A Yellowtail of Two Cities
Bond St. Lounge is the South Beach outpost of Manhattan's megasuccessful nouvelle Japanese sushi and sake restaurant. There are differences to be sure. Whereas the Big Apple Bond St. is an elegantly minimalist three-floor emporium, the one here is in a basement (of the Townhouse, a recently renovated hipster hotel off Collins Avenue at Twentieth Street). Up north they serve tuna sushi topped with edible gold leaf, bamboo-wrapped fluke, and sea bass sashimi with cod roe and fennel-oba leaf sorbet; the menu here doesn't lack innovation, but it's not nearly as brash and exciting. I won't dawdle any longer down this depressing SoBe versus SoHo path, except to note that if New York's Bond is Sean Connery, ours is Timothy Dalton.
Let's stress the good news first: Nigiri, sashimi, and sushi are consistently fresh and comparable to any in town, and the sake selection is superb, suavely overseen by connoisseur Christopher Johnson. Sashimi comes two pieces per order and swims the usual gamut from mackerel to yellowtail; the only surprises in the mix are Maine lobster and seared beef, the latter of which is traditional in Japan, where the raw beef is rolled on to a hot plate for just a few seconds. They were out of big-eye tuna chu toro on two of our three visits, but when we finally snared some, the tender slices melted mellifluously on the palate. Sushi picks were creatively sauced and extremely flavorful, the rice containing a proper balance of sugar, vinegar, and salt. Crisply crusted sesame-fried shrimp roll, tails rising from the center of two slices, sizzled with an orange-curry mustard sauce, a balsamic honey drizzle adding dazzle. Lobster tempura roll sparkled as well, especially when dipped into a yellow tomato sauce dotted with chive pesto. Slivered almonds added crunch to hot eel dice, rectangular stacks of rice, sansho pepper (or Szechuan peppercorns, which actually are dried seeds), and rich oily sea eel. Arugula crisp potato roll was the only letdown. Despite a sprightly carrot-ginger dressing that played well against the bitterish green, this was, in fact, just an arugula roll, which is not particularly riveting, sided by a small stack of thin potato sticks soggily imbued with day-old flavor.
We indulged in no sushi on our first visit and, in retrospect, not nearly enough sake. Things started out awkwardly when we parked up the block and across the street from the Townhouse and, after hiking to the entrance, were told it would cost ten dollars to leave our car there. Absent were any "No Parking" signs, nor was there a "Valet Parking" sign. We walked back to the car, drove it around the corner to a metered parking lot, and plugged in eight quarters for two hours, which was playing it safe in light of our plans for a quick bite at the sushi bar. Or so we thought. When we told the host at the door that we'd like to do just that, he said "Bar?"
Bond St. Lounge
150 20th Street, Miami Beach
305-534-3800. Open daily for dinner, 6:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m.
"No, sushi bar," I repeated, to which he said, "Sushi bar?"
"I guess a table will do," I relented, and, yes, his response really was, "Table?" (To be fair the music was loud.) My wife chipped in: "Is this Bond St., and if so, can we be seated somewhere to eat?" At that point the young man snapped back to earth and led us to a small area at the far end of the baby-blue-color room behind and above the main dining space.
We thought we were being seated at a makeshift spot usually used for cocktails only, until a glance around revealed that all the tables looked this way. To call Bond St. a stupidly designed restaurant would be an exaggeration -- remember, with only 60 seats, it's just a lounge. The modernist/minimalist décor, while casual, and from some angles even moderately attractive, is fashioned by extremely uncomfortable furniture. Big U-shape banquettes with hard cushionless backs (albeit with some throw pillows), along with wooden-slatted backless benches of the sort usually reserved for sitting shiva, clumsily surround little round tables. (Torturous seating seems to be a trend in this year's new crop of restaurants, perhaps a conscious effort to produce a quicker turnover rate.) The eight people seated next to us were reduced to crouching around a trio of these teeny tables and leaning over to grab food, as if at a party with too many people. Bond St. has even created an entirely new type of chair, called a "two-person barstool," evidently so that couples can share in the discomfort.
