Showing posts with label sushi. Show all posts
Showing posts with label sushi. Show all posts

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Coba-Yakko-San - Cobaya Dinner with Chef Hiro-San

Tuna and Salmon Sashimi Salad

There is no restaurant I have eaten at more often than Hiro's Yakko-San. I literally can not count the times: for the past five years we've been there probably an average of once a month, but often as frequently as weekly, with Sunday dinner at Yakko-San being something of a family tradition. So yeah, I kind of like it.

Our kids grew up on their chicken katsu and kurobuta pork sausages, later finding their own favorites among the more than 100 items on the menu (for Little Miss F: kimchi tofu, octopus ceviche, seabass miso, lotus root kimpira; for Frod Jr., edamame, salmon onigiri, yakiniku don, shoyu ramen). For years Yakko-San was located in a hole-in-the-wall on Dixie Highway where the waits for tables often flowed out the front door. Recently they moved to a bigger, fancier location on 163rd Street Causeway which has more than enough room for everyone. It also has room to set aside a space for 30 guinea pigs, giving us an opportunity to do a Cobaya dinner there.

The Cobaya "mission statement" is pretty much parallel to what the Japanese call "omakase," or "It's up to you, chef." That's what we told Chef Hiro-san, and he prepared a seven-course meal, many of which had multiple components. I will be candid in saying that I was hoping it might be more adventurous - this was more crowd-pleaser stuff - but especially for those who had never been to the restaurant before, it was a good introduction to Yakko-San's" izakaya-style (often called "Japanese tapas") repertoire.

You can see all my pictures from the dinner in this CobaYakkoSan flickr set. Here is the menu, with further descriptions and pictures below:

Chamame Edamame
Plum Wine
Tuna, Salmon Sashimi Salad
Crispy Fish Onion Salad
Nigori Sake
Shrimp Spicy Mayo, Fried Oyster
Hitosuji Junmai Sake
Kalbee Yakiniku and Spinach Butter
Akita Junmai Ginjo Sake
Seabass Miso Yaki
Kikuizumi Dai Ginjo Sake
Uni Garlic Pasta
Assorted Maki
Iki na Ona Dai Ginjo
Green Tea and Orange Mochi Ice Cream, Strawberry with Mint Cream
Dessert Pear Sake

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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.

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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Koy Shunka - Barcelona

Koy Shunka

Spaniards are fiercely proud of and loyal to the culinary traditions of their native country, and for good reason: I think it's some of the greatest food on earth too. Yet with that loyalty comes a certain - parochialism may be too strong a word, so let's just say that Spain doesn't often seem to take much interest in other countries' cuisines. You won't find many notable Italian restaurants in Spain, for instance.[*]

But lately, Spain does seem to be paying some attention to the Far East. The celebrated DiverXo in Madrid leans heavily on Asian flavors and stylings (the resumé of its chef, David Muñoz, includes a stint at Hakkasan). Kabuki (also in Madrid) applies a distinctly Japanese sensibility to Iberian ingredients. Alberto Raurich, formerly elBulli's chef de cuisine, now runs Dos Palillos in Barcelona, whose very name (meaning both toothpicks and chopsticks) is a play on the connection its food seeks to draw between Asia and Spain.

Perhaps because the Spanish curiosity about foreign cuisines is a relatively new thing, the restaurants that explore those cuisines seem to be perceived as somewhat revolutionary in their native country. Whereas, as I noted after our visit to Dos Palillos last year, much of this stuff just may not seem particularly remarkable to a reasonably well-rounded American eater. For us, Asian food is so ubiquitous that even mediocre shopping center chains carry pre-made sushi.

All of which is primarily to explain why I was a bit skeptical when I heard about "the best Japanese restaurant in Barcelona." But I had indeed heard many good things about Koy Shunka, including that it is a favorite of Ferran Adrià's. And after several days of the indigenous foods, and with a big meal at elBulli on the horizon, we were looking both for something different and something a bit lighter. So we gave Koy Shunka a chance. I'm glad we did.

Koy Shunka

The restaurant is hidden away on a short street in a quiet dark corner of the Gothic Quarter behind a black door that you could easily walk by several times without noticing. You enter upon a dark hallway lined in shale and wood, which ultimately opens up onto a sizable open kitchen positioned in the center of the dining room. There are several seats at a counter that wraps around one side of the open kitchen, as well as tables arranged mostly along the back wall of the dining room.

