Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Return of Naoe - Downtown Miami

bento box

When I wrote about my first experience of stumbling upon Naoe, I described it as seeming almost like a dream: a tiny 17-seat jewel-box of a restaurant serving a bento box of gorgeous Japanese dishes followed by a procession of pristine nigiri, all entirely "omakase" or chef's choice. But it was real, and I went back several more times just to make sure. (You can find recaps of some subsequent meals here, here and here.)

In December, Naoe had to vacate its Sunny Isles space when the landlord hatched other plans for it. They closed up shop and began work on a new space on Brickell Key, adjacent to downtown Miami. The new venue reopened last week, and I made my first visit this past Thursday - exactly three years after my first post on Naoe.

I'm not usually a superstitious person, but I do worry that a place can lose its "mojo" when it moves locations.[1] Any such worries about Naoe were absolved by my visit to Naoe on Brickell Key.

Walking into the new space was again something like a dream: it looks almost like a mirror image of the original spot in Sunny Isles. It has the same smooth hinoki wood bar stretching in front of the open kitchen; it has the same austere grey-brown tones throughout the dining room; it has the same pinpoint halogens which literally put the spotlight on the food. There's actually less seating than there was in the original spot, and Chef Kevin Cory will only be serving eight diners per service.[2]

There have been some other minor tweaks. Instead of the $26 bento box followed by nigiri priced by the piece, Naoe now offers an $85 omakase menu that includes both the bento box and eight pieces of nigiri. Additional rounds (either repeat visits to items served earlier or, possibly, some different items) can then be added a la carte. Though bargain-hunters might rue the loss of the $26 bento, I have trouble believing anyone ever went to Naoe without sampling some sushi as well. If they did, they were missing out.

(You can see all my pictures in this Naoe April 26, 2012 flickr set).

The food is every bit as good as it ever was:

bento box

Bento box with sashimi of cobia and scallop mantle, with Japanese seaweed, shiso and freshly grated wasabi; tsubugai (whelk, or sea snail); fried whiting; wilted mizuna; tofu with uni sauce and walnuts; sardine and portobello mushroom rice with daikon nukazuke.[3] A bowl of miso soup with puréed corn was served alongside.

salmon belly

Salmon belly nigiri. Always the first nigiri served at Naoe. Perenially one of my favorite bites.

(continued ...)

kumamoto oyster

Kumamoto oyster, with a brushing of shoyu and a dab of fresh wasabi.


Tiny octopus, unexpectedly tender.


Madai (sea bream), mild and tender but with a suppleness almost like hamachi.

shima aji

Shima aji (striped jack), one of my favorites, meaty but silky, with a thin strip of its silvery skin still attached to the edge of the neta.


Ika (squid, finely chopped), with a bit of slivered shiso leaf on top.

hokkaido uni

Hokkaido uni, dainty, bright-orange lobes of sea urchin, with a mouth-filling sweet creaminess.

koji-pickled saba

Koji-pickled saba (mackerel), with a sheet of translucent seaweed and a bit of the koji-innoculated rice on top. Koji is the mold that is used to ferment rice for the preparation of sake, and soybeans to produce soy sauce and miso.[4] This has a creamier, more tender texture than the more customary vinegar-cured mackerel.

unagi shioyaki

Unagi shioyaki (salt-grilled eel). The dish before this concluded the chef's choice menu. After eight rounds of sushi, you can choose to either tap out, revisit some of the earlier items, or move forward to a few remaining choices.

tamago ebi

Japanese omelet with shrimp, silky smooth, with just a hint of sweetness.

unagi kabayaki

Unagi kabayaki, grilled and brushed with a sweet soy sauce, served with slices of melon that have been pickled in sake lees for two years.

fresh fruit

Fresh fruit, lightly macerated with rice wine vinegar.

kasutera and "mystery" ice cream

Kasutera (Japanese honey cake) and "mystery flavor" ice cream.

A few other details of note, some new some old: seating times are 6:00pm and 9:30pm, all reservation only through OpenTable. They are now open Tuesday-Sunday (used to be Wed-Sun). It is a very leisurely paced meal: the bento will most likely be served about a 1/2 hour after the seating time, and with the procession of nigiri and dessert, it will be about a 3-hour meal. It is entirely omakase, or chef's choice - your only choices will be for beverages, with a small selection of sakes, Japanese beer (Japanese Ginga Kogen, a hefeweizen style, subbing for the Sapporo on tap that was served at the Sunny Isles location), or Japanese soft drinks. The location is a bit tricky to find - it's in the Courvoisier Centre II building, just past the Islander Marketplace. There is no on-street parking I could find, but there is a parking garage just up the street and the restaurant can validate for 2 hours.

Naoe is one of the most special dining experiences you will find in Miami. It's great to have it back.

661 Brickell Key Drive

Naoe on Urbanspoon

[1] cc: Hiro's Yakko-San?

[2] The kitchen, on the other hand, is literally almost four times as large as the kitchen in Sunny Isles. They also have not yet built out a second room on the other side of the current dining room, which eventually will be used to do a more casual lunch service of cooked Japanese dishes, though plans for the space remain a work in progress.

[3] This bento was perhaps a bit simpler than most I've had before at Naoe, which usually have contained a few more cooked elements. Only a week after reopening, Chef Cory acknowledged that he's tapered back a bit while getting settled into the new space.

[4] Studies indicate that fermenting mackerel with koji increases its antioxidant content and significantly increases free amino acids, including glutamic acid, leusine and lysine. (Glutamic acid = "umami").


  1. Morgan (DexterMorgan86)April 29, 2012 at 9:19 PM

    thanks for a great recap frod, Zach and I plan to go real soon

  2. thanks for this! I've been so curious after reading about this place last week and this was extremely helpful

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. Frod: You pay great respect to Chef Cory's new endeavor and write this with the restraint of someone Japanese. The pictures, of course, are worth a thousand words.


  5. I recently booked dinner for my girlfriend and my former Japanese teacher - both are Japanese and both thoroughly enjoyed Chef Cory's food.