The cuisine comes from a kitchen that's right beyond the bathrooms. Waiters carrying, say, steaming hot bowls of miso, must dodge large doors that swing out quickly into their path. I didn't witness any waiters getting knocked in the noggin while trying to negotiate that pass, but it must happen -- how else to explain their staggering about the dining room with dishes of food in their hands and no idea where to go? Our eight neighboring diners were served in a manner that can only be described as ballpark-style, the rallying cry not "Hot dogs! Get yer hot dogs!" but "Sea eel tempura! Anyone order sea eel tempura?" Meanwhile a hotel elevator is located on one side of the lounge, its doors occasionally opening to emit a blast of fluorescent light. I'll admit this doesn't do much for the ambiance, but it does provide a good opportunity to attempt speed-reading the menu, as the room will return to being too dark to do so when the doors close again. It also was difficult to read the "No Smoking" sign stenciled on my seatback, the letters lost in the dim lighting and a haze of cigarette smoke.
Excepting a ceviche quartet -- four tiny glass bowls filled with heavenly treatments of marinated lobster, octopus, salmon, and fluke -- the food on our initial trip to Bond wasn't so hot. Literally in the case of a so-called warm shrimp cocktail, which was the temperature of a cold shrimp cocktail left out too long -- as in an hour, which is the time it took to arrive. The waiter apologized for the delay, declaring that our first order of shrimp had been taken to, and accepted by, the wrong table. Lukewarmness notwithstanding, the skewered crustaceans were plump, properly poached, and served in a bamboo steamer basket with a small glass bowl of clarified key lime butter in the center (it took a bit of poking about to discover the pool of cocktail sauce on a leaf at the bottom). I'd like to say that the three other dishes we ordered were enough to tide us over until the shrimp arrived, but the aforementioned ceviche was the size of an amuse bouche; the waiter dropped by to tell us that they were out of the toro tuna; and spicy wing harumaki, a trio of fried conical chicken and kim chee spring rolls, were the size of midget ice cream cones. Worse, the ground chicken within was unremarkable, accented by the weakest of kim chee kicks. After the last of our morsels had vanished, we waited for the check. And waited some more until it finally arrived, but included the tuna. Corrected, with tax and tip (but not including sake or water), the trio of appetizers came to $45. Prices per dish aren't high (excepting specialty sushi, most run from $6 to $14), but you'll need to quaff quite a few to satisfy even a mild hunger. The crowd here can afford it: I counted more pieces of jewelry per table than silverware, and that was just on the men. We heated up some soup upon arriving home.
Subsequent visits occurred earlier in the evening, the room practically empty on both occasions, the waitstaff much more attentive. Our nonsushi food choices were better as well, especially a superb appetizer of steamed black sea bass draped in ginger, scallion, and whole cilantro leaves, with a light oyster sauce and bright chili oil that were, in tandem, more delicately delicious than they sound. A mildly aromatic miso soup with cubes of tofu, wafts of wakame seaweed, and slivers of shiitake also was deftly done, as was our side dish of nasu dengaku, six spears of softly broiled eggplant with sweet miso glaze.
Powdered green tea (matcha) dominates a duo of what, for want of a better word, are called desserts: It gets swirled through nuggets of white chocolate (matcha chocolate), which really is a confection, and serves as the base for iced matcha cappuccino, which is just a fancy name given to a serving of iced tea, the matcha naturally forming a froth on top when whisked; a smidgen of red-bean ice cream sat by the side of the glass. The lightly sweet soup of Asian pears proved a more refreshing liquid, the half-cup of fresh nectar flecked with three raspberries, three blueberries, a whisper of crme fraîche and snippet of shisho (a member of the mint family). I enjoyed my few sips, though I couldn't help but think the desserts are probably better in New York, too.
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