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If every South Beach sushi joint were laid side by side, the resultant restaurant row would stretch from one end of the district to the other. These sushi spots all have a lot in common. For one thing, sushi — and a sushi bar. Also, sashimi, creative rolls, sophisticated sake selections, lots of black lacquer, Japanese symbols, and paper lanterns and screens.
Shiso Miami serves sushi, sashimi, and so forth, but it is nonetheless different from the rest.
To start, the Sunset Harbour space is named for hole-in-the-wall gastro-pubs in Tokyo called shiso — although it could have been transported from New York's East Village. There is no signage, yet dining room doors open to the moderately traversed street, allowing the industrial interior to announce itself: walls of faded brick, poured cement floors, thick wooden tables, and a cement wall separating the dining area from a lounge space comfortably spread with sofas. A bar in back horseshoes into both sides of the venue. Heavy cast-iron stools line up on the left, where drinks get poured. On the opposite side, in the other room, a sushi chef slices, dices, and rolls. There are no seats from which to observe him doing so.
Lighting is low, illumination coming mostly from candles on every table and two old, enormous, rusty iron candelabras hanging from the rafters and barely aglow with flame-shaped bulbs (the fixtures look as though they could have been snatched from a Harry Potter film set). Reggae and house music pour loudly from the speakers, and eclectic artwork includes what looks to be a Grateful Dead poster designed by Ed Hardy. Shiso's ambiance doesn't exactly make you feel Japanese, but it's a cool place to hang.
When the hip hideaway opened eight months ago, the menu was lengthier, more complex, and a bit more interesting — with a chirashi assortment of fish, an exotic caviar platter (wasabi, tobiko, yuzu, etc.), flambéed "volcano" spicy tuna, calamari strips from Oahu, and so on. The bill of fare is still appealing, but now under chef Adam Maglin-Ravetz (who replaced the original chef about three months ago), it is short and sweet: seven salads/starters ($4 to $16), four signature appetizers ($14 to $16), a dozen rolls ($9 to $16), and seventeen sushi/sashimi selections ($6 to $11).
Truffled edamame has become the signature starter. A generous helping was steamy-hot and studded with sea salt that stuck to our fingers and seasoned the soybeans as we ate them. If there was also truffle oil on the skins, somehow it never transferred to our digits.
Shiso's miso soup is standard stuff, with a requisite dash of katsuo dashi, thinly sliced scallion greens, snippets of shiitake, and neat, petite cubes of tofu. A scoop of wakame salad likewise satisfied in familiar fashion, although the sprightly goji berries and radish sprout garnish added a colorful touch. One of the few hot apps featured a tasty take on Asian fish and chips: three skewer-straightened tempura shrimp encased in crunchy battered crust, with fresh sweet potato fries also sheathed in tempura.
All the signature rolls we sampled arrived as six slices rolled inside out, with black sesame seeds spotting the rice. Makimono scallop had the round raw bivalve wrapped with a thin stalk of asparagus running through it; salty plum sauce came smeared on the plate for dipping, but advertised truffle oil was again undetected. Avocado formed the center for another roll, which was capped with warm, smoky slices of eel speckled with toasted shredded coconut and pooled in an apple cider-based eel sauce. A hamachi-jalapeño roll kicked in with crunchy heat from the pepper and a spicy mayo sauce (although the nori, here and at many sushi spots in humid South Florida, should be crisper). Also available are five teeny slivers of hamachi, rolled to the size of a button and topped with a hot circle of jalapeño and a bright red goji berry — delectable, but less sating than your average amuse-bouchée.
Portions are about half the size of those at other places, which makes the prices here seem deceptively low. Sushi/sashimi orders, for instance, feature only two slices of fish. Still, they were good, especially a waiter-recommended Tasmanian sea trout that was neon orange, fat-streaked, and delectable in a salmon-belly way. Fluke sushi came draped over small spheres of rice seeped with lots of wasabi — too much, really. Try the in-house smoked salmon, which trumpets a more potent smoke than usual.
It is possible the waitstaff imbibed a more potent smoke than usual: Shiso's service was forgetful and lackadaisical to an almost Alzheimerish degree. On one visit, we weren't brought napkins, chopsticks, or flatware until after the food arrived; water glasses went unreplenished; ginger, wasabi, and soy sauce were served only upon request. Another time, we were served soy, but with one dish for two people (again, though, no wasabi or ginger); water glasses were again ignored; and the check was delivered before we were asked if we wanted dessert (we did). Both times, there were as many people on staff as in the seats.
Choice of dessert is limited to green tea ice cream or sweet potato tempura — this time served as disks rather than fries — with a dish of condensed milk for dipping. If the selection seems skimpy, it's because the fuel that runs Shiso's engine is apparently not food, but alcoholic beverages.