Sushi for a Song
Since South Beach's late-Eighties renaissance, when droves of fashion and film aficionados (plus other notably fitness-conscious people) descended, sushi has been one of Miami's major food groups. By the mid-Nineties, Washington Avenue was lined with Japanese eateries comparable in quality to those in New York City.
Unfortunately, like those in Manhattan, these SoBe neighborhood sushi spots had limitations. The extensive selections of seafood on the menu, for instance, were more wish list than reality. Salmon? Sure. Uni? Sometimes (though the custardlike sea urchin roe was seldom sparkling-fresh). And while regular red maguro (which just means "tuna," but usually refers to akami, the tuna's lean side meat) was always available, melt-in-your-mouth fatty belly tuna, toro, virtually never was. And even when upscale places like Nobu and Bond Street arrived in South Beach and made toro regularly obtainable, their prices necessitated a second mortgage.
That's why there were celebrity sightings throughout the Nineties everyone from Madonna to several noted vacationing Manhattan sushi chefs at off-the-tourist-track Matsuri. Located in a downscale suburban strip mall, this little Japanese outpost opened in 1988, and several areas of the rustic restaurant look it (notably the hall leading to the restrooms; at one point, it appears held together by duct tape). But if you forget the less-than-glam decor, you can forget the fancy prices of the Beach, too. When New Times first reviewed Matsuri five years ago, otoro the most prized type of toro, as finely fat-marbled as genuine Japanese Kobe beef was three dollars per piece. Now it's four bucks. But compared to the $16 I recently paid in SoBe for a chunk of bluefin tuna belly no different in size or buttery tenderness, it's still an unbelievable bargain.
Mori awase, Matsuri's top-end sushi assortment for one (served with decent miso soup or a small salad), seems similar in price to SoBe combo platters, until you factor in its far superior quality. Nine pieces of nigiri (individual slices of seafood on beautifully seasoned rice) contain none of the usual cheap filler toppings of fake surimi "crab" legs, plain cucumber, and the like. Rather, the all-fish selection includes silky hamachi (Pacific yellowtail), hokkigai and torigai (surf and cockle clams), impeccable uni, and even, unbelievably, toro. (The soft pink tuna was the somewhat leaner chutoro, not otoro, but still.) And the six-piece "tuna roll," as it was prosaically identified by a server, was actually filled with luxuriant negitoro (minced toro and scallions).
In addition to raw fish, Matsuri's menu features many cooked dishes typical of Japan, but unusual to find in American Japanese joints, such as shisamo, delectable, crisp-skinned broiled smelts. Ankimo ponzu ae, another exotic specialty, is monkfish liver, sometimes referred to as "Japanese foie gras." Served with citrusy ponzu sauce, the liver's actually firmer than real duck/goose foie, but there's no fishy flavor to spoil the illusion. Tempura is also skillfully done. Our lightly battered kakiage (crunchy deep-fried mixed vegetable fritters) were sinfully satisfying, yet nearly greaseless.
While most of the menu is the same as it was five years ago, several specials were new. One we couldn't resist is Mr. Bush's 3:00 p.m., whose odd name was followed on the menu by an almost equally baffling description: "tuna tartare and chopped cucumber with avocado in wasabi mayonnaise sauce with something on top." The tartare coarsely chopped to retain the fish's fresh, firm texture, and liberally drizzled with assertively spicy sauce was wonderful. The "something on top," a stale, twisted mini pretzel, was easily disposed of. The whole effect was great fun. A packed room of other happy diners, many of them Japanese, seemed to agree.
Matsuri, 5759 Bird Rd, South Miami; 305-663-1615. Open Tuesday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Friday 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., Saturday 5:30 to 11:30 p.m., Sunday 5:30 to 10:00 p.m.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.