Not Your Average Tuna
Every cloud has a silver lining, they say ... and say, and say. But just because something is a cliché doesn't mean it isn't true, as I recently discovered when a small culinary cloud, an embarrassing one-letter typo in a restaurant review, led to my discovering what is arguably the best Japanese restaurant in South Florida -- in fact the best I've found anywhere south of New York City.
The typo, in a review of Nobu, had me claiming that toro is virtually unavailable anywhere else in Miami at any time, at any price. I'd written "otoro," and that one little "o" makes a big difference if you're a sushi fan. Otoro is the fattiest part of a tuna's tender belly strip, truly to-die-for buttery "filet mignon" fish so finely fat-marbled that its pink color is almost white. Most menus that offer toro mean chutoro, also belly tuna and pinker than common dark-red maguro (which comes from the tuna's far bigger lean flank sides) but much more sparely striated. In actuality even this type of toro isn't easy to find here -- most Miami menus list it but seldom carry it -- but chutoro is available at a number of sushi bars, especially at the height of winter's bluefin-tuna season, unlike otoro, whose rarity made it seem worth even Nobu's hefty $11-per-piece price.
An e-mail from sharp-eyed lawyer José Rodriguez-Dod nailed me within hours of the review hitting the newsstands. But fortunately it turned out that José is sharp-eyed at more than spotting typos: Hidden away in a downscale-looking mall I must have driven by hundreds of times was a little Japanese eatery that he claimed had some sort of toro always and otoro frequently -- at prices a fraction of Nobu's too. The name: Matsuri. Remember it.
Hmmm. Wait. Forget you ever heard of the place. More otoro for me.
On a first visit, our friendly waitress explained that while Matsuri has been open for about thirteen years, "they don't advertise, so many people don't know." But many do. Both times we went for dinner the small but stylish space (all three sushi chefs sported color-of-the-moment red highlights), which features traditional Japanese tatami floor seating as well as Western tables, was packed with diners, many of them Asian and many, our server said, regulars.
Another affirmation: One repeat patron, during Miami visits, is the chef/owner of Sagawani, often mentioned in national food publications as the top restaurant in New York for kaiseki (an elaborate ceremonial tasting dinner made up of many small seasonal dishes, the ultimate in Japanese culinary art).
While Matsuri doesn't offer formal kaiseki, assembling one's own informal multidish feast is not just possible but highly recommended; Matsuri's menu mostly features "small plates," with just a few complete teriyaki/tempura-type dinners for the timid. Not that much courage is needed to wing it at Matsuri. Only one of the many items we tried during our first casual kaiseki was less than terrific: The filling of deep-fried crab-cream croquettes, unlike the flan-textured custard in Hiro's corn croquettes, was heavily starchy and bore barely any evidence of crab. Still they were a hit with the toddler at the next table, who polished off four croquettes in as many minutes.
Grownups will favor the sophistication of negitoro wasabi ae. At the few sushi bars that serve negitoro at all, it's most often just chopped toro with scallions. Here the dish is topped with a tiny quail egg, making it a minituna take on traditional steak tartare. Mixed in, the egg complements the toro's silkiness, while the bracing bite of wasabi sauce provides wake-up-call contrast.
Just as sophisticated and even rarer to find was a delicacy from Matsuri's nightly specials board, ankimo (monkfish liver). Frequently likened to foie gras of goose or duck, the marinated monkfish foie was in fact firmer and less fatty. The bite-size slices did, however, have a similarly seductive smoothness of texture and an astonishing subtlety of flavor -- no strong livery or fishy taste whatsoever. The liver was indeed rich, but a thin, spicy sauce featuring hot-pepper oil and vinegar provided balance. If available the dish is a must-not-miss.
So was a special of nama uni, much to my surprise. Truly urbane foodies adore sea urchin, but frankly not I: The stuff is usually mushy and unpleasantly metallic tasting. (The one time I was forced to eat my words was in Sicily. It was sea urchin as it's often described and seldom is: custardlike rather than mushy, delicate rather than metallic.) Matsuri's uni was similarly fresh flavored -- all three orders' worth.
Actually don't miss the entire specials board, though it's easy to: The list, on the right as you enter the restaurant, is small, and all servers don't volunteer the info tableside. Ask. Though my original plan had been purely pursuit of otoro (which was on the board, wonderful, and wonderfully priced at a mere $3 per piece), everything else I tried from this list was equally impressive and hard to find elsewhere.
For those who prefer cooked food, the menu also offers more than a few unusual dishes. From a list of a dozen Matsuri "originals," kaisen tempura was a sushi roll of shrimp, "crabmeat," and watercress rolled in seaweed, cut into individual pieces, dipped in tempura batter, and deep fried. Crabmeat, sadly, was the usual fake surimi-stick stuff. But shrimp were fresh, cress was crunchy, batter was light and nicely adhering, frying was near greaseless, and accompanying dipping sauce had a definite ginger jolt. Another original, bird's nest, was a tangle of crisp and airy, glazed, fried yam noodles dotted with tofu and vegetables. Also tasty were two cooked items featuring smelt eggs: red scorpion roll, a regular maki (batter-fried softshell crab, avocado, and cucumber) with additions of smelt caviar, lettuce, and spicy mayo; and shishamo, a traditional salt-broiled preparation of the whole sardinelike (but freshwater) fish stuffed with its own roe.
It seemed a good idea, on a repeat visit, to test one of the restaurant's middle-priced mixed plates among a half-dozen chef's-choice assortments. While restaurants usually tend toward the lowest common denominator for these, favoring cheap ingredients like crabstick and nonfish filler, Matsuri's mori awase assortment had no crap-crab and a generous amount of expensive exotica like cockle clams and even, astonishingly, both chutoro and otoro.
There actually were two types of otoro available on our recent visits, the second, called hon maguro, from a different type of tuna. Comparative taste tests proved inconclusive, necessitating many more visits in the future. But if you all decide the same, we could be in trouble. How 'bout this: Any reader who grabs the last order of otoro on a night I'm there has to share. Okay?
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