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One of the quietest explosions to hit Miami in the past two years has been the proliferation of Japanese restaurants. Suddenly a scene that consisted mostly of chain operations (Benihana, Samurai) and mainstays (Tani Guchi's Place, Sakura, Kampai) was joined by at least eight newcomers. Nine months ago one of these arrivals, Chiyo Japanese Restaurant, ensconced itself in the Coconut Grove ghost town called Mayfair, breathing life into the second floor on the west side of the complex.
Sleek and sexy, Chiyo is as dark as a leather bar. Charcoal tile floors, black walls, and charcoal tables are jazzed up by splashes of brilliant color, including a yellow neon sign that spells "sushi." The waitresses wrap themselves in flower-printed kimonos and are quite gracious. To guests coming in from the cold one chilly evening, they suggested a vessel of warm sake, which certainly did the trick for us.
As is traditional at Japanese restaurants, dozens of items are available to whet the appetite, both from the teriyaki grill and the sushi bar. In addition, two soups are offered, both superb: a miso (at $1.50, the dinner hour's best bargain) and a seafood soup of shrimp and scallops. The teriyaki appetizers range from hijiki (cooked black seaweed) to soft-shell crab; sushi starters include K Roll (cucumber with salmon, cream cheese, crab, and scallion served with a special ponzu sauce), Norwegian unsalted salmon, and three inside-out rolls. Or you can try a sushi or sashimi sampler in either a regular portion ($18.50) or a large portion ($24.50), with selections varying almost daily depending on availability.
For those who prefer only a taste of raw fish, the restaurant offers two complete dinners that include just enough: The Mayfair Special ($24) features shrimp tempura, sashimi, and a combination of chicken and beef teriyaki; and the top-of-the-line Chiyo Special ($30), a combination of shrimp tempura, sushi and sashimi, prime rib-eye steak, and a lobster tail.
Both friends who dined with me at Chiyo are sushi aficionados. I learned from them that fresh seafood has a scent no stronger than that of fresh cucumbers, and that freshness is absolutely key to this dish's success. My companions also pointed out that the sushi they ordered was cool, a sign that it had not been handled extensively by the chef. Colorfully presented with a soy dipping sauce and strips of pickled ginger, their rolled fish and vinegared rice was fresh-tasting and satisfying.
A number of agemono (fried dishes) are served, including tempura of vegetables, shrimp, scallops, or lobster. I tried the vegetable tempura on my first visit, and the bite-size pieces of broccoli, cauliflower, snow peas, sweet potato, and carrot slivers arrived at the table hot from the pan. If you're trying to wean yourself from fried foods, as I am, tempura is an excellent route. The vegetables in my entree, for example, had been coated in a light egg-and-rice-flour batter prepared in a bowl surrounded by ice, according to the waitress. As the cold batter hits the hot sesame oil, steam is generated, causing the food to cook almost instantly - before it becomes saturated with oil. As is true of all world-class dishes, it's part art, part science.
On my second visit I ordered one of a half-dozen teriyaki dinners, which range in price from $10.95 for the chicken to $23.50 for steak and lobster tail cooked in this "shining broil" fashion. I chose a combination of chicken and prime rib-eye ($15.50), and it was a beauty. Perfect, bite-size slices of lean, tender beef and an equal number of slices from the breast of a chicken arrived on an iron plate inserted in a wooden tray. The meats were glazed to a chestnut color by the mirin sauce, which also imparted a subtle sweetness. A wedge of tomato, slivers of carrots, and broccoli - the last two steamed just until al dente - flanked the main course, beneath which was a light layer of sauce and some wonderfully fresh bean sprouts, which lent yet another texture to that dish.
The beef had been cooked to order - medium - and was so tender that cutting it with chopsticks was as easy as using a knife to cut warm butter. The same was true of the chicken. It was a satisfying selection from first bite to last.
Unlike some Japanese restaurants, Chiyo offers a number of desserts, all of which contain ice cream. Chiyo's clever chef, however, makes his own, in two Oriental flavors: green tea and red bean ($2.50 each). His rendition of fried ice cream - made with a banana, if you like - is magical. The lighter-than-air outer coating of thin pastry was warm, the mashed banana cool, and the ice cream cold and zesty with a rich flavor reminiscent of French vanilla.
Impeccable service rounded out an evening of excellent food and chic surroundings. A busboy - one is on constant patrol of each area of the restaurant - rushed over with a fresh pot of steaming tea each time my cup was empty, and the waitress who served us was upbeat, especially when she saw how thoroughly we had cleaned our plates. As she bantered with my companion, I could only think: Leave it to the Japanese to take the first step in bringing this deserted rococo mall back to life.
CHIYO JAPANESE RESTAURANT
Mayfair, 3399 Virginia St, Coconut Grove; 445-0865. Lunch Monday - Thursday from noon to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Monday -Thursday from 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. (Open Friday and Saturday until 11:00 p.m.; Sunday until 10:00 p.m.)