Restaurant Review — Milamodo

In the grand tradition of terrific Asian restaurants in North America, Milamodo — Halifax’s best sushi restaurant — is located in an unassuming strip mall. In Clayton Park. It’s not auspicious, nestled in there with all the Steak ‘n Steins and Golden Arches, but sushi here is an art, aspiring to the levels attained by high-end restaurants in Vancouver and Osaka, Japan.

We arrive on a damp, foggy Wednesday night. The seating policy isn’t immediately clear, but a waitress soon encourages us to choose our own table.

We’re not as comfortable ordering sushi as we are ordering Chinese or Vietnamese food, but I’ve done my homework, so I’m in charge of ordering. One order of a type of sushi-nigiri generally consists of two pieces.

My appetizer is the vegetable gyoza (dumplings), and my partner orders the softshell crab, and we’re both pleased. My dumplings are slightly crispy on the outside, and the filling is a savory mixture of vegetable and tofu. The crab is battered and fried, giving satisfying crunch with each bite. The flavor is light and delicate, and the sweet-and-briny dipping sauce makes this a fine beginning.

In this setting, I’m perfectly happy to let the chef decide in what order our dishes should come, and as it happens, the last thing ordered arrives first. It’s Tofu Steak, a Chef’s Special. Four pieces of silken tofu, encased in tempura, are served in a citrusy-miso marinade. It’s delicious, but requires all of our chopsticking skills to enjoy.

Our sushi follows. Sushi is all about the rice — a special variety of short-grain rice. First in importance is texture: the rice must be just sticky enough to hold itself together, but not tacky or pasty. After the rice is cooled to body temperature, it is seasoned with a combination of rice vinegar, salt, sugar, kombu (a sea vegetable), and occasionally sake. While every chef makes his sushi rice with some combination of these ingredients, each recipe is unique to the main man behind the sushi bar.

The rice here is lovely. It gives all of Milamodo’s offerings a sweet and tangy subtleness. From the endless choices, we’ve ordered Inari (a mound of sushi rice surrounded by a sweetened-tofu skin), Ikura (salmon roe crowning a typical nori-wrapped piece), and Tai (red snapper on rice). The Inari works as a foil to the other two... the Ikura is oily and rich, the salmon eggs popping in your mouth, and the Tai is smooth and delicate, with a light flavor. My partner felt that the salmon roe was overpowering the more delicate fish.

In Japan, of course, sushi regarded as an art form. The more subtle, elegant, and difficult the dish’s execution, the more valuable and admirable it becomes. All of the senses should be engaged in a good piece of sushi. It’s important to appreciate the chef’s composition. Note the way the salmon roe glisten like tiny jewels on the sushi. Admire how the thin slices of fish are perfectly cut to offer a smooth layer of fish, with no bands of fat and muscle. A sushi chef apprentices for years to learn these skills, so each meal can work on so many levels.

Next is our sashimi, made from sake, or salmon. These is just pure, slippery slices of fish. We dip them into soya and savor a taste so remarkably different from either cooked or smoked salmon.

Last to come is our shrimp tempura maki. Maki is a whole roll of nigiri-sushi, so our order consists of six pieces, and they’re fabulous. The maki is filled with a crunchy tempura-fried shrimp, creamy slices of avocado, and sushi rice. The flavors and textures complement each other perfectly, and it’s easily my favorite.

Our dessert provides our meal’s first wrong note. We both order bananas tempura, one with green tea ice cream, the other with red bean. The oil our bananas were fried in might have been too old. The bananas aren’t overcooked, but the oily smell overpowers. However, the green tea ice cream is subtle and sweet, with authentic flavors, and the red bean ice cream is actually studded with red beans. Both ice creams are good, but our desserts don’t rise to the level of the rest of the meal on this occasion.

Milamodo is well off the beaten track, and you’ll be forgiven for wondering if Clayton Park is an ideal spot to run a sushi restaurant. But the truth is that sushi of this caliber is uncommon in the Maritimes. Five or six tables — and the sushi bar — were filled during our dinner, so this hideaway is no longer a secret. If you haven’t been yet, try Milamodo when you’re in the mood for something extraordinary, and possibly outside your comfort zone. Milamodo is truly a diamond in the rough

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