Koy Shunka

I believe the counter seats are reserved for diners going with the omakase tasting menu, which was our desired format regardless. (You can click on any picture to see it larger, or view the entire flickr set: Koy Shunka)

Tomato salad

The meal started with a cool dish composed of cherry tomatoes, a dashi gelée, shaved bonito, and local Galician seaweeds, presented in a free-form glazed earthenware bowl. It offered pure, simple, clean flavors, and was, interestingly, more than a bit reminiscent of one of the dishes Katsuya Fukushima had served at our Cobaya dinner only a week earlier.

Berenjena con miso

Rounds of Japanese eggplant were grilled with an intensely salty-sweet miso glaze, with the skins removed and crisped up a bit, then wrapped back around the eggplant. A guindilla pepper provided a hit of spice to contrast with the richness of the miso and the smoky, sweet eggplant flesh. I've had a number of different iterations of grilled Japanese eggplants, and this was certainly among my favorites.

Vieira sashimi

Our first fish course was a sashimi of super-fresh sea scallop, sliced crosswise into coins, drizzled with good olive oil, sprinkled with coarse sea salt and chive, and plated with little rounds of baby corn. The star here, rightfully so, was the scallop itself, with the other components providing a bit of variety and interest without overwhelming or interfering.

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Thursday, July 29, 2010

NAOE in Pictures - A Year Later

It was a little more than a year ago that I made my first, revelatory visit to NAOE. I've been back several times since then, and each meal has been a bit different, but just as good. I brought the camera for my most recent visit, something of a one-year anniversary celebration. You can see the complete flickr set here.


The bento featured hog snapper sashimi with shiso and seaweed (the snapper freshly caught by a spearfishing friend that morning); scorpionfish (also locally caught) two ways, fried, and braised with apricot and sprinkled with white poppy seed; a silky custard with aji and shiitake mushrooms; baby carrots, gingko nuts; slow-braised, falling-apart tender pork jowl with parsnip purée and mustard sauce; bamboo rice, daikon pickles; butternut squash and miso soup.

snapper sashimi
snapper sashimi

scorpionfish, aji & shiitake custard
scorpionfish, aji, shiitake custard

As always, after the bento, a procession of nigiri.

salmon nigiri
scottish salmon nigiri

shira ebi nigiri
shira ebi nigiri

scallop nigiri
scallop nigiri

Chef Cory brings in live scallops and prepares them to order. You could see the scallop muscle still quivering after he sliced it.

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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Zuma - Miami - First Look

The idea of a contemporary, upscale Japanese restaurant is not exactly a revolutionary one. Indeed, it's something Nobu Matsuhisa has been doing successfully for more than two decades, with many having followed in his wake. And yet Zuma, the newly opened restaurant featuring "contemporary Japanese cuisine" in the Epic Hotel, still feels like something of a breath of fresh air. If there are other restaurants like it, there are certainly none in downtown Miami. They officially opened last week and we paid our first visit Saturday evening.

Zuma comes to Miami by way of London, after having opened other satellite offices in Hong Kong, Istanbul and Dubai. The original outpost in London has earned a goodly amount of praise, including an appearance (at #66) in San Pellegrino's annual "World's Best Restaurants" list. It styles itself as a "sophisticated twist on the traditional Japanese izakaya." An izakaya is, traditionally, a drinking establishment comparable to the British pub which also serves food, typically in small portions often referred to as "Japanese tapas." Here, izakaya describes the menu much more accurately than it does the venue, which, unlike the typically humble Japanese drinking den, is lofty and ambitious.

Miami's Zuma, located in the lobby floor of the Epic, is a cavernous space done up in a modern style in many shades of beige. The room is open two, even three stories up in places, with square panels suspended from the ceiling to break up the expanse, and floor-to-ceiling windows that look out onto the Miami River. There's a sizable bar lounge area in front, behind which are tables (mostly rounds, and well-spaced) as well as a robata station and then a sushi bar. It's a visually interesting space even if it does still retain a touch of "hotel restaurant" feel to it.

