Not me. At least not prior to a few nights ago.
But that was before I discovered Minami Japanese Grill & Supreme Buffet, one of the best buffet experiences I’ve had in the last five years, and a definite game-changer for the Asian buffet scene in Southern Maine.
Minami, which opened a few days prior to Christmas, resides on Philbrook Avenue (South Portland) in the same complex as Hannaford and TJ Maxx.
I admit that when I walked in a couple of nights back, my expectations were pretty low. Can you really blame me? If you’ve experienced any of the Portland-area buffets first-hand, you probably can’t and won’t.
Needless to say, I was more than a little surprised—no, astonished—at how nicely decorated this spacious restaurant is. The seating area has a tasteful brown, black and gold color scheme. With its decorative hanging lanterns, soft lighting and gentle background music—the dining room is a stark contrast to the sticky tile floors, tacky furniture and harsh lighting found at many of the afore-referenced establishments in the Portland area.
It certainly helps that everything in the place—from the carpets to the tables to the buffet counters—appears to brand-spanking new and impeccably clean. (It will certainly be understandable if some of the luster wears off over time. But for now, at least, its all just marvelous to look at.)
During my inaugural visit, I was greeted at the front door by a pair of friendly, English-fluent hostesses, one of whom escorted me to my seat. Not long after, a waitress came by and took my drink order. Buoyed by the sight of a the impressive-looking bar a few feet away, I was tempted to try one of the two dozen alcoholic drinks on the beverage menu, but instead opted for a glass of water and a diet soda (delightful revelation number one: Minami serves Pepsi products).
At this point, it was go-time. My waitress, apparently no stranger to the perils of denying a fat man access to a buffet, didn’t bother trying to sell me on any of the menu offerings. She knew what I was there for as much as I did. So, with a graceful swing of her arm, invited me to begin my buffet experience.
With a half-dozen counters, hibachi grill and a handful of specialty stations, the buffet area is quite large. Two of the counters are devoted to cold foods: sushi, salads and desserts; while the remaining four house various hot dishes. Interspersed throughout the buffet are an area for chilled crab legs and shrimp cocktail, a couple of prepared soups (miso soup and a pretty good seafood soup were available on the day of my visit) and a dim sum station. I also spotted a second soup station next to the hibachi grill, this one featuring a sign stating that it was a “steamed organic soup station.” Though I did not sample any soup from this station, my sense is that patrons can essentially have their own soups prepared for them by pairing Udon noodles with any one of a number of secondary ingredients. It is a definite “must try” on my next visit.
The buffet is not just large, it is quite nice to look at. In lieu of the standard buffet steam trays, nearly all of the dishes were served on large white platters. I was a little bit concerned that platters might not keep the food very warm (or cold, as the case may be), but everything I ate from the hot foods section was just the right temperature. The use of tong/spoon rests at many of the cold food stations was a nice touch. I did notice that a few of the dishes on the buffet were either not labelled at all, or mislabeled. But in most cases, it was obvious what the food was. In the few instances where it was not, the engaging, friendly and knowledgeable staff was happy to answer my questions.
As a general rule, I don’t eat shellfish or raw fish from buffets. But seeing how beautifully the sushi was presented—and given the fact that it was evident that it had been prepared just minutes earlier by one of the sushi chefs behind the counter—I was more than happy to make an exception.
I’m so glad that I did. All of the sushi dishes I tried were fantastic, but my favorite—by far—was the “snow roll,” a combination of crab, spicy shrimp tempura, mango white seaweed wrapper. I really enjoyed how the mango worked with the seafood to provide the roll with a light, tropical feel. It was an instant favorite, and its a dish that I’ll seek out the next time I’m there.
In addition to the sushi, I tried one chilled crab leg and a few of the shrimp. Expecting to find shrimp of the “peel & eat” variety, I was delighted to see that they had already been peeled and deveined. Firm and tasty, they were the perfect accompaniment to my sushi sampler.
With my opening course of sushi nestled safely in my belly, I returned to the hot foods section and took in the wide array of dishes available: wok crab, shrimp tempura, cocoanut shrimp, honey chicken, orange chicken, yakitori (beef, chicken and shrimp), shrimp and pork gyoza, Tokyo crab rangoon, pork buns, salt and pepper shrimp, stuffed peppers, teriyaki beef, clams, beef negomaki, stuffed shrimp, baked salmon and an assortment of tempura dishes, to name just a few. (Delightful revelation number two: the large number of seafood offerings at Minami.)
Of the hot dishes, my favorite was the wok crab, which featured succulent crab in a pleasant, not-too-spicy sauce. I tasted onions, chilis and garlic, but I could be mistaken on one or all counts. I did find the crab a little bit hard to eat due to the lack of a knife (tables were outfitted with forks only). I don’t mind tearing apart chilled crab legs with my bare hands, but when they are hot and covered in sauce, it becomes a rather messy task. That said, I’m sure that if I had asked the very accommodating staff for a knife, one would have been provided. (Soup spoons were available at the soup station.)
Another surprising standout for me was the Tokyo crab rangoon. Perhaps the most Americanized of Asian dishes, crab rangoon has never appealed to me very much… mostly because it is usually prepared so poorly. But here, there was the perfect ratio of crab meat to cream cheese to wrapper (which was very nicely fried, and neither too heavy nor too greasy). I still can’t say that I know what makes “Tokyo crab rangoon” any different from regular crab rangoon, but it will be another must-repeat dish for me.
Other hot dish standouts for me included the clams in peppers and onion, beef teriyaki and a baked salmon which—while probably not the type of dish I’ll remember 20 years from now—was simply a thoughtfully and competently prepared piece of fish… something that runs in short supply in the Maine Mall area these days.
Not being a big dessert guy, I opted for a couple more pieces of the snow roll to finish my meal. That said, the assortment of fruit, pies and cakes looked rather tempting.
Near the end of my meal, I met Jimmy, the owner. I had previously observed him making his way around the restaurant—a friendly smile on his face—visiting patrons at their tables, welcoming them to (or back to, as was the case with two nearby tables of repeat visitors) Minami. When he stopped by to great me, we chatted for a few minutes and I appreciated the fact that he was genuinely interested in my feedback about my experience. During our conversation, Jimmy mentioned two interesting bits of information: 1) the buffet offerings change weekly, and 2) that lobster tail is available at the buffet on weekends, at no additional charge.
My meal, drink included, came to around $20, which I feel is very reasonable. (The buffet, sans drink, should run you $16.95. The lunch buffet is $10.95.) Some will point out that you can eat elsewhere for less, but honestly—with its emphasis on quality and variety—Minami is operating on an entirely different level. I’m already planning a return visit in the near future, and I hope that you’ll check it out too.