When you're a sushi lover, as I am, there's always room for another good sushi bar in town.
I was a little concerned in early summer that Central Oregon was losing, rather than gaining, Japanese-style restaurants. Mio Sushi, a Portland-based regional chain, closed its original Cascade Village Shopping Center location in June after a stay of just three years. Then, Bend sushi institution Yoko's said goodbye, a victim of the down economy.
But before June had ended, Shinsei Sushi replaced Mio Sushi at Cascade Village. And Mio Sushi immediately announced plans for a new store in the Old Mill District. It opened Aug. 1.
Now, “shinsei” means “fresh” in Japanese. So when Meryl Johnson — who had owned Mio's Cascade Village franchise — parted with the parent company and reopened Shinsei in the former Mio space (keeping many of the same chefs and staff), I had high hopes for higher quality seafood
As it turned out, Shinsei has been trumped by the new Mio.
With my dining companion, I visited both restaurants, ordering an almost-identical menu at each establishment to compare the two. The hands-down winner, on all counts, was Mio.
Decor and service
I'll begin with ambience. Shinsei has all the charm of a storefront that faces a shopping-mall driveway. It's clean, bright and spacious, but the cracked-cement floor and open-beam metal ceiling give it an industrial look without cutting-edge flair.
The main view from Mio, which moved into the northern half of the former Allyson's Kitchen space, is of a side walkway rather than a parking lot. This space, too, has an industrial appearance, but there's a sense of the avant-garde, with a large wall painting, bright pink trim and a central screen offering a slide show of Mio's specialty rolls.
What's more, I found the Mio staff much more outgoing and conversational than the employees at Shinsei. The geniality started at the front door, where the word for “Welcome” is inscribed in Japanese hiragana script. It is repeated by employees to everyone who enters.
At Shinsei, our greeting was quick and cordial. We were seated comfortably and our orders taken quickly, but no real effort was made to make us feel welcome, and our waitress never checked back after we were served to be sure we were satisfied with our orders.
Shinsei vs. Mio
Generally speaking, we were not satisfied at Shinsei. It was as if it was a production-line restaurant and Mio was a gourmet establishment.
The edamame, or soybean pods, were properly steamed and salted at both restaurants. The steamed rice was perfectly prepared at both. A gyoza (crisp-fried pot sticker) was tasty at both. But that's where the parity ended. Even the miso soup was better at Mio Sushi.
The menu is almost identical between the two restaurants. Some of the names given to sushi rolls differ, but the ingredients, at least on paper, appear to be the same.
I didn't go straight for raw fish, however. At each restaurant, I ordered a three-item bento combination plate — assorted tempura, beef yakiniku and spicy pork (spicy chicken at Mio) — accompanied by soup, salad (Shinsei's had iceberg lettuce while Mio's featured tasty gomu wakame, a ribbon-like seaweed) and rice.
There was a world of difference in the tempura. At Mio, the batter was light and dry, a perfect complement in showcasing the flavor of the shrimp, eggplant, broccoli and sweet potatoes it encased. At Shinsei, a heavier, greasy batter overwhelmed the shrimp, squash, green beans and onions.
There was much more zing to Mio's beef yakiniku, wok-stirred with onions and peppers like a Korean bulgogi, than to Shinsei's. Likewise, I found Mio's spicy chicken, sauteed in a kimchi-style Korean sauce, to be far more flavorful than Shinsei's spicy pork, even though the latter had plenty of vegetables: mushrooms, onions, carrots and bell peppers.
Two principal varieties of sushi are found in Oregon. There's nigiri, in which fish is placed atop a bed of rice that is wrapped with a strip of nori seaweed; and maki, in which fish and vegetables are rolled inside rice and topped with additional ingredients.
My companion and I agreed that the fish at Mio tasted far fresher than that at Shinsei. And fresh fish makes all the difference.
We were immediately turned off at Shinsei by a spicy-tuna nigiri. Although it was topped with gomu seaweed, the tuna was more mashed than diced, an indication that it may have been recently frozen and thawed. As a result, the flavor was flat.
Our Mio equivalent was a Hawaiian-style poke salad, which was absolutely fresh-tasting and delicious. Cubes of ahi tuna were tossed with cucumbers, green onions and sesame seeds in a tangy marinade.
An unagi (freshwater eel) nigiri at Shinsei was sweet and tasty, but a salmon-skin roll was uninteresting. Both of our Mio nigiri choices — hotate (creamy scallops) and lightly seared albacore — were wonderful.
Shinsei's rainbow roll, with crab, avocado and cucumber hidden in the rice, featured slices of five different raw fish, including salmon and various tunas, on the outside. The flavor was again flat compared to Mio's caterpillar roll, which had eel and cucumber inside, finely sliced avocado with sesame seeds and sweet sauce outside.
We were so impressed with Mio, we returned a few days later to order some more unusual items, and to see if its chefs could repeat their first-night performance.
• Central Oregon Locavore, Primal Cuts Meat Market, SPORK and Baked are launching a series of quarterly dinners called “Root Down Community Suppers” featuring local foods “to celebrate connection, community and seasonal local foods.” The first, an end-of-harvest celebration, will feature a whole pig roast by Twisted Juniper Catering at 7 p.m. Nov. 5 at Primal Cuts (1244 N.W. Galveston Ave., Bend). Doors open at 6:30 p.m.
Seats cost $25 and are open to the public but limited in number. Tickets are available until Nov. 4 at Primal Cuts (address above), SPORK (1234 N.W. Galveston Ave., Bend), Baked (735 N.W. Columbia St., Bend), and online at www.central oregonlocavore.com.
Contact: info@central oregonlocavore.com
• The Savory Spice Shop opened Oct. 14 in Bend. More than 400 freshly ground herbs and spices, as well as 140 hand-blended seasonings, are sold by the local franchise holders. Open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday at 375 S.W. Powerhouse Drive, Suite A110, Bend; 541-325-1264, www.facebook.com/savoryspiceshopbend.