The menu features selections of sashimi, nigiri and maki, a variety of small plates, as well as several more substantial main-course-sized items. Food comes either from the sushi bar, the robata grill, or the kitchen, and dishes are brought out to the table continuously over the course of the meal, rather than as appetizer and then entrée. If Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill had not opened several months earlier, or if Zuma had not already adopted this format at its other restaurants, surely someone would be accusing one of copying from the other. Instead, we can attribute it to a case of parallel independent development.

Our table's order covered items from each of the different kitchen stations. We started with their house-made tofu ($8), served with traditional D.I.Y. condiments - wasabi, ginger, green onions, toasted sesame seeds, as well as a savory barley miso (apologies, incidentally for the lousy iPhone pics). If you think you don't like tofu, this version may well change your mind. It has all the luxurious, creamy richness of a good burrata, yet remains light and clean-tasting. The barley miso was delicious, though it may have been too powerful a companion for the tofu. If this was not quite as good as the house-made tofu I had at Aburiya Raku in Las Vegas, it was certainly close.

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Return to Nobu - South Beach

It had been years since I'd last been to Nobu, though, unlike Boris Becker, the reason for my extended absence was not the conception of a love child on the stairs between the bathrooms. For some time, Nobu had been a regular special-occasion venue for us; it was a big day when I graduated from celebrating birthdays at Benihana to celebrating at Nobu. But our last visit before returning a couple weeks ago - while it did not result in an unexpected pregnancy or a multi-million dollar divorce - was a frustrating and disappointing combination of lackluster and expensive.

It's entirely possible that our best meal at Nobu was the first one. I can no longer tell you when that was (the Miami restaurant, in the Shore Club hotel on South Beach, opened in 2001), but it was my first experience at the then-nascent Nobu empire, which now includes more than 25 restaurants in such far-flung destinations as Cape Town, South Africa and Dubai. The omakase menu then offered to first-time visitors featured a line-up that included many of Chef Nobu Matsuhisa's signature dishes: toro tartare, served in a pool of wasabi-infused soy sauce and crowned with a dollop of caviar; "new style" sashimi drizzled with hot oil; black cod given a three-day marinade in saikyo miso; beef toban yaki, cooked and served in a ceramic bowl. Many of these - along with a few others, like the tempura rock shrimp in creamy spicy sauce - have moved on to ubiquity, and versions can be found on menus the world over. As a result it's easy to forget the role Chef Matsuhisa played in popularizing them, and that his restaurants still may offer their Platonic ideals.

Some time later, the line-up I was served on that first visit became the aptly named "Signature Menu," while an omakase "chef's choice" option was offered separately. However, my last omakase experience, linked to above, was so pedestrian that it had the perhaps unintended effect of convincing me that those signature items remained the best things that Nobu had to offer. And while those dishes are indeed quite good, it became tough to get excited about paying a small fortune to have the same half-dozen items over and over again. The sushi, while certainly better than decent, was very expensive. Nobu South Beach's peculiar setting did not make it any more alluring: a noisy room with aqua tiles running up the walls, tables virtually piled on top of each other, which has the feeling of dining in the bottom of a crowded swimming pool. The atmosphere, and also the level of service, were inconsistent with the price tag. And another thing: there was no sushi bar. It always struck me as a bizarre, almost heretical omission.

Despite these misgivings, I decided it was time to recalibrate my opinion on Nobu, to see what was the same and what had changed, and so we went back a couple weeks ago.

(continued ...)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill - Midtown Miami

Unlike professional restaurant critics, I'm allowed to admit certain biases. One of these, which I'll readily confess, is that I tend to prefer chef-driven restaurants to concept-driven restaurants. A chef-driven restaurant is one that starts with the chef: the menu, often even the environment, follow from the chef's personal vision, which is more often than not centered on the food. Michy's is a chef-driven restaurant; Naoe is an even more extreme example. Concept-driven restaurants start with an idea: a marketing ploy around which everything else is assembled. The chef, typically, is simply a cog that fits into the wheel of the restaurant's concept, the menu just a piece along with the decoration, the music, the drinks, the scene. China Grill is the prototypical concept-driven restaurant.

No doubt my bias toward chef-driven restaurants is naive and overly romanticized. After all, chefs (and their backers) want to make money just like everyone else. But as someone who cares mostly about the food, I've learned that the odds of finding the best food are improved by going to places where the decisions are made by the person who creates it.

Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill, the new spinoff from the creators of Sushi Samba, is a concept-driven restaurant. But I'm not too proud or stubborn to admit that it's a darn good one, one for which the food is far from a mere afterthought.

