I’ve long bemoaned the state of sushi in Florida. You’d think a state surrounded by ocean on three sides would be more discerning when it comes to seafood. There are myriad establishments where one can enjoy a maki roll, perhaps drizzled with a fruit infused syrup and blanketed with tempura crispies. There are even a few places that offer omakase at the bar, but when it comes to traditional Japanese kaiseki dining, well, until recently, I had given up the search.
Thankfully, my good friend and occasional food cohort, Mr. Todd Sturtz, threw me tip a few months back about a little sushi bar on Brickell Key called NAOE (pronounced nah-o-ay). Ever since, I’ve been trying to make a reservation, to no avail, tables are usually booked straight through their 3 month window. A couple of weeks back though, I was making my regular check of OpenTable (the only place you can reserve a table), and found a table for the second seating (NAOE only has two seatings a day) the very next evening! I couldn’t book it fast enough for fear of some sushi sniper snaking it out from under my scallop loving nose.
What you see above is the entirety of the restaurant, not counting the private dining room off the entrance (the design of which was enough to get this architects juices flowing), so it’s easy to see why they’re booked solid for months in advance. You’ll receive the warmest of welcomes from Wendy, who plays the dual role of maître’d and tour guide throughout the meal, answering questions and explaining dishes and their ingredients.
Our seats at the bar afforded us an unobstructed view of Chef Kevin Cory’s immaculate kitchen. You’d be excused for thinking you’re in a showroom, until Kevin enters from behind the curtain to begin a solo performance that transforms it into a stage.
The first act was a bento box, with a beautifully composed assortment of seasonal ingredients, many of which I’ve never tried before. You can check out the detailed menu here. Each quadrant had something unique to offer, a creamy chawanmushi with geoduck and shimeji mushroom, tangy and sweet boniato potato rice with daikon pickled with koji, a rice mold used in the making of sake. A striking bowl of cobia sashimi, two tiny kombu and roe “sandwiches” on shiso and freshly grated wasabi was a favorite. The upper right corner displayed a smattering of fresh seafood, game, and produce. Small fried chunks of kisu (small fish often used in tempura) rolled in poppy seed, fried gingko biloba nuts with firefly squid, and roast duck breast with local green beans were just a few of the items. At the time I didn’t know what I was eating, even after Wendy’s masterful explanation. This allowed for the rare experience of trying something new with absolutely zero expectations. It was truly an adventure in eating.
Soon after our boxes were cleared, we were presented with a handsome broiled kasugodai (baby red snapper) with king trumpet mushrooms, spinach and meyer lemon. The texture was pillowy, like a gently cooked marshmallow, but not sticky. The flesh is sweet, offset by a soft touch of salt from the skin. Pro tip, don’t stop eating once the body is consumed, grab that head and dig out the fluffy cheeks on either side, you’ll be in for a treat. As we patiently made our way through the kasugodai, Wendy entertained us with stories of past diners apparent discomfort with eye contact, who attempted to hide the fish face under a napkin. Welcome to America.
Now what I’m sure you’ve been waiting for, the sushi. The procession lasted for 11 courses and was, if I’m honest, the most amazing sushi I’ve ever had in the States, hands down. Taste, color, smell, touch, each sense was able to enjoy the superlative freshness that the fish displayed. Both my father and I were speechless as each piece was presented, how the heck do you keep this stuff so fresh traveling all the way from Tsukiji?! While everything was outstanding, there were a couple of particularly bright spots. In the top right square is a baby golden ring octopus, paired with poached lobster and pea tendrils, atop a slice of Florida avocado. I wish I’d had the gall to ask for a whole bowl of this octopus, the flavor was addictive to say the least, it even beat out the lobster in my opinion. The second moan inducing piece is in the square just above the logo. Both look like uni, but on the right is something called konoko, which are, wait for it, sea cucumber ovaries! Dear lord this was the most delicious thing I’ve put in my mouth in some time. I’d take this over uni any day, and I’m an uni man through and through.
From the oyster, to the live scallop, two preparations of unagi, the Seuss sounding red bluefish, it was a tasty parade of sea life this Floridian has never experienced.
For dessert Kevin started us with a palate cleanser of locally grown ugli fruit, caimito and sapodilla. Those last two were new to me, the purple and white slices were the caimito, also known as star apple. The taste and texture were reminiscent of lychee. The sapodilla on the other hand was more like a pear. All the fruit was sourced personally by chef Cory from local grower Robert Is Here in Homestead, FL.
Our next dish was brought with a challenge, guess what’s in the ice cream. After a half-dozen bites of it paired with the kasutera (Japanese sponge cake made with milk and honey) I was stumped. It was delicious to be sure, but I just couldn’t figure it out. Then Jep blurts out, “it’s soy sauce!”. A round of applause please for a fantastic palate. Sure enough the ice cream was infused with soy sauce straight from Oono, Japan where chef Cory’s family has owned a shoyu brewery since 1825.
Matcha tea soup and a healthy chunk of mamey, another unknown fruit, was the final dish. Mamey is related to mangosteen, although the two are nothing alike. It was creamy and sweet, more custard than fruit, so soft you could slice it with the provided toothpick. We enjoyed a refreshing frozen sake, again provided by chef Cory’s family.
NAOE has easily made its way into the top ten meals of my life (the top 5 was getting a little restricting, sue me). In my opinion, this place easily stands among the greatest restaurants in the country, and the world for that matter.
Now I must share a few disclaimers to anyone considering a visit here:
- Don’t bring anyone who’s unwilling to try new things, this is not the place for them. Unless you’re ready to taste everything without preconceived notions or squeamishness, don’t bother.
- Allow 2-3 hours for dinner, don’t be like the couple sitting next to us who got up and left halfway through the sushi courses. For a restaurant that only has two seatings a night, you have to be a pretty big douche to snub the chef like that (although we did get to eat their eel…serves ’em right).
- When you make the reservation you pay for dinner up front, $200 a head, while it is more than worth the price for what you get, it’s something to keep in mind. NAOE would be a fantastic venue for an amazing anniversary dinner or other quiet special occasion.
Well there it is folks, a top of the top-notch Japanese restaurant right here in Florida, but don’t tell too many people, I still want to be able to get a table!