Monday, May 23, 2011

Makoto - Bal Harbour

If I were opening a new restaurant in Bal Harbour, I'm not sure it would be a Japanese place. I say that primarily because Bal Harbour is situated almost exactly in the middle of what are already some of my favorite Japanese restaurants in Miami: Naoe and Yakko-San to the north, and Sushi Deli to the south. Of course, Stephen Starr, the restaurateur behind Makoto, has opened plenty more restaurants than I have (Starr: 24; Frodnesor: 0), so maybe he knows what he's doing.

But I say that also because I'm not quite sure what kind of Japanese restaurant would appeal to this particular market. Tony Bal Harbour generally, and the ultra-tony Bal Harbour Shops in particular, have been a tough nut to crack for restaurateurs. Though Carpaccio has held steady for several years despite middling to decent food at best, most others that have taken a run at it have failed (witness the procession of restaurants that have occupied the space opposite Carpaccio, currently held by La Goulue). The people who frequent the mall are, no doubt, a high net worth bunch unafraid to drop a sizable sum on a meal, but it's entirely possible that they have more money than taste, when it comes to food anyway. Meanwhile, even if it's good, will more food-minded folks not otherwise inclined to do their shopping here still find their way to the restaurant?

Well I did, and overall, was pretty glad to have done so. The truth is, Makoto is really not much at all like any of those other places I mentioned. If anything, it is probably most similar to Zuma, which opened downtown about a year ago: high quality sushi, robata selections, and a grab-bag of other cooked Japanese items, all served up in a slick contemporary setting.

Makoto is named for its chef, Makoto Okuwa, who's got some pretty serious chops. Born and trained in Japan, he was head sushi chef at Morimoto's Philadelphia restaurant, then moved to New York to open the Morimoto restaurant there (where in 2006 he was named one of StarChef's Rising Stars). A couple years later he switched coasts, heading to Los Angeles as executive chef of Sashi. When Starr (who runs Morimoto's restaurants) set eyes on Bal Harbour, he lured Chef Makoto back into the fold. I also saw chef Dale Talde (who works at Starr's Buddakan in New York, and is known to many as a Top Chef contestant) in the kitchen on one of my visits.

Makoto the restaurant is situated on the ground floor of the Bal Harbour Shops, toward the south end. The dark-lacquered entrance on the mall side is so subtle as to be easily missed, though you can also enter from the east side directly from the parking lot, where there is also covered outside seating. A narrow entranceway, with some tables squeezed in, opens up onto a broad dining room which has smaller tables along the walls as well as a few larger picnic-style tables in the middle.[1] A sizable sushi bar (with at least four chefs working it) sits in front of the kitchen. That's where we've sat each time we visited.

Each spot at the sushi bar has a block of pink Himalayan salt situated in front of it, and once a diner is seated one of the sushi chefs will place your gari and wasabi on it. I do hope they clean those things between diners, as I wouldn't put it past some child to stick their finger on the block and lick it to see if it really is made of salt. Just saying.

salt block

(For more photos from Makoto, check this Makoto - Bal Harbour flickr set).

We started one of our meals at Makoto with nigiri, which comes two pieces to an order. With the exception of the hirame (fluke or flounder), which was only OK, everything else we sampled ranged from good to exceptional. Particularly notable were the chu-toro ($12) and the even richer, fattier oh-toro ($16). Makoto is, to my knowledge, the only place in South Florida that is sourcing Kindai bluefin tuna. Though bluefin tuna stocks are becoming rapidly depleted and as a result bluefin makes most sustainable seafood experts' "avoid" list, Kindai - which are farm-raised from the egg - are an arguably more responsible alternative. (For more about Kindai, read up: "The rarest tuna of all"). Chef Makoto is clearly a fan of the stuff. And after trying it, so am I, though it's an expensive "solution," if it even is that, to the bluefin problem.

Every bit as good was the hotate (scallop) ($14) - sourced live, and as fresh and pristine as any I have sampled anywhere (and that includes Naoe, which often features live scallop). Silky, tender, and sweet, these were really special stuff. Sadly, they weren't available on my return visit. The uni (sea urchin) ($12) was also very good, as was the aoyagi (orange clam) ($8). The "Hokkai" hand roll offered another way to sample their uni, wrapped up in nori with sweet shrimp and a quail egg ($12), a rather luscious seafood combination. Again, this item wasn't available on our second visit, which prompts some concern about "dumbing down." (We'll return to this later).

I went the sashimi route on our second visit, a couple weeks later. The offerings this time included a number of items sourced from Hawaii, including pink-fleshed nairagi (striped marlin) ($10) and silky ono (wahoo) ($8), both recommended by our server, as well as a second sampling of the aoyagi and Kindai chu-toro.[2]


The presentation was quite dramatic, the slices of fish perched on a wide bowl of crushed ice, above which towered an artful arrangement of branches and leaves. The sashimi itself was excellent - carefully sliced and impeccably fresh. Similarly dramatic was a yellowtail tartare ($18), served in the style made famous by Nobu Matsuhisa: the finely chopped fish molded into a hockey puck shape in a small bowl with a puddle of wasabi-infused soy sauce, crowned with a dollop of caviar, all mounded into a bigger bowl of crushed ice.

(continued ...)