Located in Midtown Miami, Sugarcane occupies a long space whose voluminous feeling is multiplied by the two-story high ceilings, with rattan fans turning slowly overhead. There's a large indoor/outdoor bar as you walk in, with most of the main space bisected by a row of red leather-clad banquettes. Off to the right side, backed by a stone wall, is a raw bar with seating around it. Toward the back is the robata station, housing a sizable grill under which they burn Japanese bincho-tan charcoal (which generates high heat without much smoke). Off to the left is still more seating. The decorations have the purposefully haphazard look of a very expensive haircut, with mismatched chairs and partially painted walls throughout. (Some of those mismatched chairs, I will note, are too tall for the tables, leading to a hunched-over seating posture more conducive to hard-nosed contract negotiations than dining).

The "concept," I suppose, must be tapas with a Japanese tilt, though the influences are more global than the Brazilian/Japanese mashup that characterizes Sushi Samba. The Sugarcane menu is pretty much exclusively comprised of the "small plates" that are taking hold on so many local menus lately. It is divided among "snacks," "tapas," "robata grill," and "raw bar," the last of which includes traditional raw bar items, crudos, sushi, sashimi, and rolls. A blackboard features a short list of entreés, including a roasted chicken that has been getting raves all over twitter of late. Food comes from either the raw bar, the robata, or the hot kitchen, and like a tapas bar, items come out as they're prepared. This orchestra is directed by Chef Timon Balloo, whose resume includes stints with some of Miami's big name chefs (Michelle Bernstein, Alan Susser, Tim Andriola) and at Sugarcane's local cousin, Sushi Samba Dromo on Lincoln Road, before he took the helm at the now-closed Domo Japones.

I've not tried that roasted chicken yet, but I have tried most of the rest of the menu during our two visits. Among the snacks, edamame come out steaming hot and generously salted. Even better may be the shishito peppers, their skin blistered, and brightened with a squeeze of lemon and big flakes of (Maldon?) sea salt. From the raw bar, a half dozen Blue Point oysters were presented on one of those impressive seafood tower contraptions with a raised stand and a gigantic bowl of ice. Accompaniments were simple: lemon, cocktail sauce, horseradish, mignonette. The conch salad was light and refreshing, strips of the mollusk matched with orange segments and shreds of lettuce or cabbage.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Su Shin Izakaya - Coral Gables

Su Shin
"HELLO HOW ARE YOU?!?!" Invariably, this is the greeting you will receive when you walk through the doors of Su Shin Izakaya - usually at a decibel level that will make you jump, even when you're fully expecting it. It's the owner's Americanized variation on the Japanese tradition of welcoming customers with a shout of "Irashaimase!"

Su Shin's menu is something of a mix of Americanized and traditional, too. Yes, you'll find your California rolls and salmon and cream cheese "JB rolls"[1] here. But if you're looking for something more authentic, don't let this dissuade you. The real draw here is not these inexplicably ubiquitous standards, but rather the extensive selection of "izakaya" dishes.

An izakaya is, as I understand it, sort of the Japanese equivalent of a pub: a place to drink beer or sake, often in copious amounts, and which serves food, often in smaller tapas-size portions, to accompany those libations. Hiro's Yakko-San in North Miami Beach is an izakaya style of restaurant which, as I've noted before, always requires explanation to first-time visitors that it is not a sushi restaurant: no nigiri, no maki (though there is sashimi). Su Shin, though, goes both ways, offering both the typical panopoly of sushi and sashimi, teriyaki and tempura, as well more varied fare, both on the regular menu and on a blackboard that stretches across one long wall of the restaurant, typically featuring roughly a dozen or more daily specials of both raw and cooked dishes.

Since I work in Coral Gables, Su Shin is typically a lunch stop for me, when it is typically busy. There are a half-dozen lunch specials featuring miscellaneous permutations of the usual suspects for $8.75, as well as a mysterious additional list, written only in Japanese. During several visits we've asked about or randomly pointed at some of these, but have yet to encounter anything tremendously exotic. Rather, one of my favorite mystery lunch items is buried away in the "Makimono" (cut rolls) section of the menu, under the name "Porque Mt. Fuji" with the description "Not a roll, let us surprise you." Needless to say, as soon as I noticed this I had to try it.

