By Kristen J. Tsetsi
Published: Thursday, January 31, 2013 2:05 PM EST
MANCHESTER, Conn. — The Miku Asian Restaurant & Sushi Bar at 363 Broad St. doesn’t necessarily look, from the outside, like a new restaurant worth exploring. After all, there are plenty of Asian restaurants in the area — Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese — and Miku, which opened Jan. 11 in the location previously occupied by Fuji Buffet, could easily be just another one of the same.
The sign on the building’s façade, which says only “Miku,” doesn’t encourage customers to expect otherwise. If the same-old exterior is any indicator of what’s to be found inside, patrons can safely anticipate a predictable combination of tables and booths, cream-colored walls, and either dim or bright white or yellow lighting.
But Miku, which in English means “future,” is anything but predictable.
“I wanted to try a new style,” says chef and owner Aaron Gao, 32. “This is now.”
Walking through the front door is like stepping through a portal from small town to big city, or from day to night. And day and night aren’t used here as metaphors; while it may be bright outside, inside, fiber optic lighting gradually changes from electric blue to vibrant green and softly reflects off the ceiling, the white marble sushi bar counter, and the floor, creating the illusion of evening.
“He was trying to make it like, you know, have drinks, sushi, like an Asian bar, something like a sushi bar where you can drink. The light is blue, a little bit like a nightclub,” says Miku manager Grey Chen, who translates for Gao when necessary. The two have been friends since meeting at Kira Sushi in Greenwich, where they worked before Gao, Kira’s former chef, decided he wanted to open his own restaurant.
With a couple of months to go before the restaurant receives its liquor license, Gao and Chen are hoping the food will be enough to draw area customers.
“There’s no very good sushi restaurant around here,” says Chen. “He wanted to make that kind of food here that will serve the neighborhoods in Manchester.”
Gao, Chen says, sampled various sushi restaurants in the surrounding area and was confident he could deliver something better. “The sushi we make, it’s the best in town, I think,” Chen says. “After people eat it, they will think, ‘Yeah, this is real sushi.’”
The diversity of the menu, whose specials change regularly as Gao feels out local preferences and whose items include many dishes that can be found only at Miku, is only one part of the dining experience. The other is purely visual.
For example, when dine-in customers order sashimi for two — 42 pieces of assorted fresh, sliced, raw fish — they do not receive nicely arranged pieces of fish on a platter; they receive a work of art.
Using a large, decorative glass bowl as the base, Gao prepares and arranges the food in such a way as to enthrall the diner before the first bite touches the tongue: raw tuna ribbons curled in the shape of an open rosebud and nestled into a martini glass, bamboo leaves bending gracefully over the rim; thin, petal-shaped mango wedges arranged into a fan; a low stack of spring rolls piled high with shredded white radish and topped with a dollop of caviar. LED ice cubes positioned at the edge of the platter lend a futuristic element.
Order the crispy red snapper, an individual entrée, and the whole fish arrives on the plate. But the presentation is unexpected.
“We tear the meat out and deep fry it, and the chef makes special sauce,” Chen says.
There’s more to it than that. The meat, cut into strips, arrives in a bowl with curry sauce and vegetables; a flowered red onion filled with shredded white radish and a carrot-wedge fan accent the platter. The fish framework curls around the bowl, head intact, a maraschino cherry in its mouth.
“His food is very pretty,” Chen says. “He’s making some future Asian food that people never tried before.”
Those who order takeout or who call in for delivery — a $15 minimum order — never get to see the presentations, he adds. And the presentations are a large part of the goal of the restaurant, which is to be true to the three fundamental aspects of traditional Chinese cooking: appearance, aroma, and flavor.
“Everything is pretty, smells good, and it’s delicious,” says Chen, who prefers raw fish, the Toro and the live scallops in particular.
“Real live scallops,” he says. “It’s very fresh. I don’t see anybody in this town make this kind of stuff. The chef will pull it out of the shell and clean it, then cut it in thin slices and use some lemon and some sauce to put on it, making it very good.”
Gao and Chen are as passionate about truly good food as they are about giving others what they want. Because they did very little promotion, few people were aware of Miku’s recent grand opening. And because it’s a new restaurant in an old building, it’s possible Manchester residents have driven by several times on their way to Stop & Shop or Cost Cutters without even noticing it. But as business increases, Gao and Chen will take note of what the people like so they can not only adjust their hours accordingly, but so they can “make some specials for the people in this town,” Chen says.
An edible invitation to local residents is already on the menu: the Manchester roll, filled with popular ingredients like shrimp and salmon to please even the less adventurous. “A lot of people will like it,” Chen says.