Under New Management, Mikimotos Remains a Big Fish in a Small Pond
Big Fish Restaurant Group took over the Wilmington sushi staple last year, and most of its updates are welcome ones.
From left: The Green Monster; The Drunken General's Chicken//Photo by Javy Diaz
When Mikimotos Asian Grill and Sushi Bar opened in 2000, it became an instant hit, a place where young professionals enjoyed sake-based cocktails, innovative Asian fare, good sushi and ever-entertaining people watching under some pretty sexy lighting, no matter the hour of the day or night of the week.
Mikis owed some of its outrageous popularity to good timing. There’s nothing like a dawning millennium to arouse new tastes, stir new sensibilities. Mikimotos seemed to have descended from another plane, yet it was also, to its creator’s great credit, of its own time and place, a precisely imagined future right here and now—mildly exotic, contemporary, fun.
It turned out to be a bellwether. In 2000, there were still too few sushi places in Delaware to satisfy our growing cravings, and most hewed to Japanese tradition. Mikimotos offered sushi, dialed up the creativity a bit, and served it in a space with a slick Asian veneer, complete with quirky anime art. Other places would follow with good food and contemporary design, but none had quite the same vibe.
Truth be told, until the Big Fish Restaurant Group took over last year, Mikis had been in need of a good sprucing up for a couple years—since well before owner Darius Mansoory passed away suddenly in December 2016. Many regulars grumbled about the wear and tear, and some drifted off, but the most loyal clung to its sushi, even as they wondered what would befall the place.
I suspect their faithfulness had as much to do with romanticized memories of the glory days as much as the quality of the food because—let’s all face it—if an apprentice sushi chef of five years is just graduating from the rice-making stage of his education, few of us are in a position to judge his work. We may know bad sushi from good, but few of us can discern great from very good. The more adept among us can taste the difference between flash-frozen fish and fish fresh off the boat, and some may have more refined palates. But most of us simply like what we like, which is really all that matters.
So in the case of sushi places, I’m more skeptical than usual about the Yelp and Trip Advisor reviews. Anyone can tell good service from bad, but I don’t read much in reviews of Mikis to make me believe that anyone is so greatly schooled or experienced in sushi that their opinion of the food should matter more than anyone else’s. (Sorry, “My wife is from Tokyo” doesn’t make you—or her—an expert.) The reviews can also be confusing, given the high degree of polarity. There’s no broad middle ground where we usually find the most accurate picture of a place. And to make matters worse, the online haters—those who have threatened to break up with the place—are unusually annoyed, which seems unfair. Based on a recent visit, I can only conclude that they simply don’t like change.
This change is a good one. Just the same, opinions diverge at a most fundamental level. Case in point: Of the Firecracker roll, my companion remarked of the spicy sauce on top, “It’s too much like cocktail. It doesn’t sit right with me.” Indeed, it was similar to cocktail—not my favorite condiment—but in that context, I loved it.
The Firecracker Roll is a favorite of longtime regulars//Photo by Javy Diaz
The sauce may have seemed, on the face of things, an odd accompaniment for a roll of salmon and avocado. But part of what the best sushi chefs do is surprise us. That kind of creativity made Mikis a hit right out of the chute. The way diners raved about its Hairy Mexican roll in the old days—no matter how we may have cringed when speaking the name—you might have thought the sushi world had been turned upside down.
Some now lament what they perceive as a “corporate” approach to food that stifles such creativity, but the Big Fish group continues favorites such as the Firecracker and the Hairy Mexican. So I suggest another way to look at the change: Big Fish has given Mikis a long-overdue kick in the rear.
Having opened more than a dozen popular restaurants over the past 20 years, the group clearly knows what it is doing. Across the Big Fish portfolio, the food may not be astoundingly creative, but it is creative enough to keep patrons intrigued. It is priced fairly. It is consistently well executed, and it is served in fun, lively places. That is true at Mikimotos, as it is at Washington Street Ale House next door and Stingray in Rehoboth. Big Fish acquired all three from the Cherry Tree Group, and it has been updating them ever since.
At Mikis, update means renovation. New graphics on one wall have replaced quirky anime art as a way to reflect the Big Fish brand, but they’re pretty sharp nonetheless. Grass coverings on other walls do more to create a contemporary Asian vibe than the anime prints ever did. New tables and chairs, shiny new white plates, new pendant lamps and other touches all show Big Fish’s desire to freshen up.
The company also imported some different culinary ideas, and it improved some of the mainstay dishes. Mikimotos’ take on General Tso’s, the Drunken General’s Chicken, is made with high-quality tenders, and the kitchen takes great care to cook the tempura right. The result is tender on the inside, crispier on the outside—an overall better dish than before, and beautifully plated. Another example: Some longtimers may miss the bacon that once wrapped the twin filets mignon with mushrooms and onions, but beef lovers will appreciate the better cut and larger new filets.
The menu is loaded with dishes such as grilled Mongolian barbecue lamb chops, miso-glazed sea bass, a handful of rice and noodle dishes such as Pad Thai, and a sinfully fun pile of Loaded Asian Street Fries with duck confit, a dice of avocado and a drizzle of zingy garlic sauce. But sushi is still the big draw. Big Fish may have brought on a new sushi chef—a huge change to those who don’t adapt well—but that hasn’t changed anything drastically. The signature rolls remain as good as ever.
Loaded fries with duck confit and avocado//Photo by Javy Diaz
There were minor missteps, as there would have been anywhere, and some items could use a bit of tweaking. Our steamed chicken-mushroom dumplings were delicious but gummy, and there was nothing distinctive about the dipping sauce. We also found it impossible to prevent the roe—the crowning touch of the salmon carpaccio appetizer—from rolling off the fish. But all was forgiven when a fat Green Monster—tempura soft-shell crab rolled with crawfish salad topped with slices of avocado and wasabi mayo—arrived. And to heap gluttony on top of gluttony—the antithesis of the sushi experience—we did ourselves in with a roll of eel and cucumber, because it was just that irresistible.
So in this case, if you’ve never visited, or haven’t visited in a while and you’re wondering whether or not reading the online reviews is worth your time, it’s not. Judge for yourself. Mikimotos remains, essentially, what Mikimotos has always been. Some may complain about change, but without Big Fish’s intervention far worse changes could have happened. The city could have lost its premier sushi place, and plenty of us sushi lovers would have been out of luck.
Steamed dumplings stuffed with chicken and mushrooms//Photo by Javy Diaz
Mikimotos Asian Grill and Sushi Bar
1212 Washington St., Wilmington
656-8638 • mikimotos.com
Prices: Appetizers, $8–$16; entrées, $12–$38; sushi, $8–$18; sashimi: $4–$11
Recommended: The Drunken General’s Chicken, The Green Monster Roll, The Firecracker Roll