WALKING IN FROM the chilly dark of downtown Portland to the clean bright dining room of Mika Sushi has an invigorating effect. The exuberant greeting received from the staff is by itself enough to surprise someone from their dim autumn torpor, and by the time you're seated at the sushi bar in a comfortable high-backed chair, your senses seem sharper, your mind more awake. You feel in fact ready to eat large quantities of fish and rice in all of their myriad combinations, and that's a good thing.
Mika's menu is extensive, and though much of it is nigiri (fish over hand-formed rice), maki (rolls), and temaki (hand rolls), there is also a good selection of appetizers, entrées, udon, soba, and bento boxes. You could eat at Mika again and again without ever having to repeat yourself. Over the course of my meals, I was never disappointed with what came across the bar. Every piece of fish was skillfully prepared and well presented. I found each easy bite-sized piece to be balanced and flavorful.
An appetizer of baked green clams is wonderful, with its liberal coating of spicy mayonnaise and sprinkle of green onions over still-tender clams, sliced into thin strips in their shell. Also, a whole tempura soft-shell crab hits the spot, though may surprise some, arriving at the table crisp, simply quartered, with claws raised, and two dots of Sriracha for eyes (a whimsical, if bizarre touch).
The nigiri is particularly pleasant and thoughtfully portioned. Each piece offers a mouthful that is satisfying but not overwhelming. There's precision in the melding of the rice and fish, allowing the full flavor of each selection to be experienced—this is not slapdash sushi. Of note on the nigiri side is a particularly delicious unagi. Served warm, it has a wonderful balance between rice and fish glazed in a slightly tangy sauce that's equally salty and sweet. Two pieces is not enough. A second order is necessary.
Mika rests comfortably somewhere between train-style dives and high-end places like Murata and Bamboo Sushi. Like the sushi trains, there are plenty of priced-right American-style rolls (California, caterpillar, etc.). At the same time, Mika is chef-driven by a skilled and chatty proprietor, referred to only as "Sushi Chef Cameron" by his staff, who is more than happy to showcase his skill in more traditional preparations, like fatty toro nigiri served Aburi style (slightly seared). It's a delight to sit at the bar on a quiet evening (lunches are consistently busy) and listen to him talk about his knife, his customers, and how he buys his fish.
During the day, Mika loses some of its nighttime charm and practically doubles its staff. The bar becomes a buzz of activity, with Cameron occasionally throwing gruff, impatient comments at his servers. While the food is still good, and the fish still fresh, it lacks a certain oomph—a quality I suspect is lost to necessity of speed.
Mika could become my regular sushi stop. It's exactly the kind of sushi you want when you have a craving and would rather not wait in line or pay an arm and a leg. Is it the best? No, it's not. Is it a value? Certainly. Just what you need when you need sushi.