B un Lai is holding court. Seated at a central table in his restaurant, Miya’s, the bouncy and gregarious chef is greeting friends and acquaintances and customers as they walk through the door for dinner.
Lai’s soon sending something delicious their way. Maybe it’s an avocado and kale salad, a perfect pairing of velvety and crunchy topped with miso dressing. Or his Kanibaba roll, an imaginative concoction of lobster and invasive Asian shore crab, stuffed in potato skin and topped with havarti cheese and dill sauce.
Clearly, we’re not in Kansas anymore, though you can definitely find traces of Kyushu (Japan, where Lai lived as a small child). Lai’s mother, Yoshiko, opened the cozy eatery in 1982 in order to bring traditional Japanese cuisine (like the bracing and fresh diver clam and oyster on the half shell, which are paired with daikon and chili pepper, for an authentic taste of Japan) to New Haven.
A family affair from the start, Miya’s is named after Chef Bun’s sister, and, as a child, he often helped out. You can still find Mom in the kitchen most nights—an avid gardener who shunned pesticides and grew much of the food they served. Bun Lai later became head chef, ready to change sushi both “artistically and qualitatively,” he says.
Since taking the helm, Lai’s been hailed by the press on many occasions for his culinary daring. Consider his Ride the Wild Donkey roll: “Maine lobster, papaya, apricots, brie cheese, rolled in California sushi rice steamed in sauvignon blanc and wild mushroom stock.”
Lai says that every once in a while a customer walks out, a bit too shocked by the extensive, book-like menu and the surprises within. However, he says, “If you’re making everyone happy, you’re doing something wrong.”
And Lai is certainly interested in doing things right. The chef has been praised by environmentalists and scientists so impressed with his sustainability efforts that he’s been invited to speak at a number of universities and organizations like the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California and the American Fisheries Society (he was the keynote speaker at their 2011 meeting in Seattle).
The day of my visit, there was no salmon on the menu—quite an anomaly in an American sushi restaurant—because “we’re rigorous about sourcing things,” says Lai, and with no access to a trusted source of wild salmon that week, it didn’t make the cut.
Instead, look for less conventional choices at Miya’s, including invasive species, which Lai discusses passionately with inquiring reporters and interested customers alike, explaining that they are a reliable, responsible, delicious form of food, like the shore crab in the Kanibaba. Look for local, as well. The miso soup that day owed its rich and salty taste to rockweed, a type of seaweed Lai and other staff members (many of them are trained divers) harvested themselves off the Thimble Islands in Branford.
On paper, it’s simple to understand the restaurant’s strong and widespread reputation. Yet those things are not—in my opinion—what makes Miya’s such a New Haven treasure.
Whereas it seems the key to this sushi bar’s critical success is its environmentally conscious and palate-pleasing menu, I surmise the secret to its enthusiastic fan base is the welcoming atmosphere sustained by Lai and his cheerful band of cooks and servers, consistently willing to take a few (or many) moments to dissect the menu with newcomers.
Indeed, the star treatment isn’t reserved just for so-called VIPs—not by a long shot—at Miya’s, which is especially refreshing given Lai’s own celebrity. There’s an airborne affability, a generosity, here, and it flows beyond the restaurant’s walls. Miya’s recently orchestrated a joint fundraiser with Common Ground High School for the Immanuel Baptist Shelter, which serves the homeless. On a smaller but no less telling note, I overheard Lai talk to one of those visiting friends about a teenager who was looking for work. Lai told his friend to bring him in for a complimentary dinner so they could talk about potential employment at Miya’s.
Concerning food, we’ve only grazed the surface. I haven’t even mentioned the homemade sake, including a version made with handpicked pine needles, or the one-bite wonder Seven Deadly Sushi dessert roll.
But—and this is a good rule of thumb when visiting Miya’s—it’s best to leave room for a few surprises.
68 Howe Street, New Haven (map)
Wed 12-11pm, Thurs-Sat 12pm-12am, Sun 12-10pm
Written and photographed by Cara McDonough.