Naoe Revisited - November 2011
When I wrote about my first visit to Naoe shortly after it opened, it felt much like recalling a dream with near-perfect lucidity from the night before. Though I've posted about Naoe since then, I've found it increasingly difficult to capture the experience in words - or new words, anyway. It's not that each meal is any less exceptional than the first; they have all been outstanding. Rather, there is such a pristine simplicity and purity to Chef Kevin Cory's style that it evades my descriptive abilities.
This is not about high-tech cooking methods. It's not about surprising flavor combinations. It's just about the best ingredients that can be found, prepared with thought, sensitivity and care.
I was back to Naoe again last week and had what may have been my best meal yet. As has been the case since the 17-seat restaurant opened, the meal followed the same pattern. The menu offers no choices other than a list of drinks: Sapporo on tap, a selection of sakes from Chef Cory's family in Japan, Japanese soft drinks like Ramune or Calpico. Dinner begins - about a half hour after you're seated - with a bento box of various treats accompanied by a soup (still priced at $26 like when Naoe opened 2 1/2 years ago), followed by a procession of sushi until you say "Uncle."
This time, the bento featured cobia sashimi, cut a bit thick to accentuate the snap in the texture of the raw fish. Alongside, ribbons of seaweed, a julienne of shiso, freshly grated wasabi, and a rare seasonal treat, kazunoko (herring roe), the strips of delicate eggs with a wonderful pop to their texture.
The next compartment housed a variety of cooked items: shirako (cod milt), simmered in soy and sake with a touch of sansho pepper; grilled sanma (a/k/a saury or pike mackerel), tsubugai (whelk), eggplant, served cold, lotus root, carrot, and a chestnut coated in little beads of mullet roe.
The remaining compartments held a tranche of cobia, steamed with a mantle of gooey mountain potato and a jelled dashi broth, studded with gingko nuts and topped with slivers of mitsuba, a delicate Japanese herb; and sardine rice, with slivers of koji-pickled daikon. A savory cup of shiitake mushroom broth, inflected with a hint of lemon peel, was served alongside.
From there, on to the sushi.
Scottish salmon belly. Cool fish, fatty and rich. Faintly warm rice, perfectly cooked, delicately seasoned. A brush of soy sauce (again from family in Japan). Perfect.
A bit of a change here, a couple items not served over rice. "Golden ring" (?) octopus from Portugal, tiny (maybe a few inches in their entirety) but fully grown. Delicate and tender, without the bounce typically associated with octopus. And visually gorgeous, spiraling perfectly like an image of a Mandelbrot set.
Kumamoto oysters likewise were served in the shell in lieu of over rice, a garnish of shiso, wasabi and soy bringing out both briny and fruity elements in the bivalve.
More live seafood followed, the scallop fresh from the shell, tender and sweet.
One of my favorites, aoyagi (orange clam), with a distinct briny essence, and a contrast of textures between the firmer piece on the left and the more tender adductor muscle on the right (called "kobashira" in Japanese).
Still another favorite, aji (a/k/a horse mackerel), beautifully fresh, skin glistening silver, with a touch of freshly grated ginger.
Staying in the family of hikarimono, or silver-skinned fish, iwashi (sardine) was draped with a sheet of transparent battera kombu.
The ika Chef Cory was working with was a gigantic specimen, the sheet of squid flesh more than a foot across. Cuttings from this were repeatedly cross-hatched before being draped over the rice, garnished with a bit of shiso before gettting brushed with soy sauce.
Chef Cory has sourced uni from many places: Japan, Santa Barbara, Oregon, Alaska. He says this Hokkaido uni is his favorite. Bright orange, tender, creamy, with that wonderful interplay or marine and fruity notes - I can see why.
The first of two versions of unagi (freshwater eel), first simply salt-grilled, served warm, allowing the natural mild flavor of the eel to come through.
As an intermezzo between the two versions of unagi, tamago with shrimp, smooth and a little sweet.
For a final savory bite, the unagi kabayaki, brushed with sweet soy "bbq" sauce and grilled, served with slivers of melon that's been pickled for two years in sake lees.
To begin the wind-down, some fresh fruit - persimmon, dragonfruit, pluot, kiwi, melons, blueberry, blackberry - given a hint of intrigue with a splash of rice wine vinegar and dashi broth.
And finally, a traditional dessert of kasutera (Japanese honey cake) paired with a not-so-traditional "mystery flavor" ice cream. I won't give away the secret here.
Sometime in December, Naoe will be closing up at its Sunny Isles location, as it gets ready to make the move to a new space on Brickell Key. The new space will feature an 8-seat omakase bar, but will also have a larger space with 30+ seats that will ultimately be doing both lunch and dinner service. But there will be a gap between the Sunny Isles location's closure and the opening of the new spot.
If you've never been to Naoe - or if you haven't been for a while - now is the time to go. There is no more unique, more special meal in South Florida.
175 Sunny Isles Boulevard, Sunny Isles Beach