The menu also offers a selection of both "Traditional Japanese Rolls" and "American Classics" - a gentle way of working your "California Rolls" and "Caterpillar Rolls" into the mix. But even these are not prepared without care: the California roll ($8) (it was Little Miss F's doing, not mine) uses real crab meat, not those surimi "krabstix" made from processed pollock, for instance. At least there's no cream cheese.

chicken, short rib, king crab robata

Another portion of the menu is dedicated to robata items, grilled over high-heat, low-smoke Japanese charcoal. On our first visit, the clear standout were the tsukune ($7.75) (meatballs of ground chicken), meaty and juicy and perked up with a sprinkling of sansho pepper. This was yet another item I was sorry not to see on our second visit. The chicken yakitori ($7.50) had a nice char and a salty-sweet tare glaze, interspersed with negi (Tokyo scallions); the short ribs ($11) were nicely tender, though a bit overwhelmed by their truffled miso sauce; a sizable knuckle of king crab ($16.50), glazed with a bit of yuzu butter was better balanced.

There is a short list of rice and noodle dishes. They include a "Makoto Ramen" ($12) that features an unorthodox combination of ground steak, red chili, garlic and bean sprouts. If you can get past the atypical components - and you should, ramen is a flexible concept - it's really quite good. The broth is deep and hearty, a little spicy, and just on the right side of being oversalted, and the ground beef adds still more substance and heft, balanced out by the pleasing crunch of the bean sprouts. This bowl got passed back and forth several times among us.

frosty kobe fried rice

Also unorthodox is the "Frosty Kobe Fried Rice" ($16).[3] Start with a bowl of fried rice; add foie gras, spice with shichimi, top with a fried Jidori egg,[4] then finish with the namesake "Frosty Kobe" - frozen, finely ground raw beef, which cooks from the heat of the rice as it's mixed in (which the server volunteered to do for us). The dish turns out not nearly as elegant as its pedigreed ingredients would suggest. Rather, it was reminiscent - not necessarily in a bad way - of that Hawaiian classic, loco moco.

A brief selection of fish and meat options rounds things out, some more appetizer-sized, others more substantial. The "Crispy Shrimp" ($14) brought only four medium-sized shrimp, lightly battered and dabbed with a kimchee aioli and a scatter of pea sprouts. Also on the smaller side was the "Kobe Beef" ishiyaki ($19.50), brought out in thin raw slices and cooked at the table on a small hot rock.

beef ishiyaki

Unsurprisingly, this was a big hit with the kids, who thoroughly enjoyed dunking the beef into the soy-intensive ponzu broth and then sizzling it themselves on the hot stone. But I did manage to sneak a slice and can say that aside from an opportunity to play with your food, it tasted quite good too.


Dessert options are somewhat limited, but include traditional (Japanese) ice-cream filled mochi, as well as a traditional (American) molten chocolate cake, the latter given a bit of a twist by being paired with a yuzu ice cream festooned with little crispy rice crackers.

chocolate cake, yuzu ice cream

The service on both of our visits was friendly, attentive, and helpful, with the staff making useful suggestions on how many dishes to order, and also offering substitution advice when certain sushi items weren't available. And while trudging through a mall to get to dinner may seem a bit of a drag, it's really not very inconvenient at all: Bal Harbour Shops has plenty of parking, which is close by the restaurant, and it's only $2 with validation - a bargain compared to South Beach. The atmosphere at Makoto is a plus as well. The place is certainly date-night material, which, much as I love it, is not something that can be said of Sushi Deli. But you'll pay for that atmosphere: the prices, while mostly staying under $20 for any individual item (except for a few big steaks), quickly add up, though some of that is attributable to the quality of the ingredients.[5]

Speaking of which: my biggest worry with Makoto is the "dumbing down" factor. It was somewhat concerning that a number of the items I'd tried less than a month ago - and that were some of my favorites - weren't available only a couple weeks later. Some of this may be due to supply chain issues (fish), but others (tsukune?) not so much. Hopefully it's not a sign of a broader retreat into becoming a more generic, less ambitious restaurant, whether because the customers who appreciate higher ambitions aren't finding their way there or other reasons. Bal Harbour may be a tough market to figure out, but South Florida has shown more and more often lately that it has a dining community that will seek out and reward quality.

From what I sampled, Makoto certainly has the potential to be one of the best Japanese restaurants in South Florida: it is perhaps not at the same level as Naoe, but it can certainly hold its own against Zuma on all fronts, or against Nobu for its sushi (though we all know the best things at Nobu are the cooked items). I hope it fulfills that potential.

9700 Collins Avenue
Bal Harbour, FL

Makoto on Urbanspoon

[1] The backless, picnic bench style seating seems a bit incongruous given the location and the price point, but it does give the place something of a teahouse feel and keeps the room feeling more open, rather than crowded with furniture.

[2]I heard from someone that diner concerns over safety issues prompted Makoto to stop sourcing seafood from Japan - which, if true, would be a real shame, since all indications from the FDA are that Japanese seafood poses no danger as a result of the Japanese nuclear reactor disaster.

[3]"Kobe" beef gets bandied about on the menu in rather willy-nilly fashion here, and I have trouble believing, based on the prices, that it's all sourced from Japan. Aside from the fried rice and a couple other dishes, there is a section of the menu devoted to "Wagyu Steak," which includes a "Tajima" 8 oz. filet for $55, a "Kurosawa" 26 oz. bone-in rib-eye for $90, and a "Kobe" 10 oz. skirt steak for $30. All seem too inexpensive for real Japanese wagyu beef.

[4]What is a Jidori egg? Glad you asked. Read here: "Jidori Chicken is the New Kid in the Coop." As Cibo Matto sang, "You Got to Know Your Chicken."

[5]Prices are probably comparable to Zuma (and Naoe, for its nigiri), and still significantly less than Nobu.

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