and dried), and pickled cucumber, all served on a tray in plastic takeaway cartons. That makes the presentation sound inelegant, but somehow it isn't. The Japanese tray is square and rather beautiful, and iced water comes in a delicate blue and white handleless porcelain cup.
The gyoza - crescent-shaped dumplings of chicken and cabbage with garlic and ginger, steamed and fried, served with a citrus- and soy-spiked ponzu dipping sauce - are the best I've ever eaten, with a perfect ratio of wrapper (thin) to filling (generous).
Listening to chef Miyazaki talk about how he makes his dashi broth, there's no question of having anything other than one of the noodle soup dishes as my third and final choice.
I'm torn between a few, and he points me in the direction of one of the day's specials, soba noodles in dashi with wakame seaweed and shiitake mushrooms, topped with chopped scallions and chives.
I'm reminded of Juzo Itami's movie Tampopo (said to be the first 'ramen' western) in which the widowed owner of a not very good noodle bar is helped by two truck drivers to turn it into a paragon of the art of noodle soup-making. It is, they tell her, all about the broth. And they were right, the layering of flavour in this ostensibly simple dish is a powerful thing, with the dashi the scaffolding on which each element is hung.
Miyazaki uses dried rather than fresh mushrooms for their intensity of flavour, and suggests a sprinkle of nanami togarashi seven spice powder, a blend of red pepper, sansho pepper, roasted orange peel, black and white sesame seeds, seaweed and ginger) to add an extra kick. I slurp my way happily through to the last drop, grateful that I'm eating on my own and that nobody is watching me.
We tend to think of Japanese food as being all about sushi, but the reality is that it is about so much more. At Miyazaki, there is an opportunity to explore the riches of the cuisine in the hands of a native Japanese chef, who has set exacting standards for himself in this unassuming little place. I had arrived hoping for sashimi, but chef Miyazaki says that he only serves it on Fridays, and then only if he is satisfied with the quality of the fish available in the market. It's an ethos that other chefs and restaurateurs could do well to adopt.
With a matcha tea, my bill came to €23.80. The place gets busy with takeout business in the evening, and the conventional side of me wishes that there were tables at which to sit and be comfortable and perhaps drink some warm sake while eating this incredible, flawless food. I'm hoping that a slightly more formal restaurant setting is on chef Miyazaki's agenda for the future.
ON A BUDGET
Nothing on the menu is going to break the bank, but miso soup with tofu, wakame seaweed and dashi is only €3.50, and will leave you feeling very virtuous
ON A BLOWOUT
The most expensive items on the menu are the prawn dishes. If you had a tempura maki sushi roll with prawn tempura, followed by pork yaki udon (stir-fried udon noodles with pork and vegetables), you'd spend €20
THE HIGH POINT
Discovering that authentic Japanese food does exist in Ireland
THE LOW POINT
There's no escaping the fact that this is a takeaway with a few stools
10/10 value for money
Whispers from the gastronomicon
At Etto on Merrion Row, there is a new tasting menu on offer in the early part of the week. Normally I run a mile from the rigidity of tasting menus, but at €35 for five courses this one is too good a bargain to miss. Last week we got fresh green Nocellara olives, tasters of three different starters - bagna caude, salt hake croquettes with chorizo aioli and hand-cured Venetian pork loin, followed by vitello tonnato and cod with lentils, agretti, smoked guanciale and parsley. We finished up with the red wine prunes with mascarpone that are, for my money, the best pudding in Dublin.