Morimoto ceviche
Morimoto ceviche
Courtesy of Morimoto South Beach

Morimoto's Miami Debut Is Cool, Collected, and Full of Surprises

Masaharu Morimoto's latest outpost is so understated that a bellhop might have to steer you toward its discreet hiding place in the Shelborne Wyndham Grand's starchy white lobby, which is spotless after its recent $90 million face-lift.

Tuna pizza
Tuna pizza
Photo by Quentin Bacon / Courtesy of Morimoto South Beach

There's no sign of the place near the Drawing Room, the hotel's cocktail bar with its towering wall of hand-labeled brown bottles, or down a gently sloping ramp that leads outside. A chocolate-colored wooden hostess stand eventually pops into view, but there's still no restaurant visible. Finally, once your toes are nearly in the hotel's pool out back, you round a corner to find the copper-hued refuge with a thumping, slow-paced soundtrack and Eames-inspired leather chairs hugging thick walnut tables set with translucent chopsticks.

It seems almost too laid-back for the revered Iron Chef star known for wearing a pointy goatee and samurai garb in the kitchen. The 59-year-old Morimoto has gracefully become a culinary celebrity and a revered chef while not alienating those who usually sneer at the former description.

Born in Hiroshima and trained under sushi and kaiseki masters, Morimoto left Japan for the United States in the mid-1980s. Here he began developing his now-signature cuisine that blends Japanese ingredients and techniques with American showmanship. It continues to appear in dishes like tuna pizza -- a crisped flour tortilla layered with the raw fish, a pungent anchovy aioli, and jalapeño rings. He first appeared on the (far superior) Japanese Iron Chef in the mid-'90s when he was also executive chef at Nobu in New York City. Since then, he's opened nearly a dozen eponymous restaurants spanning Boca Raton to Mumbai. His latest 200-seat effort, Morimoto South Beach, opened here in early October, and the chef was on hand to christen it by slicing into a 120-foot sushi roll.

All of this comes at a premium, and Morimoto's precise fare seems always paired with the question "Is it worth it?" By many accounts from Napa to Tribeca, the $100-plus omakase menus are a value for the price. That same menu is available here, at last check, for $140. But within the sprawling, six-page à la carte menu that covers raw and hot appetizers, noodles, sushi, and $95 cuts of American Wagyu, cost is not always an indicator of the best dishes.

Take, for instance, the unassuming $14 Iron Chef chicken noodle soup -- the same price as two pieces of flaky freshwater eel sushi. Based on a pitch-perfect shanton broth made with beef, chicken, and pork bones simmered for several hours, the dish boasts only toothsome yet still slippery noodles and a few knots of buttery-soft flesh. But it's the kind of soup that could hook both fastidious, ramen-obsessed Japanese lunch crowds and matzo ball soup enthusiasts who accept only Bubbe's recipe as canon.

The sushi bar
The sushi bar

On the flip side rests the luxe but promising-sounding foie gras chawanmushi. The savory egg custard is rich with the liver's fatty minerality, but a thin layer of some transparent jelly gives the otherwise cloud-like cream a snotty consistency and appearance. Without it, the simple dish -- also topped with a juicy brunoise of crisped duck breast and fresh-grated wasabi -- would've been a stunner.

Though Morimoto is sometimes best known for his hot creations, his sushi merits attention. Plump, sweet, bouncy little grains of rice are rolled up in a handful of America's favorite bastardizations, but also with hard-to-find Japanese specialties such as kanpyo -- sweet deep-orange slivers of a dried Japanese squash -- and sticky plum paste inside minty shiso leaves that pop with spicy hits of cinnamon. One of the only other places to sample such traditional maki in Miami is Michio Kushi's Japanese market on the 79th Street Causeway.

The best option for sampling the sushi bar, which is all but hidden behind a row of banquettes and hourglass-shaped orange lights, is the chirashi. A sphere with its top fifth sliced off is piled with sushi rice, sprinkled with sesame seeds, and generously topped with bright cubes of fatty tuna, raw and smoked salmon, and firm bits of briny, shiny-skinned shad and amberjack. There are also plump, sweet shrimp with fried heads, glimmering orange-pink bulbs of salmon eggs that burst with a salty pop, and cake-like cubes of perfectly cooked egg.

Unfortunately, the toro tartare's dramatic presentation didn't mean success. The frosted glass plate inlaid with finely minced tuna was consistently fishy. The five lines of condiments -- the best combination was the umami-packed seaweed paste with eye-watering fresh wasabi and crunchy little rice cracker bits -- saved the dish. The uni carbonara, meanwhile, came with just one visible lobe of the bright, bristly Hokkaido sea urchin roe, whose delicate, oceanic flavor was lost among a tangle of noodles and a luxurious bacon-infused cream sauce.

An unassuming conch takoyaki puts a delightful Florida spin on the classic Japanese grab-and-go dish usually made with ground octopus. Four golf-ball-size cakes that spend just enough time cooking are crisp and pleasantly browned outside and creamy but warm inside. They arrive squiggled with pinkish spicy mayonnaise and sprinkled with cured, dried bonito flakes called katsuobushi that squirm in the heat.

The $20 fiery salty caramel chocolate tart
The $20 fiery salty caramel chocolate tart
Courtesy of Morimoto South Beach

Another success is the yose dofu. A server rests a wide, circular black dish of warmed soy milk on the table, sprinkles it with a salt solution, and asks you to wait ten minutes without lifting the cover. By the time she returns, the milk has stiffened into a delicate, creamy tofu with just a faint hint of nutty, sweet soy. She crosshatches it and then sets out a dish of katsuobushi, paper-thin scallion rings, sweet soy, and a slightly pulverized house-made

kimchee.

The dessert that makes servers ooh and aah is the salty and fiery chocolate tart. That's possibly because they get to pour a flaming dish of rum atop a perfect orb of aromatic dark chocolate, which slowly melts away to reveal a fluffy marshmallow core. Or else it's the $20 price tag making the waitstaff swoon. Either way, our server was a bit overeager, pouring too much rum that burned too long and charred bits of chocolate, freeing acrid wisps of smoke.

But such faults can't be laid on the kitchen, which is adept at pacing dishes throughout a meal. The dishes themselves aren't quite as predictable, and it seems the best ones are those billed less prominently on the menu.

With so many choices and the myriad ways a meal here can unfold, you'll hope your pockets are deep enough to become a regular, because at Morimoto, a delight can pop up anytime.

Toro tartare $28

Foie gras chawanmushi $19

Conch takoyaki $16

Iron Chef chicken noodle soup $14

Yose dofu $16

Chirashi $32

Salty and fiery chocolate tart $20

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