Monday, July 20, 2009

... and NAOE in Dine Magazine South Florida

You saw the pictures, now you can read a write-up of my last great meal at NAOE in Dine Magazine South Florida.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

NAOE in pictures

I've previously written about NAOE, which was one of my most memorable local dining experiences of the year. I've been back a couple times since and while the choices have changed, the quality was at the same level and the experience just as satisfying. Chef Cory has gotten somewhat more efficient, with only about a 20-30 minute wait for the bento box - though sampling all the nigiri he has to offer will still be a 3-4 hour affair. On my last visit earlier this week I brought a camera; this time I'll let the food do the talking. You can read my description of this meal at South Florida Dine Magazine, and you can see all the pictures on this flickr set.

the bento box.

mutton snapper sashimi
mutton snapper sashimi fresh from Haulover Marina, with an okra-miso sauce.

ankimo & persimmon with shiso leaf; steamed eggplant topped with fresh-water eel; fried citrus-marinated scallop mantle.

iwashi & tofu
iwashi (sardine, from Oregon) over organic tofu steamed in sake and sprinkled with sansho pepper.

portobello mushroom rice topped with koji-zuke daikon pickles.

slicing salmon
Chef Kevin Cory slicing Scottish salmon belly for nigiri.

grating fresh wasabi for the nigiri.

salmon belly
brushing the salmon with shoyu.

salmon belly
salmon belly nigiri.

Chef Cory skinning iwashi (sardine from Oregon).

iwashi nigiri with freshly grated ginger.

aoyagi (orange clam) nigiri brushed with orange-flavored shoyu.

shira ebi
shira ebi (tiny white shrimp) nigiri.

uni (sea urchin roe) from Oregon - possibly the best I've ever had.

uni nigiri with freshly grated wasabi over shredded nori.

madai nigiri topped with battera kombu and shiso.

iwana, shipped fresh from Japan.

sake from Chef Cory's family in Japan, and a view of the kitchen.

175 Sunny Isles Boulevard
Sunny Isles Beach, FL 33160

Naoe on Urbanspoon

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Japanese Market a/k/a Sushi Deli - North Bay Village

sushi deli menuWhile most people claim that Matsuri is the best place for sushi in Miami, my personal favorite is a tiny little counter inside a Japanese market along the 79th Street Causeway - Sushi Deli (a/k/a Japanese Market).

The market is small but well-stocked, with several choices of high-quality rice, noodles, sauces, spices, pickles, and the like, a selection of frozen fish and seafood items (including "super-frozen" tuna and hamachi), meats like kurobuta pork and thinly sliced beef for shabu shabu, a good selection of sakes, and occasionally, fresh Japanese vegetables. They also regularly stock "Pocky", a Japanese chocolate-covered-pretzel-stick snack (we are particularly fond of the "Men's Pocky" bitter chocolate flavor), among several Japanese snacks and sweets.

Occupying one corner of the market is a small sushi bar with only four seats in front of it, as well as a couple more counters and tables to the side. The bar is almost always staffed by Chef Kushi and his daughter (?)(amazing how rare it still is to see a woman behind a sushi bar). The menu lists a selection of nigiri priced from $1 - $2.50 a piece (with more exotic items subject to market prices), as well as an assortment of various maki, and a few simple cooked dishes. The selection of rolls makes some concessions to Americanized tastes - you will find a California roll, a "rainbow roll," and at least one eel/mango/cream cheese concoction, but the real joy of Sushi Deli is in the more traditional items.

In particular, one of my favorites is the battera roll. The battera is an example of a very old-school style of sushi-making from Osaka which originated hundreds of years ago, in which vinegar-cured fish (often an oily fish like a mackerel) is pressed with rice which is shaped in a wooden box. At Sushi Deli, the rice (usually still a little warm, lightly vinegared, and moist enough to stick together without being gooey or clumpy) is topped with shiny, silver-skinned saba (mackerel), itself also vinegar-cured, along with a sheet of translucent marinated seaweed, and a sprinkle of toasted sesame seeds, all pressed into the box, removed and then cut into rectangles. It's beautiful to look at and, for someone like me who likes the stronger flavors of hikari-mono (the Japanese term for all silver-skinned fish like mackerel, sardine, etc.), delicious and satisfying.

