Bento and sushi blow me away at Naoe

Bento at NaoeI feel fortunate to meet so many fantastic chefs and to experience their fabulous cooking. To date, I don’t tire of the numerous opportunities to dine out, as going to a new restaurant is still an exciting adventure. I wonder: Will it be one to find fault with, prompting a negative review? Or will it be a winner—perhaps even a standout for the quality of the food, or the overall experience.

My meal last month at Naoe, just north of Miami, was one of the standouts.

I knew I’d have a chance for one dinner in the Miami area during a drive from Key West to Boca Raton (stay tuned for reviews of meals in those two locations), so I scouted the Chowhound, eGullet and Mouthfuls message boards for ideas. A few posts about the relatively new Naoe shared information that piqued my interest:

  • Kevin Cory is the only one in the kitchen; his business card reads “executive chef, general manager, & dishwasher”
  • there are only 17 seats in the entire restaurant
  • the only menu is for the drinks
  • the only food choice is a $26 kaiseki-style bento box, followed by an omakase offering of sushi

Oh—and the reviews were overwhelmingly positive.

So I made a reservation, as this isn’t a “simply stroll in” type of restaurant. After my GPS and I finally found the place (Naoe is in a strip mall of mostly Russian businesses, as Sunny Isles has a large Russian population—there’s even a karaoke joint next door), the two of us sat at the counter (where there are five seats—this in addition to tables for two, four or six), and then waited and watched.

Expect to do that. And enjoy it, perhaps over some sake brewed by Chef Cory’s family in Japan. (They also brew their own soy sauce.) Watching Cory is worth the price of admission. Take in his intensity. Smell the dashi. Watch the precise knifework. You’ll hardly know an hour’s likely gone by before he’s assembling your bento. And when you get it (a box with four compartments, plus soup), you’ll find the most delicate of dishes, with varying tastes and textures, symbolic of fine Japanese food. Here’s what ours contained:

  • organic carrot egg-tofu, jyunsai and mitsuba clear soup
  • simmered whiting and okra jelly with shiso and simmered lotus root
  • sake simmered Scottish salmon on organic tofu
  • deep fried whole gizzard shad bones & parsnip
  • simmered firefly squid and live scallop mantle with marinated fava beans and rice vinegar sauce
  • blanched sea bream sashimi on wasabi leaves & wasabi flowers
  • steamed bamboo rice with rice bran pickled daikon

From soup to rice, it was all spectacular. I loved the specificity of serving the scallop mantle (the thin tissue layer surrounding the body, where the scallop’s 60 or so bright blue eyes are located), the use of wasabi leaves and flowers, and the chef’s recent discovery of parsnips (which tasted oh-so-good alongside the fried fish bones). This is exotic fare elegantly prepared.

(When your main criticism of a restaurant is that it should play an iPod or other music system instead of broadcasting a radio station during dinner, you’re in for excellent eating. But I should be kind in criticizing media. I obviously have a lot to learn about videotaping! I’ll actually be trading my Flip Mino for a Creative Vado, as I think the Flip is too tight, and can’t capture the action well.)

After this, the wooden boards come out. Push yours toward Cory if you’d like some sushi. It’s omakase, so you’re at the mercy of the chef, but his choices are masterful. Much of the fish is flown in from Tsukiji, so it’s high quality. As is the preparation. We both had a few nigiri:

  • Scottish salmon belly nigirizushi
  • bigfin reef squid (head and fin) nigirizushi with orange soy sauce
  • horse mackerel nigirizushi with grated ginger

Check out my YouTube video, which demonstrates Cory’s technique (he’s quiet and confident) and the finished product. The sushi’s pricey, but again, this is high quality product. I especially enjoyed the chance to compare the parts of the squid; as expected, I liked the taste of the head just a little bit more than the fin.

The meal ended with slices of cantaloupe bathing in sweet rice vinegar fish sauce. Refreshing, and fitting for the meal. A special meal. One worth seeking out, and unlike anything I’ve experienced in Seattle. In fact, you’d probably have to hunt carefully to enjoy such an experience in Tokyo. If you find yourself in the Miami area, I highly recommend it, as Naoe is well worth the hunt.