Thank You Very Much, Mr. Robata
Dining With All of the Senses at Mikado
Intrigued by the promotion of "Japanese tapas: a new food trend from Japan," I recently questioned my Japanese friends on the subject over lunch at Mikado. They informed me that robata, the collective name for these "Japanese tapas," is traditional fare consisting of grilled seafood, meats, and vegetables. Robata literally means "from close to the grill," and restaurants serving these dishes, where customers sit at a bar and the robata of their choice is cooked on the grill and presented to them over the bar on a large wooden paddle, are popular in many Japanese cities. It is a new food trend to Austin, however, and most definitely to me, so I was excited to discover it.
From the moment you walk into Mikado, your senses are stimulated. The décor is simple and elegant, in fine Japanese tradition, with soft earthy colors, large clay vessels with bamboo poles, elements of antique brass and copper, and dim lighting from stylish paper lamps and fixtures to create an atmosphere of relaxation, with a pronounced modern style. There's a separate room in the back for large parties, where guests can take off their shoes and put on traditional wooden sandals. Bamboo mats are offered for dining in traditional Japanese style.
The most difficult part of the dining experience at Mikado is making up your mind about what dishes to try. However, the concept of the restaurant makes it easy to try many different items, since the portions are of the perfect size for sharing, trying a few bites, and moving on to a new dish.
On my first dinner visit, my guests and I tried items from varied categories. The menu is divided into robata, zenzei (or appetizers), and entrées. During lunchtime, those entrées are beautifully served in bento boxes, in smaller portions but including a salad and an excellent miso soup. We started with the robata special of the evening, grilled miso-glazed salmon ($7.95), rich, moist, and cooked to perfection. We moved on to the appetizers. We chose to try the peppered calamari ($6.95) on the premise that one can "judge" a restaurant by the quality of their calamari. Mikado passed the calamari test with flying colors: No fried rubber band here. The squid was cut into bite-sized squares, coated with panko breadcrumbs, and perfectly fried. It was garnished with sea salt and finely diced, mildly piquant red and green peppers. It was tender and delicious, not greasy in the least. The Panko Oysters and Basil Dip ($8.25) were similarly fried, crisp on the outside, oceany and soft on the inside, topped with chopped Asian basil. They were served, however, with the brown sweetish sauce usually served with tonkatsu, a traditional breaded pork cutlet, rather than the ikari basil dip that the menu promised. Upon questioning, our friendly server went back to the kitchen and brought back a tasty vinegary sauce with chopped basil. Both sauces were good, and one of my Japanese friends later told me that fried oysters with tonkatsu sauce are quite traditional.
The table's favorite, however, was the Gyu Tataki ($7.95), which we nicknamed "the beef martini": thin-sliced Angus beef, served in a large martini glass, dressed with a lemon ponzu vinaigrette and topped with radish sprouts. The beef was very rare and had a nice and tangy smoke taste. Our next flavor adventure took us to the sushi menu. We decided on their house trademark roll, the Kama Kazi ($13): spicy tuna, avocado, and crunchy flakes, rolled inside perfectly cooked rice and topped with eel and eel sauce. It was truly delicious: The sweetness of the eel, the creamy avocado, and the crunchy flakes provided a mouthful of contrasting flavors and sensations. We decided to share one entrée, and chose the Nagano Duck V.S.O.P. ($15.95). The double duck breast, marinated in French cognac and brushed with shoyu, was unbelievably moist and tender, cooked just to medium perfection, complemented by a sweet and sour, fruity and spicy sauce. Its peppery skin was crispy just as it should be. The dish, however, didn't quite fit the description on the menu. The promised sautéed baby bok choy was nowhere to be found; instead, however, we had fresh spring vegetables sautéed in butter and an unannounced but delicious sushi roll, filled with a spicy fish mixture and deep fried, forming a golden rice crust on its surface. Although it was not what the menu described, we had no complaints about the buttery perfection of the vegetables and the unusual and tasty sushi roll. We finished our dinner with the tempura ice cream ($4.50), a generous portion of vanilla ice cream covered with pound cake, tempura battered and fried, served with strawberry and chocolate sauce and fresh berries. It was almost like cobbler, warm, cold, and fruity.