Though not nearly so traditional, and even though I'm not usually big on maki, I also like the ceviche roll, which is light and inflected with citrus and cilantro, and the Marie Roll, filled with diced tuna with spicy (Sriracha?) sauce, a bit of toasted sesame oil, little bits of toasted garlic, and a sliver of shiso leaf. Little Miss F is also a big fan of the crunchy shrimp roll, a combination of a crispy fried shrimp, avocado, and mango, bound with a little spicy mayo and given a little sprinkle of masago for a little pop. Meanwhile, Frod Jr.'s regular order is the teriyaki salmon, served over steamed rice with some salad and edamame (a bargain lunch for $4.95 or $7.95 for double fish), which he sometimes supplements with some unagi nigiri.

Some of the best things I've eaten at Sushi Deli have come when I simply ask Chef Kushi to make what nigiri he thinks is best that day. Perhaps at this point some disclaimers are in order. If you are serious about sushi, one of the first lessons you learn is to befriend your itamae (the sushi chef). If you show that you are interested - by being a regular customer,[1] by politely asking questions, by being willing to try new items, you may open yourself up to a very different dining experience.[2] Not to wax too philosophical, but when done well and conscientiously, there is an intimacy to a sushi meal that is hard to find in just about any other restaurant experience. The person who is making your food is right there before you, you watch as it's prepared, the chef handles it with their own hands, and the chef can see your reaction as you eat it.

I have been going to Sushi Deli a couple times a month on average for years now. I literally could not even begin to count the times I've visited. And at a certain point, when I would ask Chef Kushi what's good today, he would actually tell me, and show me. I've had ama ebi, the shrimp served raw and deliciously sweet, the head separately fried and the whole thing edible; beautiful uni (sea urchin roe), sometimes a couple different varieties (sourced from the U.S. and Japan) to compare; tai (Japanese snapper), sometimes lightly cured between sheets of kombu; fat raw sea scallops; toro (fatty tuna), always served in a generous slab, most recently enlivened with a fresh grating of Himalayan salt right before serving; aji (horse mackerel), ankimo (monkfish liver), and another favorite I was introduced to here, sayori (needlefish or halfbeak), a beautiful little fish with delicate translucent white flesh and shiny silver skin.

Often these items will come with some small flourish that highlights and enhances the flavor of the fish - a bit of grated fresh ginger and its juice, a quick squeeze of lime or sudachi, a dab of ume (pickled plum) paste or some special yuzu miso, a sprinkling of togarashi. A few months ago around January, I was served another item I'd never experienced before, kazunoko, or herring roe, a beautiful golden leaf of tiny eggs clumped together, which looked almost like a segment of a grapefruit and had a light flavor and fascinating, slightly bouncy texture. It was only after coming home and doing some Googling that I learned that this is a traditional (and expensive) Japanese new year dish. I felt honored to have the chance to share in such a tradition.

Some of these things you will not find on any menu. And - though I don't want to sound elitist about it - the reality is that if you're a first time visitor to the place, you may not find them at all, even for asking. Chef Kushi is the furthest thing from a "sushi bully" you could ever imagine - he is humble, polite, friendly and welcoming - but sometimes there are perks to being a regular. On occasion, the best things will be saved for the best customers. This is one of the reasons I've hesitated to write about Sushi Deli even though I eat there nearly every week, though you'll still have an excellent meal there even if you have absolutely no interest in some of the more exotic items that may be available. I've thought about it even more after reading this proposed "Food Blog Code of Ethics", which certainly has some good ideas. But I think in some ways this is the type of experience that can not be captured through a traditional restaurant review. The purpose of a traditional review is to describe the experience that any diner walking off the street will experience. Sometimes you have to "work" to really get to know a place, before it will reveal all of its charms.

I saw the flipside of this phenomenon when I recently visited Matsuri, which I get to only rarely. I sat at the bar, and when the itamae had a moment of down-time I asked what was especially good today. The response was a perfunctory and dismissive "Everything." Would I be treated differently if I was there every couple weeks? It's distinctly possible. But given how happy I am after every visit to Sushi Deli, it's unlikely I'll ever find out.

Japanese Market a/k/a Sushi Deli
1412 79th Street Causeway
North Bay Village, FL 33141
Sushi Deli hours:
11:30am - 6:30pm Wed-Sat
12:00pm - 5:30pm Sun[3]

Japanese Market on Urbanspoon

[1] In his book "Turning the Tables: The Insider's Guide to Eating Out," eGullet founder Steven Shaw (a/k/a "Fat Guy") suggests a two-visit routine to make any itamae your "personal sushi chef." While it's a great book, I'm dubious as to the universal effectiveness of this particular bit of advice.

