first thoughts: Dashi - Miami River


Last month, I had the good fortune to be invited to an event at the Japanese Consulate in Miami, extolling the virtues of washoku, or the traditional cuisine of Japan. The event was hosted by the gracious consul general, Ken Okaniwa, but the headliner was chef Shuji Hiyakawa, who provided a live-action sushi-making display.

I had a feeling we were in good hands when Chef Hiyakawa started with the preparation of the rice, noting how every component is essential to the finished product: the blend of two vinegars he uses to season the rice, the wooden bowl in which it's prepared, which retains the right amount of heat and absorbs the right amount of excess liquid, the manner in which it's mixed, so that all the grains are seasoned, and neither too starchy nor too loose.

With the rice made, he went on to break down an entire loin of bluefin tuna. Given the depleted state of the species, I really would have preferred to see just about anything else on the cutting board. I suppose between its immense popularity in Japan, and its increasing popularity here in the U.S., and many diners' lack of understanding of the different cuts sourced from the same fish – the fattiest o-toro, the medium-fatty chu-toro, and the lean maguro – I understand why they would choose this for the demo. But particularly given the traditional washoku theme, I would have been grateful for a presentation on the virtues of the many other varieties of fish and seafood that can be made into sushi. After all, the bluefin obsession is actually a relatively recent thing – in Japan, it was mostly thought of as a trash fish until the 1970's (for further reading: "From Cat Food to Sushi Counter: the Strange Rise of the Bluefin Tuna," which is mostly based on  Trevor Corson's book, "The Story of Sushi").


Nonetheless, it was an informative demonstration, and even better, was followed by an assortment of prepared dishes, which were accompanied by more than a dozen Japanese sakes, none of which are currently available for distribution in the U.S.


(More pictures from the event in this Culinary Secrets of Traditional Washoku flickr set).

As it turns out, this would not be the only opportunity to try Chef Hiyakawa's handiwork; he was only weeks away from opening his own restaurant in Miami. The chef, who hails from Fukuoka, Japan (where his father had a noodle shop), came to the U.S. to work for Masaharu Morimoto at his flagship Philadelphia restaurant, where he was executive sushi chef for several years. More recently, he wound his way to South Florida, until recently working as executive sushi chef at Kuro in the Hard Rock. He's now running his own place, Dashi, in a space inside the River Yacht Club.

(You can see all my pictures in this Dashi - Miami flickr set).


While his demo at the Japanese Consulate may have focused on traditional Japanese cuisine, Chef Hiyakawa's restaurant bridges old and new. In addition to nearly two dozen sushi and sashimi options, the menu includes prepared dishes that are both traditional (wagyu beef sukiyaki) and contemporary (white fish tiradito with sudachi juice and olive oil).



We sampled a couple of these prepared dishes while awaiting our sushi order. A salad of cha-soba (green tea noodles) was speckled with edamame, batons of asparagus, and slivers of shiitake mushroom steeped in soy sauce, all napped in a lightweight but umami-loaded variation of the restaurant's namesake dashi broth. A "House Poke Salad" was a rather un-poke-like but tasty combination of cubed tuna, tomatoes, avocado, cucumbers, and micro-greens in a ginger and miso dressing. It was a pretty sparse plate to bear a $25 price tag.

Mrs. F and I ordered an assortment of sushi which was presented all at once (pictured at top). Our order included kinmedai (golden eye snapper), madai (sea bream), hamachi (amberjack a/k/a yellowtail), aji (horse mackerel), shima aji (striped horse mackerel), masu kunsei (smoked sea trout), sake (salmon), botan ebi (sweet shrimp), ika (squid), anago (sea eel) and tamago (omelet). You see? There are a million wonderful things in the sea to eat other than bluefin tuna.

There were a few things I really liked about this.

First, Dashi's rice is indeed very good: well seasoned but not overwhelmingly so, with each grain distinct on your tongue, neither dry nor overly moist and clumpy. This was all the more impressive given that an order of this size, served all at once, necessarily has to sit for a time as each piece is being assembled (more on that later). Second, each piece was already brushed with nikiri, a glaze usually made of some combination of soy sauce, mirin, dashi and sake. Our server actually discouraged the use of a soy sauce dipping bowl at the table, as each piece had already been properly seasoned. Some also had been given a little extra garnish – a daub of miso on the salmon, freshly grated ginger on the aji, a shiso leaf tucked under the ika and a sprinkle of black salt on top. And finally, the fish – much of which is flown in from Japan, with its particular provenance listed on the menu (hamachi from Kyushu, kinmedai from Chiba, shima aji from Wakayama) – was very good.


A couple pieces of our order – the uni and the ikura, both from Hokkaido – were served separately in little bowls, with a small mound of rice, a sheet of nori, and the neta, almost like a free-form nigiri or a miniature donburi. This was kind of perfect, as I often treat these as my "dessert," and they were a couple of the best bites of the evening,

It's not Naoe level quality, but Dashi is probably close to on par with what I've had at Makoto or Myumi. Prices are steep, even more so than Makoto, which ain't cheap: other than the tamago on the low end and Hokkaido uni on the high end, our order ran between $7-10 per piece, compared to mostly $5-7 per piece at Makoto. They have a nice selection of sakes and Japanese beers to accompany your dinner, as well as some Japanese inspired cocktails.


Dashi's location, as a sort of restaurant-inside-a-restaurant within the River Yacht Club,[1] is itself a draw, with a vista that looks across the Miami River in one direction towards downtown and in the other towards Brickell, including the recently re-lit "Miami Line" designed by artist Rockne Krebs which stretches along the Metrorail bridge. Unfortunately, there is one glaring omission from the design of the restaurant, which otherwise is a pretty slick and scenic indoor-outdoor space: there's no sushi bar. And not to sound like a prima donna, but this is very nearly a deal-breaker for me. If you want good sushi, there's simply no substitute for being right at the counter, with each piece passed across to you as it's made. The rice can be packed looser, the neta doesn't sit and dry out as other pieces are made; it's just impossible to duplicate that when you're making a dozen pieces at a time which sit for several minutes before they get to the table.[2]

But the combination of good food and a waterfront view is surprisingly elusive in Miami; it's a combination Dashi achieves, if you're willing to take the view as a trade-off for the absence of a sushi bar, and pay a premium for it.

Dashi
401 SW 3rd Avenue, Miami, Florida
786.870.5304

[1] This is an intriguing piece of property, situated on the Brickell side of the Miami River nearly underneath I-95 and next to Jose Marti Park.The main restaurant there apparently has a "rotating chefs-in-residence" program, though what I mostly noticed while walking through to Dashi was the "untz untz" music and what appeared to be a session of Advanced White People Dancing Badly on the outdoor dance floor.

[2] Of course, the converse isn't necessarily true either: everything can get screwed up even when you're right at the sushi bar. A few weeks ago I visited another recently opened Miami sushi den, which had a beautiful 8-seat sushi counter manned by five hard-working sushi chefs. It also had one of the most interesting and exotic selections of fish that I've seen offered in Miami. Unfortunately, the rice was so bad – dry, under-seasoned, stiff – and much of the fish was also so dried out and consequently lacking flavor, that I'm reluctant to even give the place a second try. It's a shame, because it was an ambitious and exciting assortment that otherwise would be right in my sweet spot.

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