On my second visit, another friend and I opted to sit at the sushi bar. Arriving during the early afternoon was a good idea since Meng, the young sushi chef from New York City, was free to talk to us at length and offer his expert advice on the menu. He suggested we start with some robata from the kitchen, and move on to sushi afterward. We asked him to suggest the robata dishes. First, the Mushroom Package ($6.95), fresh shiitake and enoki mushrooms, steamed in a foil packet with yuzu basil butter. (Yuzu is a small place in Japan, we were told.) This is one of the best mushroom dishes I have ever had. The earthy mushrooms and the peppery, anise-like basil, swimming in a silky, buttery broth, is an ethereal combination. Meng told us that customers often comment that the Sea Bass Filet ($8.95), oak-grilled with mirin and fresh lemon juice, is the best in town, and after tasting it I would not doubt it. It was about as perfect as fish can get, with a light smokiness, moist and flaky. Just when we thought it could not get any better, the Farm-Raised Quail ($7.95) arrived, seasoned with yuzu peppercorns, skewered and grilled, tender and juicy but perfectly cooked throughout. The smoky robata were ideally paired with the chilled Sho Chiku Bai Ginjo Sake ($15 for a 300 ml bottle), a suggestion from our server.
We then moved on to the cold fish dishes, expertly prepared by Meng. We didn't see crispy salmon skin rolls on the menu, but he said he could make them if we wanted, which we did. During our conversation, he mentioned other items that were not on the menu but that he would be happy to prepare for us, to which we enthusiastically agreed. Out came tiny baby octopus ($7.95) marinated with shoyu and sesame oil, garnished with toasted sesame seeds, which were an absolutely delicious snack to accompany our cold beer. The Uzusukuri ($8.95), thin sashimi of white fish garnished with paper-thin slices of lemon and a "special" sauce, was a refreshing palate cleanser. All dishes were served on beautiful Japanese stoneware and garnished delicately and artfully. However, the visual pièce de résistance came with the Peppered Tuna Tataki ($9.75), which Meng served to us on a beautiful glass plate garnished with a tiny orchid. It was thinly sliced and fanned out next to a bed of shredded daikon, which emanated a light veil of dry-ice smoke! We giggled in total happiness and dove right into the tuna, which was absolutely delicious, to boot. "We Japanese eat with our eyes," one of my Japanese friends told me during our recent lunch visit. Without a doubt, your eyes will not leave hungry after dining at Mikado.
For dessert, we chose the Nagano Rum Cake ($4.95), a white sponge cake soaked in rum syrup filled with orange custard and raspberry purée, which was tangy, light, and not overly sweet, and a tasty green-tea ice cream ($3.75). Paired with a glass of warm house sake, they were a great way to end a memorable meal, one of the most fun, exciting, and satisfying dining experiences I've had in Austin. I think Meng had as much fun seeing our reactions to the food he presented as we did eating it.
Henry Wong, Mikado's owner and a longtime Austinite, had dreamed of opening a restaurant that could offer diners an alternative "to take Austin to a whole new level, offering something original and exciting, while exploring the many possibilities in Japanese cuisine. Everybody has a sushi bar these days, but in Austin only we offer robata." After many years in the restaurant industry, he has succeeded in his mission, bringing, according to my Japanese friends, a slightly Westernized version of what a restaurant in Japan is really like. If there is one thing I would change about Mikado it would be the Japanese Backstreet Boys-like music in the background, but that is a very minor detail that may even add authenticity to the whole experience. I went home that night and had dreams of beautiful food, exciting to the senses, and baby "octopi" dancing on my plate.
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