[2] Of course, at many places you'll just be banging your head against the wall - it just doesn't get any better than their commodity-quality generic fish.

[3] Do note that Japanese Market closes early. As a result of these hours, it has been almost exclusively a weekend lunch place for me.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

NAOE - Sunny Isles

What would you say if I told you there was a tiny place, in a little strip mall somewhere in Miami, that was turning out incredible, creative, beautiful Japanese dishes like nothing else you will find in this city? That they were flying in fish overnight from Japan or buying it that day from fishermen at Haulover Marina? That they did only an omakase menu, followed, if you're still hungry, by the chef's choice of beautifully pristine sushi until you say "uncle"?

No way?


A couple weeks ago while surfing OpenTable, I saw a new name on the list of restaurants. The description was intriguing:

Brand new to Sunny Isles Beach, Chef Kevin Cory specializes in natural Japanese Cuisine at NAOE. Every Wednesday through Sunday from 7pm - 1am, Chef Kevin Cory serves a unique Chef's Choice menu.
Looking over the website for NAOE, I learned that Chef Cory had trained in Japan at a traditional kaiseki restaurant, and returned to the States in 2001 where he took over the sushi bar at Siam River, a then-undistinguished Thai restaurant along the eastern stretch of the 163rd Street Causeway. Chef Cory's work with the sushi bar at Siam River earned him many fans, and apparently a couple years ago he got the ambition of running a place entirely his own. He opened NAOE about a month ago and it is undoubtedly one of the most unique restaurants I have eaten at in Miami.

It is a small but quietly elegant space, done mostly in shades of grey, brown and black with soft lights throughout (of course you have to recognize that I see nothing inelegant about an open kitchen literally stacked with shining stockpots, pans and steamers). There are 17 seats total, roughly half of which are at a beautiful blond wood bar which faces the open kitchen. The bar - made from hinoki wood, the same wood used for Japanese temples, this stuff sourced from Oregon - is sanded down with a small file every week. The entire restaurant staff consists of two people - Chef Cory (whose business card reads "executive chef, general manager & dishwasher") and Wendy Maharlika (that's who was listed on our receipt as "server", but her business card ought to read "maître d', hostess, sake sommelier, and public relations liaison"). We were the only ones there when we arrived around 9pm, but another couple came in shortly after. The location is a tiny little strip mall on the 163rd Street Causeway right before it connects with Collins Avenue on the beach side.[1] You could easily drive by a dozen times without ever noticing it.

You are given a small menu, but there are no choices as to what food to order. Rather, there are about a half-dozen choices of sake, all produced by Chef Cory's family in Japan, including junmai (organic to boot), ginjo, and daiginjo styles. There's also Sapporo beer - on tap! - and a couple non-alcoholic choices, including one of our kids' favorites, Ramune soft drink. For the food, you must put yourself entirely in the chef's hands, with only an inquiry as to food allergies before he gets to work.

Given the minimal staffing, obviously the cooking is entirely a one-man show. We watched as Chef Cory began his prep, meticulously fileting a small locally sourced Spanish mackerel (a/k/a sawara) and then slicing and arranging small strips. As he continued his preparations, our anticipation began to build. I had initially anticipated a series of small dishes like a tasting menu, but instead they explained that the service is bento box style with all the dishes presented together.

After about 20-30 minutes - during which our hostess conscientiously made sure our sake glasses never went dry, gave us some of the backstory on herself and Chef Cory, and showed us the future plans they have for the restaurant space - we were presented with two covered wooden boxes which were simultaneously unveiled before us. Alongside was a small covered bowl of soup.

