Reviewed: Spring, 2000
Making sushi is an art, and eating sushi is an artful pleasure, one not enjoyed often enough by many of us here in Maine. With our native taste for seafood, and our Yankee insistence on quality, it's a wonder we don't eat this delicious, fastidiously-prepared food every day. Perhaps the foreign names, or perhaps the perception of raw scare some away, but sushi hasn't really hit the mainstream this far north.Matt O'Donnell is a poet and freelance writer who lives in Portland.
If you do appreciate this amazing delicacy, you're probably already a fan of Benkay Sushi & Japanese Restaurant. There's plenty of room at the sushi bar, and a spacious dining room that can accommodate large parties. The décor is distinctly Japanese without being over-the-top or cliched (save the hûne-shaped table, which I liked anyway).
However, what distinguishes one sushi restaurant from another is not so much architectural surroundings, but the nori and what it encloses. It is not so much the selection of sushi-you can always find the staple pieces-but the freshness of the food and its preparation, which set restaurants apart. Served with a side of ginger and a side of wasabi (hot, green horseradish), sushi varies most in its artistic presentation, (every chef, has their own distinct style), as well as taste. How do you know if you get bad sushi? Well, you'll rarely, if ever, get bad sushi, and you'll know it if you do. A better question is, how do you know if you get really good sushi? The distinction between good sushi and excellent sushi is the culinary equivalent of sniffing potpourri and newly cut flowers. Both smells please your nose, but the fresh flowers please better.
We visited Benkay Sushi for lunch, and it was fortunate that I brought an appetite. I started with pork gyoza ($4.50), six homemade pork dumplings, while my date ordered a seaweed salad. The miso soup (made from soy bean paste) that accompanies every meal was very good. The boiled dumplings were lightly browned on the bottom, and were filled with chopped pork, onion, and tasty seasonings. They were of generous size, and equally generous flavor.
The seaweed salad ($3.75) contained three different types of seaweed, each a different shade of green, and sesame seeds. The light dressing, which gave the salad a slightly sweet taste, had no distinct flavor of its own, but served to draw out the flavor of the seaweed itself. The seaweed had a wonderful texture as well, soft, yet with a snap.
My date feasted on a regular sushi plate lunch special ($9.00), which included one tuna roll (six pieces), a piece of salmon, a piece of shrimp, and the fresh white fish of the day. I chose kanpyo (pickled gourd) and yasai (veggie roll with avocado, cucumber, carrots, and lettuce) for my two roll meal ($5.50). It was all of the utmost freshness. Sushi chefs take great pride in the freshness of their food, (most condiments and sauces are homemade as well), and our chef was excellent.
I must confess, we broke more than one rule of sushi etiquette during our meal, though I'm sure the owners and chefs are by now accustomed to the ways of the Maine gaizin, weren't offended when, with my chopsticks, I passed my date a piece of food. And, I truly hope the chef didn't find offense in the rice and half a piece of yasai I left on my dish-I was stuffed like futo-maki. (To think, I'd almost ordered the three roll special!)
Our total, including tax, was $24.34. Of particular note, Benkay Sushi offers a Maine Roll, with fresh Maine lobster and flying fish roe!
A hearty New England arigatoo gozaimasita to the chefs at Benkay Sushi.
Lunch all week, except Saturday, 12:00pm - 2:30pm
Dinner all week, 5:00pm - 10:00pm
Late night Thursday - Saturday until 12:30am.