Sunset Harbour's NaiYaRa is like an Asian night market nipped, tucked, and primped to meet South Beach standards. The wicker baskets that, on the streets of Hanoi, might bear the purple, razor-edged herb called red perilla have been refashioned into tall, dangling light fixtures. The sheaths of Thai magazines and newspapers that could wrap fish or meat instead envelop a central column that greets the constant crush of patrons.
There's no doubt the 2-month-old place is the moment's hot spot. On one night, real estate developer David Martin, whose Terra Group is building Coconut Grove's twisting condo towers, is pacing back and forth just beyond the front door calmly giving orders into a cell phone. Another night, sports commentator Dan Le Batard is holding court at the sushi bar while nightclub impresario Emi Guerra's table situated below a marquee-lit bar slowly fills with plates.
This is, after all, the long-awaited follow-up to Chef Bee's stint as the face of the now-shuttered Khong River House. When the meticulous Lincoln Road spot opened in late 2012, it seemed to signal a new era for Asian cuisine in Miami. Bee, whose real name is Piyarat Potha Arreeratn, had previously worked as a sous chef for Nobu at the Shore Club and under Kevin Cory at Siam River in North Miami Beach.
At Khong, he was brought on to oversee a northern Thai-focused menu featuring dishes rarely seen in Miami. It was a style of cuisine — heavy on
Miami Beach finally had its own place for the fiery ground pork salad called larb. The boat noodles were also a hit. Bee's family recipe loaded rice noodles, pork meatballs, and a bounty of herbs and spices into a jolting broth fortified with fish sauce, beef blood, fried garlic, and Thai chili vinegar.
Yet the romance that in 2013 earned Khong a nomination for the James Beard Foundation's Best New Restaurant was short-lived. Bee and Khong parted ways and then began trading barbs in court. In a lawsuit, Khong's owner, 50 Eggs Inc., said the chef broke his contract by using his position at Khong to promote his own restaurant in North Miami. It was also full of weird personal attacks: He "would break out in hives if he had to cook" and "did not know how to run a professional kitchen," the suit claimed. Bee responded in a more civil fashion. The suit was later settled out of court. Details were never disclosed.
As the drama unfurled, Bee also announced plans to open this latest project, named for his daughter. The title also means "peaceful and calm" as well as "female elephant." There are stencils of the latter ironed
During his childhood, Bee spent summers at his grandparents' home in northern Thailand learning to cook at his grandmother's side, according to the website of his restaurant Oishi Thai. He learned to prepare the marinated pork
Instead, NaiYaRa's offerings are mostly expensive takes on Asian-tinged dishes served in glitzy environs. The standard pad Thai is just that: standard. There's no hint of the ultra-sweet, almost pruney tamarind pulp or salty
Another plate, called Vietnamese fish, presents fingers of swai, a cheap, Southeast Asian white fish that's a distant relative of catfish, simply battered and heaped atop a mound of briefly stir-fried scallions. It's a generous portion — it should be for $21 — but there's no hint of the five-spice powder the menu promises. Even a quick dusting of the stuff should fill your head with the aroma of star anise, cloves, and fennel. A half-dozen or so chicken wings come doused in a cloying, barely spicy sweet chili sauce.
The kitchen's tom
Beyond the crowd pleasers and plates that help pay the rent is a handful of ambitious dishes offering a peek at the possibilities. Bee's beef jerky is crackly, smoky, meaty shards of addictive goodness. The woody, almost incense-like perfume of ground coriander overtakes your senses. The spicy dipping sauce called
After this, your palate is primed for Bee's Chiang Rai sausage, an apparent carryover from Khong that at the time was stuffed with a bounty of spices including galangal, lemongrass, and coriander. Yet on two separate visits, our server politely informed us the kitchen was out. One night, "it was pulled from the menu, as the chef wasn't happy with the quality of the meat," a spokesman said.
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Even though Bee's red curry puts most of the city's others to shame, it's also a testament to how much more could be done here. Things have changed since Khong's early days. People are now demanding Thai dishes beyond commoditized curries and pad Thai. You can see this at Cake Thai Kitchen on Biscayne Boulevard. Only a few months ago, this manifested on Calle Ocho when Bas Trisransi opened Lung Yai Thai Tapas offering a fiery
1854 Bay Rd., Miami Beach; 786-275-6005; naiyara.com. Open daily 6 to 11 p.m.
Coconut soup $8
Beef jerky $14
Sriracha wing $13
Crispy bok choy $11
Chiang Rai curry $18
Red curry $28
Vietnamese fish $21
Pad Thai $16