Monday, August 7, 2017

first thoughts: Gaijin Izakaya by Cake | Midtown Miami

A couple years ago I got pretty excited over a tiny storefront along Biscayne Boulevard serving possibly the best Thai food I'd eaten in South Florida: Cake Thai Kitchen. Since then, Chef Cake (a/k/a Phuket Thongsodchareondee) has gone on to open a second, more polished Cake Thai in Wynwood, and has plans in the works for another location in the Citadel, a food hall and multi-purpose space currently in development in Little Haiti. It's been wonderful to watch the ascent of a chef whose talent is matched only by his humility.

And now, he's doing something else: a Japanese style izakaya in the Midtown Miami space of "The Gang," which he's calling "Gaijin Izakaya by Cake."[1] It's called "Gaijin" to dispel any notions of authenticity and because, well, Cake is as Japanese as I am, but it's really not such a huge leap: before opening his own Thai restaurant, Cake worked for years with chef Makoto Okuwa at Makoto in Bal Harbour, one of the best Japanese restaurants in town.[2] His menu at Gaijin is long and ambitious (I've not seen it posted online yet but I've got pictures: Page 1, Page 2 and Page 3) and after a couple visits, I've still only just made a dent in it, but have already found several highlights.

(You can see all my pictures in this Gaijin Izakaya by Cake flickr set.)

Back in the day, when Hiro's Yakko-San was in a tight little spot on West Dixie Highway and there was almost always an hour-long wait, they used to make okonomiyaki, an Osaka-style Japanese pancake / omelet type thing, usually topped with seafood and/or bacon, then bedazzled with Kewpie mayo, salty-tangy-sweet okonomi sauce, aonori, pickled ginger, and wispy katsuobushi shavings that wriggle in the heat. It disappeared from Yakko-San's menu some time around their move to a larger space, and is otherwise an elusive dish to find. But they're doing okonomiyaki at Gaijin, and it's a good version, with a hearty, chewy base and a layer of crisp, salty pork belly underneath all those toppings.

(continued ...)

On our second visit, Cake saw us at the sushi bar and asked, "Can I cook for you?" Of course, the only appropriate answer to that question is "Yes." The result included a wonderful off-menu dish,[3] a shabu shabu of local cobia, the fat slices smeared with spicy, citrus-y yuzu kosho before a tableside swish in a savory-sweet nitsuke broth stockpiled with fresh vegetables, tofu and glass noodles. It was delicious.

The menu description of this item as "ebi shiso tempura" is accurate, but gives you little idea of what to expect. What arrives is a thing of beauty: shiso leaves stuffed with a filling of sweet, soft minced Florida shrimp, fried in a delicate tempura batter, with a dashi ponzu and some grated daikon oroshi alongside.[4] Just last week I was petitioning for stuffed fried shiso leaves; now I've found an excellent version at Gaijin.

Many comfort foods transcend countries and cultures; even if you'd never heard of chicken katsu don before, there's something innately satisfying and homey about a bowl of steaming rice topped with a crisp, breaded and fried chicken cutlet, especially when it's then rounded out with soft, tender scrambled egg, a shower of fresh green onions, and a pinch of tart beni shoga, ginger pickled in umeboshi brine.

There's a full sushi menu at Gaijin as well, with a pretty nice assortment of fish that they're bringing in. We had only a small sample as part of our last omakase visit, but it showed promise, and I'm eager to go back and explore further. I've also yet to try their ramen (86'd on my first visit; I ran out of steam and tapped out during our omakase second visit), which also intrigues, especially the "Miami Ramen" with miso, shrimp fat and mixed seafood.[5] Both will be on the agenda for my next visit to Gaijin, which I expect to be soon.

Gaijin Izakaya by Cake
3500 N. Miami Avenue, Miami, Florida

[1] The branding is a bit of a mess right now, with The Gang website pitching Gaijin Izakaya and welcoming Chef Cake as "part of the Gang family," but still displaying the old menu and pictures.

[2] Cake wrote a really touching post after Makoto paid a visit to the restaurant recently. Gaijin is now offering Makoto's private label sake, otherwise only available at the restaurant, so I suspect the mentor is pretty pleased with what his disciple is doing now.

[3] Though I didn't see the shabu shabu on the menu, I did see several going out to the dining room, so I assume it's part of the "omakase" option listed on the menu, and probably can be had a la carte if you ask nicely.

[4] Pro tip which it took me years to figure out: the grated daikon and ginger are meant to dropped into your ponzu sauce, so when you dip your tempura into the ponzu, the sauce has some more body and that fresh, slightly peppery taste of the radish; plus, daikon supposedly has properties that aid in the digestion of fatty or greasy foods.

[5] The only part of the menu that's disappointed me thus far has been the robata. There are some interesting items offered – chicken skin, turkey gizzards, beef heart – but they've all lacked the intense, crackly but clean char of really good robata cooked over binchotan charcoal.

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