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Miyake (downtown Palo Alto) updater

Sushi Monster | Mar 12, 200605:59 PM

Just a quick updater on Miyake, a downtown Palo Alto sushi outlet many Peninsula hounds know well. Although I've lived in the neighborhood for more than four decades, this was my first time at Miyake. (Not to betray my advancing years, but I recall that location as a copy shop in the pre-Kinkos era...)

As far back as I can recall, the large sushi parlor at 140 University Ave. (at High St.) has had a reputation as a party-hearty operation (lots of disco lights, shouting waiters and chefs, silly too-cute maki rolls, etc.) with mediocre quality sushi. Friday and Saturday nights it gets a big date-night sake-bomber crowd spilling out onto University. The weekday lunch rush is also a real mob scene. Seeking to avoid either crush, I rolled in at 1 p.m. on a Sunday and was immediately seated at the 20-seat boat moat. Even in the slack hours though, there's sufficient traffic here to keep three sushi chefs busy grinding out a steady production line of rolls. And what a tedious business that must be. This isn't exactly artisanal sushi by anyone's standards.

Atmosphere and ambience aren't Miyake's drawing card, at least not in the light of a drizzly Sunday afternoon. No disco lights and lasers were in operation, which was just fine by me. Maybe it was the off-peak hour, but the boats had a very poor selection of nigiri and basic rolls – not nearly adequate to graze off of. I observed many boatloads of less-popular offerings that had probably been in indefinite orbit for hours. (Interesting to note though that the chefs will pull plates off of the boat line to round out orders for the tables. So as long as there are a lot of people ordering big plates, you know there will be some churn in at least the most common items in the boat inventory.)

I opted to eschew the boats entirely and order directly from the chefs, which was exactly the right move. Given that it was a Sunday afternoon, I wasn't surprised they had no hotate (scallop), no mussel, no toro (tuna belly), no anago (saltwater eel), kobashira (tiny scallops) etc. That's fine. Better to tell me "sorry" than serve me bunk fish. But what they did have in stock was of better quality than I'd been led to expect. Decent salmon nigiri at $2.75 a plate. Ebi (shrimp) with a big glob of pre-loaded wasabi at $2.15 a plate. As for the mile-high gunkan maki (battleships), the tobiko (fish roe) had a big big briny flavor. The kani (crab) battleship was my most regrettable order – a big tube o'glop that was strangely flavorless.

Miyake's stock-in-trade is nearly five dozen specialty rolls. All too cute for me. And some of them big enough to constitute a meal for two. I did order one small roll (not on the menu) – a basic salmon-and-cuke, and it was just fine, and very reasonably priced at $2.75. By the way, the top nigiri plate here is just $5 for the sweet shrimp with tempura-fried heads and most nigiri average under $3. (And there are a surprising variety of veggie options on the maki side of the menu in case one in your party is of that persuation.) I had seven nigiri plates for $19, well below my usual lunchtime ration. At the moat I noticed people, regulars I presume, who treat Miyake as a fast-food refueling stop. The guy next to me inhaled four plates (eight pieces) in near-record time and was in and out in the time it took me to eat one plate. Quite the spectacle.

Bottom line: There is value here, no matter which way you stack it up. Compared to other kaiten (boat restaurants) the quality is pretty good – again, better than I expected. And compared to mid-range by-the-piece sushi bars the price is dirt cheap. So the best of both worlds here is to pay kaiten prices and order everything fresh, one plate at a time, from the chef, not off the boats.

For now, I'd put Miyake right in the middle of the pack in this crowded market. I suspect that if I'd gone on a Friday night or a weekday at high noon, I would have come away with a much less favorable impression. So timing's important. Whereas some sushi geeks time all their missions to coincide with the highest volume/highest turnover periods, there is something to be said for taking just the opposite approach on occasion.

Sushi Monster

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