Serving sustainability

Sushi chef Samuel, left, and Thimble Island Oyster Company owner, Brendan Smith. Image courtesy of Miya’s.


At Miya’s, sushi from the source

By Courtney McCarroll

Minutes before we head off to the Thimble Islands to fish together, out from behind the sushi bar, Miya’s Sushi head chef and owner, Bun Lai, reaches over and hands me a single green leaf.

“My friend, Kit, just picked it from over in East Haven, actually. I think you’ll really like it,” he says.

Called a callaloo leaf, it’s no bigger than the size of my index finger. Stiff but delicate, it dissolves completely under the weight of my tongue in seconds. It’s delicious. For something so deceptively simple and plucked right from our own backyards, a salted, crispy callaloo leaf from a local sushi restaurant in New Haven is now all I want to eat. As a new addition to Miya’s invasive species menu (the only one of its kind in the world), and in tandem with Lai’s now-famous sustainable seafood movement, I’m told that callaloo is a wild Jamaican spinach leaf threatening the welfare of both the Long Island Sound’s indigenous species and its natural habitats.

For Lai and his team at Miya’s, weeding out non-native sea- and plant-life on the Connecticut shoreline poses a unique challenge in finding new and inventive ways to incorporate not-so-popular local fish and fare onto the menu. But with a trademark smirk and smile that everyone has come to know and love, Lai advises that “just because it might not be popular on the market, it doesn’t mean that it’s inedible or unusable; or that we can’t have a little fun with it.” So when dishes like the beer-boiled “Wa Fu Crab Soup” or the “Naughty Norwegian Roll” with carnivorous moon snails (considered a delicacy and natural alternative to Viagra in Norway) pop up on the menu, anyone can tell how much fun these guys are having while still adhering to the principle of what it means to make and serve sushi: using what’s been made available to them where they live.

Miya’s head chef and owner, Bun Lai, and Thimble Island Oyster Company owner, Brendan Smith, give a presentation to students from Yale University’s marine biology summer program. Photo by Shelli Stevens.

I’ve been a regular at Miya’s for a few years now, but while waiting for the sous chefs and staff to collect coolers for our trip on the boat today, there’s a Quentin Tarantino feel to the restaurant that I hadn’t picked up on before. With an interior resembling the Yakuza version of a classic New England clam shack, Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” blares out over the speakers — slightly shaking the shelves of ethnic ’70s cookbooks, bricks of Trivial Pursuit, and vintage Monopoly boards next to the sushi bar. In the background, I can hear Lai speaking fluent Spanish to one of his cooks. And while I don’t understand everything they’re saying, I do understand vamos and follow in suit to meet with Lai’s friend and business partner, Brendan Smith, out in Stony Creek.

Stepping out onto the docks, coolers and bottles of Banana Boat in-hand, Lai and his team look like a rowdy bunch of reservoir dogs. A true band of brothers, they are a family in every sense of the word — rubbing sunscreen onto one another’s bare backs or offering a quick swig of cold water to stave off the sun before heading out onto the boat. They are excited to be here.

To give life to Miya’s mission statement and culinary philosophy, these trips are important for Lai to show his staff where the food on their menu literally comes from. It’s imperative for his cooks and servers to not only feel this type of food in their hands, but to actually work for what they eat so they can better understand and communicate their deep respect for sustainable food in preparing and serving it to Miya’s patrons.

“The entire staff goes out on the boat with me,” Lai says. “I can talk to them until I’m blue in the face about how important sustainability is, but actually taking my team out with me to harvest and dive for food with local fishermen gives them a real appreciation that’s far beyond the taste of it. When you go out there, there’s an intellectual understanding for this kind of food that, if you’re going to eat it, you need to work for it and see how it dies before it goes onto your plate.”

At the foot of the dock, Smith – the oysterman and owner of the Thimble Island Oyster Company – stands beside a small, slightly rickety rowboat. He and Lai have been working to farm and harvest approximately 100 acres of their own sustainable shellfish gardens throughout the Sound. This is not the first time I’m meeting Smith. Over lunch at Miya’s a few days earlier, we discussed his and Lai’s newest venture together: a sustainable seaweed garden. Over sushi and locally picked sassafras soda, we sat with University of Connecticut professor and preeminent biologist Dr. Charles Yarish to discuss the logistics and effects of such a project.

“There isn’t a greener way of producing food in the United States than growing your own seaweed,” says Lai. “You don’t have to use any harmful pesticides. The seaweed itself takes nitrogen out of the water and thereby does its own small part in counteracting climate change. At Miya’s, I’m only interested in using ingredients that are both regenerative and restorative in nature.”

And while laying seed for the seaweed garden is still a few weeks away, we’re here today to harvest Atlantic blue mussels, which Lai will bring back to the restaurant. Stepping aboard the rowboat, Smith quickly guides us to his fishing boat so we can make the rounds in buoyed-off waters. Port side, Lai immediately starts combing through a trap of oysters Smith had caught earlier in the morning, and, with a spare knife and a seasoned hand, starts shucking away. Reaching into his pocket, he grabs his trusty bottle of tabasco sauce and douses a row of fresh oysters for everyone to enjoy. Meanwhile, across the deck, each member of Lai’s team takes turns performing the laborious work of reeling in multiple mussel traps. Whether pulling the heavy cages in and out of the water or scraping off the sharpened debris and spider crabs with their bare hands, these guys know how to move and work as a team — a clear product of Lai’s collaborative cooking philosophy.

Spider Crabs. Image courtesy of Miya’s.

Through cross-collaboration, Lai has helped transform the City of New Haven from what was once thought of as a scary, dangerous place to live to a major culinary and cultural destination for visitors. As a lifelong resident of the city, Lai has witnessed and directly participated in this seismic shift in attitude and hometown pride. His spirit and love for the city is tangible, even infectious, as he recalls what it was like to grow up here, in a family-restaurant atmosphere.

“I’m absolutely a townie,” he says. “When I was a kid, there was only one Chinese restaurant in town. Because we didn’t serve pizza, it was hard to imagine our (family) restaurant succeeding. New Haven simply didn’t have the depth of culture it has today, but now opportunities for partnership and collaboration across the board are endless. Even though I didn’t pay $100,000 for a degree from Yale, I still feel like I received a world-class education just by living in New Haven and working within this community.”

Feeling forever indebted to Sulieman and Tarek Mamoun – the owners of Mamoun’s New Haven, who helped show the Lais the restaurant ropes and, when the Lais were in financial trouble, loaned them a significant amount of money – Lai recently created a roll called the “Howe Street Block Party Roll,” which is filled with falafel, fried broccoli, onions, tomato, and parsley and then topped with grape leaves and drizzled with tahini. As an inspiration to pay their hospitality forward, Lai uses his experiences with the Mamoun family as a constant reminder to collaborate and assist new chefs coming to and cooking in New Haven. By creating an environment in which the competition is friendly, not cutthroat, he believes the city of New Haven can continue to thrive.

“While I love working with area restaurants to create new and inspired rolls for our menu, the real sense of collaboration comes with working alongside my peers,” Lai says. “The restaurant business is tough no matter who you are, and by working together we’re able to lift each other up. Working with one another makes me a much better chef, which provides an even more dynamic, colorful restaurant experience.”

Visit Miya’s Sushi online at miyassushi.com.

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