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Chef Shingo Akikuni at work at Azabu’s The Den.

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Chef's Choice

By Jen Karetnick

PHOTOS BY DEEPSLEEP STUDIO

10.23.18

A superior omakase experience awaits diners at Azabu’s The Den.

Omakase is not a word that’s bandied about the Miami dining scene often. Meaning “I will leave it to you,” omakase is a prix fixe meal comprising mostly sushi courses as well as some cooked fare and palate cleansers. It’s best experienced at a tiny sushi den, which typically has very few seats, where diners can watch the chef work, or at a highly reputable sushiya that has a dedicated room for such a stylized meal. The responsibilities of enjoying it, then, fall equally on the chef and the diner. On the former’s part, it requires talent and imagination, years of training and access to superbly fresh seasonal as well as imported ingredients. On the latter’s? Few, if any, dietary restrictions, a basic understanding of Japanese culinary traditions, or at least a willingness to learn, and an adventurous palate that won’t refuse a finely tuned morsel.

One of the latest places to offer this experience is The Den at Azabu, the Michelin-starred sibling of the New York-based restaurant that opened at the Marriott Stanton South Beach earlier this year. A secret room separated from the main area with 11 seats, The Den is accessed by ducking into Azabu’s kitchen, then through a curtain into a completely wood-lined room reminiscent of a sauna. Guests take their places at the counter, which was carved from a Hinoki cypress tree, and order one of two experiences: the $120 or the $150 multicourse meal, with a sake pairing option for an additional $60.

Whichever option you choose, you’re in the hands of a Tokyo-trained sushi chef, who is overseen by chef Masatsugu Kubo. And we mean that literally: Piece by piece, everything is crafted in the palm of a chef who has apprenticed for years and often is the product of generations of sushi chefs to reach this level. His balletic fingers turn and toss perfectly seasoned rice into the ideal mold; they grip small brushes and blowtorches alike to paint sauces like nikiri, or sweetened soy sauce, and cook the outer layer of items such as sweet shrimp. They grasp knives and slice fish with the dramatic flair of flamenco dancers. It is not so
much dinner as it is a culinary performance, and you are both audience and beneficiary.

At The Den, omakase begins with a grating of fresh wasabi (the actual root, not the reconstitution of the dried powder). It continues with a single serving of introductory maki—usually something mild and white, perhaps snapper, sculpted over just the right amount of room-temperature rice—that is meant to be briefly dipped in your personal ratio of wasabi to shoyu. Eat it all in one bite; if you can’t, the chef will adjust the portion. The intensity of fish oiliness and flavor will then increase over the course of the meal.

A chef scoops out the perfect portion of rice.

After that, the wasabi and soy sauce are removed, and the chef strokes each piece, whether it’s meant to be maki or sashimi, with the correct flavor and amount of sauce that he wants you to encounter. If there’s sauce at all, that is. For instance, during my visit, Japanese flounder was seasoned with only Key lime and sea salt. The uniformly shredded raw squid, which had a pastalike texture, was served with a dollop of both wasabi and minced chiles, but no soy sauce at all. Meanwhile, a slice of raw tuna had been previously marinated in soy sauce.

Tuna will likely be offered in a variety of ways, as it is not only prized, but almost always a mise en place point of pride. After marveling at the velvety quality of the medium and high fatty cuts from the belly and munching on a temaki (hand roll) comprising the leaner meat, made creamier with avocado and zestier with scallion before being wrapped in delicious nori, we watched a smartphone video of the chef filleting the whole, enormous fish.

Chefs trained in this art are expected to be showy and personable, but not too personal, getting to know their customers by both casual conversation and observation. By only the second plating—a double dish of tempura octopus and cold fried fish, similar to escabeche, with pickled seaweed—our chef discovered that I have a relatively small appetite, and slightly reduced the portions to make it easier for me to consume every course completely. A server and the manager also hover discreetly, both to tend and to interpret should language prove a barrier. We found this helpful when the chef began hewing and shaping imported fish to be served in succession, such as kochi flathead, from the Kyushu region; kinmedai, or golden eye snapper; aji, Japanese horse mackerel; shima-aji, or striped jack; Hokkaido salmon roe; and Japanese sea eel, which is meatier and less stringent than the freshwater unagi that most sushi restaurants in this country serve.

But we didn’t need any assistance when it came to one of the finest moments of the meal: the sea urchin comparison. Occasionally, when an omakase chef sees you enjoy something in particular, he will go out of his way to provide a treat. This is what happened when we were savoring the sea urchin, imported from Hokkaido. Like a light layer of ocean air on the palate, it was an incredibly fresh, satiny dollop that we thoroughly admired. The chef then brought out the sea urchin he had from Mexico, providing us a side-by-side tasting of the two. It was a generous, welcome experience.

In between the raw bites, the server delivered small plates of cooked fare, such as black cod marinated in miso for 72 hours, paired with pickled baby cucumbers and a Japanese plum, and a bowl of miso soup. The sushi chef also handed over refreshers like a tiny temaki with shredded daikon and ginger. Tamago (egg custard) was followed by green tea, and a choice of raspberry sorbet or tofu panna cotta awaited, a light and pleasant way to end such an amazing meal.

Omakase etiquette is complicated, but the chef and server guide you on when to use chopsticks, when to use fingers, when to cleanse your palate and even when you’ve inadvertently left a nearly invisible speck of sea urchin in the dish. There’s only one rule they can’t instruct you on in person: Don’t be late. This is a tough one for Miamians, but perhaps the most important one because omakase takes time... as well it should. 161 Ocean Drive, Miami Beach, 786.276.0520  

Vegan roll

Omakase On!
These three eateries do right by the Japanese tradition.

Hiden
So extraordinarily popular that it’s booked several months in advance, this classic sushi den—pronounced “hi-den”—is turning away celebrities. So make your reservations now (click “Secret Door” on the website to lead to the link) for your turn to observe the paring, molding, slicing and painting. Chef Tadashi Shiraishi’s lineup of dishes, about seven to eight per meal, is meticulous, artistic and always surprising, based on seasonal availability as well as sustainability. The restaurant seats eight people for two seatings per evening, at 7 and 10pm. $150 per person excluding alcohol, service and tax, 313 NW 25th St., Miami, hi@hidenmiami.com

Katsuya
Little-known fact: At the SLS South Beach, Katsuya’s forward-looking Japanese restaurant offers two nights—Friday and Saturday—of omakase availability. Though the restaurant itself is billed as “Japanese-inspired,” the omakase is fairly traditional. Chef Hiro Asano creates the menu live for only two parties of four per evening. Diners can choose between a 6 or an 8:30pm seating. And yes, you might get some neo-Japanese treats during your meal as well. It is, after all, up to the chef. $125 per person excluding sake flight, whisky cart service and tax, reservations required, 1701 Collins Ave., Miami Beach, 305.455.2995

Naoe
The OG of omakase and kaiseki (multiple small bites served on one tray, in this case Kevin Cory’s renowned bento boxes), Naoe has the advantage of a family business behind it. Chef Cory imports his relatives’ Japan-brewed sake and shoyu for the restaurant. These are just two examples of the quality of ingredients that diners will find at the tips of their lips and chopsticks here. What you won’t find, generally, are too many repeating dishes from one visit to the next; for Cory, it’s the freshness, coupled with balance, that’s the most important part of his service. Eight people per seating at 6 and 9:30pm. $220 per person excluding alcohol, service and tax, reservations required (for special requests, 10 days in advance), 601 Brickell Key Drive, Miami, 305.947.6263