The contents were just magnificent, at least if you're an adventurous and open-minded eater. The bento was divided into four compartments:
  • aji (horse mackerel), in a small bowl with a dab of wasabi paste (made not from the stuff in a tube but from freshly grated wasabi root supplemented with some horseradish), along with wasabi leaves and flowers. The aji's slight oiliness was nicely offset by the piquancy of the wasabi. The wasabi leaves and flowers - which I've never seen before - have the flavor of wasabi without the heat, providing a nice contrast and a texture similar to the smallest florets of broccoli rabe.
  • home-made egg tofu, beautifully silky and rich like a custard, topped with an uni (sea urchin roe) sauce with a delicate, almost peachy flavor, and crowned with a nasturtium flower.
  • a small little bowl carved from a turnip, filled with cubes of cooked turnip and rich, delicious ankimo (monkfish liver); alongside was a marinated whelk (sea snail), removed from its shell and then replaced for service, along with a small "cracker" of kohada (gizzard shad),[2] basically the frame (bones and tail with a little bit of attached meat) quick-fried, the entire thing crispy and edible, together with a couple little dumplings of parsnip with potato and seaweed.
  • a rice dish made with sardine and portobello mushroom, not at all overwhelmed by the sometimes strong taste of sardine, pleasantly dry and crispy and molded into the shape of a star or flower, and topped with slices of pickled daikon (daikon nukazuke, pickled in rice bran). Chef Cory is working on doing these in-house as well but they're not ready yet.
The soup was dashi-broth based but gelatinous and dense (thickened with kuzu) and carried the flavor of a cage-free chicken egg yolk that was poached in the broth (mine hardened to hard-boiled because I saved my soup for the end), and another tongue of uni floating within along with a fiddlehead fern.

The price for this fantastic little assemblage? $26.

After what we'd experienced so far I definitely wanted to try more. Chef Cory then moved us on to nigiri, serving two pieces at a time until we'd had enough. He started by first getting warm rice, and put some into a small wooden bowl with just enough for our service. We were started with salmon belly, a couple pieces for each of us cut from a beautiful slab of Scottish salmon which was immediately wrapped back up in plastic wrap and stowed away again in the fridge. The nigiri were quickly shaped with the warm rice, presented to each of us on small wooden boards, and given a delicate brushing of a shoyu-based sauce the chef has prepared himself to perfectly match the sushi. The salmon was wonderfully fresh and rich, and the contrast of the cool fish against the still-warm rice was just magnificent.

Knowing there was kohada in the house, I couldn't stop there. The next round of nigiri was the kohada, which Chef Cory brings in fresh from Japan and does a light vinegar cure himself in-house. The fish - which has beautiful silver skin speckled with black dots - was cut into strips and braided. One of my favorite things, and one that I've not been able to find elsewhere in Miami.

Next - and finally, for us, though I didn't really want to quit - was aori ika, a big squid brought in fresh (our hostess showed us a picture of the squid with its suckers still holding onto the cutting board). It is lightly salt-cured, with a small bed of finely shredded nori over the rice, and then the squid topped with a tiny yellow flower. Unlike any squid I've ever had before, this had a soft, almost creamy texture, rather than the bounciness you usually associate with squid.

Though we didn't try it during our visit, our hostess advised that Chef Cory does his own in-house "bbq" eel - unlike the pre-packaged eel you will find at most sushi places, he brings the eel in fresh and cooks it and makes his own sauce from scratch.

Everything we were served was elegant and beautiful, but most of all, delicious. The ingredient list here reads eerily like a list of my personal favorites (uni, ankimo, kohada, aji ...) but Mrs. F, who is not nearly as partial to these kinds of things as me, thoroughly enjoyed it as well. Chef Cory said that he tries to not give diners too much of a preview, so that they do not write off things before they've tried them.

This was, quite simply, one of the most unexpected and special dining experiences I've had in Miami in quite some time. The food was creative and delicious with adventurous and magnificently fresh ingredients. The chef and hostess were earnest, friendly, and absolutely charming. I enjoyed this so much, and was so pleasantly surprised, that I was afraid to go to sleep last night for fear that it would all turn out to just be a dream.

I will go back soon just to make sure.

Note: For pictures from a subsequent meal at NAOE, go here.

175 Sunny Isles Boulevard
Sunny Isles Beach, FL 33160
Wed-Sun 7pm - 1am[3]

[1] If it helps you get your bearings, it is right next door to the "Neptune Seafood Restauarant" - you can even sometimes hear the drumbeat of the Russian karaoke music through the walls.

[2] I may have misheard this, as I've never seen kohada cooked before. The size was about right though.

[3] Though the place is not busy (yet), I would highly recommend making reservations. Much of the food is made to order and with the one-man show in the kitchen, some advance notice will likely make for a much better dining experience.