If your workday ends in downtown Seattle, Miyabi Sushi isn't the most convenient choice for dinner. Every meal I ate at the Tukwila restaurant started ludicrously early or regrettably late, in deference to dining companions terrified by the prospect of getting stuck in exasperating southbound traffic. But if it seems slightly masochistic to make a 14-mile sushi run when artful rolls are readily available from grocery stores and food trucks within the city limits, take comfort in knowing that if the perpetually packed restaurant gave a nightly prize to the guest who'd traveled farthest, you wouldn't win.
MIYABI 16820 Southcenter Pkwy., Tukwila, 575-6815, miyabisushi.com. 11:15 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 4:30-9:30 p.m. Mon.-Thurs. 11:15 a.m.-2:30 p.m. & 4:30-10 p.m. Fri. Noon-10 p.m. Sat. 4:30-9 p.m. Sun.
According to Miyabi co-owner Hisako Shirakura—who's almost always on the floor in her role as hostess, pouring green tea, whisking away emptied bento boxes, and bidding departing diners a hearty "Arigato!"—the restaurant's mighty corps of loyal customers includes a number of eaters living in Japan. Miyabi's proximity to the airport makes it a popular sushi stopover for Japanese natives and expats stationed in cities with miserable raw-fish scenes, although Shirakura claims guests in downtown hotels also arrive by the vanload.
While it's impossible to divine someone's postal code by sight, Miyabi definitely draws a Japanese crowd. But it also attracts diners who look as though their last fling with underwater creatures involved a camo-patterned bass boat. It's rare for a restaurant's appeal to tread across national borders and cultural divisions, but Miyabi has contrived a fairly sophisticated formula that transcends inborn allegiances. The restaurant cultivates goodwill through holiday parties; weekly "lucky days," when gift cards are sold at a 15-percent discount; complimentary edamame service; and live music that's more jazzy than Japanese. Mostly, though, Miyabi has reached its seventh anniversary by serving great food.
Niche restaurants are a Japanese tradition. The country is home to noodle shops that only serve ramen with pork fried a certain way, and pubs whose menus consist entirely of grilled chicken skewers. That kind of specialization is unknown at Miyabi, which is more like a mercantile of mainstream Japanese eating styles. Miyabi is not an izakaya, but its lengthy list of appetizers includes chicken karaage, agedashi tofu, pickles, and yakitori. The restaurant doesn't demand that diners commit to a full-on meal, but it offers entrée-sized portions of salmon teriyaki, tofu sukiyaki, and chicken katsu. There's also an accomplished sushi bar and a lineup of noodle soups. It's little wonder that Miyabi's website teaches visitors how to say "I'm so full" in Japanese.
Shirakura's partners are chef Masa Ishikura and Masao Kida, a Japanese pro baseball player who briefly pitched for the Mariners in 2004 and '05. His uniform hangs on the back wall of Miyabi's recently renovated dining room, which is dolled up with distinctively Japanese touches such as paper lanterns, ceramic fish sculptures, and a gorgeous natural-wood sushi bar. In true Japanese fashion, the bathrooms are equipped with heated toilets. It all feels abstractedly authentic.
Even if you've come for sushi, it's worth first detouring through Miyabi's appetizer section. Although the kitchen doesn't invest every dish with the powerful flavors that connoisseurs with long-unconsummated cravings might seek, many of its simplest preparations are stunning. A quartet of silvery shishamo, or grilled smelt, are bundled on a rectangular black tray cornered by a dollop of garlicky mayonnaise and a tuft of showily green lettuce. The oily flavor of the delicate fish, perfectly sized for head-to-tail gobbling, is as pretty and stark as the plate's composition.
For a more boisterous starter, a tangle of frizzy deep-fried squid legs, dribbled with fresh lemon juice, tastes clean and salty-sweet. An equally classic agedashi tofu also benefits from Miyabi's deep-frying aptitude, bouncy beneath its crunchy, purplish skin of potato starch. Among the lighter dishes, a savory, soy-soaked salad of aromatic stir-fried mushrooms, spinach leaves, and snippets of kabocha pumpkin—which seemed to be on every table the night I ordered it—is outstanding.
Miyabi never goes too far wrong, but a few dishes which seemed like shoo-ins on the menu failed to excite. A tripe soup wasn't bad, but was indistinguishable from a mild chicken soup meant to cure colds. Gyoza stuffed with more ginger than absolutely necessary were unevenly crisped. Finally, to put it in Kida's terms, black-cod collar is a closer: The cut reliably delivers a buttery hit of fat, but Miyabi's version was glazed a mite too exuberantly, and the collar tasted mostly of oil and char.
There are two different noodle programs at Miyabi. Mutsuko Soma, who runs soba pop-ups around town, makes 15 orders daily for the restaurant. But it's not uncommon for the fresh soba to sell out by lunchtime, which is why I ended up with the frozen noodles that supplement Soma's stock. Afloat with shrimp and asparagus wearing tempura coats, a bloated mushroom cap, radishes, and ribbons of nori, the gentle broth is good enough that Miyabi sells plenty of it even when customers know they'll have to settle for pasty udon.
If I had three wishes to expend at Miyabi, I'd first wish for more soba. Then I might wish for a better selection of drinks; the restaurant has an extensive wine selection, but offers only three sakes by the glass. And the signature cocktails are pretty frightful: A wildly imbalanced mix of plum wine, whiskey, and sake is a Japanese liquor cabinet in a single slosh.
Finally, if the genie would allow it, I'd wish for a lifetime pass to Miyabi's sushi bar.
There typically aren't too many unconventional choices in Miyabi's fish case. An omakase order is likely to bring yellowtail, tuna, mackerel, salmon, and flounder. But they're all extraordinarily fresh. Uni, which does a notoriously poor job of hiding its age, sits at the vaunted intersection of firm and creamy. Tender amberjack is blissfully bright, while plummy, firm-fleshed tuna has a muscular, seaborne flavor. Ordered as sashimi, the fish are propped up on a plate furnished with citrus wheels, shiso leaves, and a bamboo mat, creating a polychromatic diorama. Served as nigiri, the fish are treated with a tad more wasabi than many local sushi bars apply and nestled against still-warm vinegared rice.
Miyabi recently announced plans to open a second location in November in the Wallingford venue previously occupied by Rain Sushi. Although it's still unclear whether the new restaurant will focus primarily on sushi or noodles, it will surely be worth the trip from Tukwila. Or maybe even Japan.
Agedashi tofu $6
Cod collar $8
Mushroom salad $7
Nabeyaki udon $12.95
Sushi plate $19.95