A Pearl in the Harbor

Bay Harbor's new Asia Bay Bistro & Sushi Bar boasts nouvelle Asian cuisine, but apart from the sushi, it's really a traditional Japanese restaurant with some token Thai tossed in for good measure. There's nothing bistro-ish about the food; I suppose the word as it's used here refers to the intimate, 50-seat setting (with room for 20 more chairs outdoors overlooking the semiquaint Kane Concourse). The modern and uncluttered décor features a slate gray floor, cream-hued walls, and occasional bursts of color -- golden light fixtures, a rear wall painted orange, a splash of blue in an abstract painting. The stylishly understated ambiance is somewhat blighted by two wall-mounted television screens tuned to the Food Network that serve only to divert attention from the real reason we go to restaurants: cuisine and company. Scented candles emitting an unappetizing fake-fruit aroma also distract the olfactory senses.

The sushi bar visually dominates the room and its fare occupies quite a bit of the menu -- to the tune of 66 sushi and sashimi items, available in almost every combination conceivable, as well as in tandem with tempura or teriyaki. Working behind the bar is chef/co-owner Peter Hepp, who honed his skills in Japan and spent many years at an Asian/sushi restaurant in Hallandale. Chef Hepp is hip to the aesthetic of clean lines, vivid colors, and bright, delineated flavors. The sushi and sashimi selections -- in fact all the Japanese dishes -- exude a graceful elegance, and the fish is as pristine as its presentation.

The basic seafood items are in place: tuna, salmon, hamachi, shrimp, eel, octopus, and crab, in addition to less conventional choices such as red clam, white tuna, ama ebi (sweet shrimp), sea urchin, and nigiri balls of sushi rice capped with quail egg. Rolls range from routine (California, futomaki, spider) to the rowdier realms of a crunchy katsu rendition with deep-fried chicken, and a French version busy with shrimp, Alaskan king crab, avocado, cucumber, cream cheese, and masago, neatly wrapped in an omelet. Maki aficionados will note the nori lacks crispness (a common phenomenon in humid Miami), but otherwise this is splendid stuff -- and well priced at $5 to $10 per medium-size roll.

Asia Bay brings much more bang for the buck than the recently reviewed Setai and Mr. Chu's. A bowl of miso soup is $2; house salads or edamame are $3; and most of the other appetizers range from $5 to $8. There are dozens of entrées, many served with soup or salad, for less than $15, including steak teriyaki, chicken tempura, shrimp pad thai, teka don (fresh sliced tuna atop rice), big bowls of soba or udon noodle soups, and all sorts of sushi combos. For $16 you can create your own Japanese box dinner by selecting one item from each of three columns. I chose vegetable tempura (impeccably crisp pieces of sweet potato, broccoli, zucchini, and eggplant, all of which carried more flavor than their airy lightness implied); a spiritedly spicy tuna roll; and steak teriyaki that was tastily marinated but a little tough. Lunch brings similar offerings at an even steeper discount: six pieces of sashimi, three pieces of sushi, half a California roll, steak teriyaki, and miso soup or a salad for $12 (the same price an order of nan bread costs at The Setai).

The sushi bar also slings out more than two dozen appetizers, one of the best being an artful version of salmon tartare served in a wake-up pool of soy sauce fired with wasabi and ginger. The smoothly minced fish was adorned with elegant chive flowers, black tobiko caviar, and a quail egg yolk, which, when broken, blended with the luscious salmon and made it lusher still. A "spicy seafood" starter was likewise stimulating, tender slices of octopus and conch, surimi crabmeat, and a poached shrimp, all given a bright red sheen by the sweet/hot chili sauce. The same seafood selections are available individually prepared either in this manner, sunomono-style -- marinated in tangy rice vinegar (think Japanese ceviche) -- and miso-ae, which translates to a vibrant miso vinaigrette.

The regular kitchen offers its own lengthy list of appetizers, including dumplings, tempuras, yakitoris, and satays. The menu is seventeen pages long, yet only two minutes after handing them out, our waitress returned to ask if we wanted to begin with "yakitori or shumai or something?" I was still slogging through the sushi chronicles, about eight pages away from even noticing yakitori or shumai. The waitstaff was typically pleasant, but service could stand improvement; issues included confusion over when to bring certain dishes (such as a bowl of udon that was clearly ordered as a main course) and slowness to refill water (for which I partly fault the cobalt blue glasses that are difficult to see through). On one occasion the check was presented without asking if we wanted dessert.

They didn't get a wine and beer menu to us either, at least not until the second visit. The list of brews is quite extensive. Sakes can be found on the regular menu and range from a routine hot brew to cold sakes from Napa and Yaegaki Nigori that will likely make sake wonks bonkers -- an unfiltered, artisinal drink from Hyogo with a near creamy texture and discernible rice flavor.

The kitchen's Thai-style entrées, called "house specialties," are composed of either chicken, beef, assorted seafood, or tofu and are offered in a choice of red curry, massaman curry, or "basil leaves" sauce. They weren't nearly as distinctive as the Japanese dishes. Large hunks of fried tofu simmered in a timid and one-dimensional red curry-coconut sauce -- with bamboo shoots, bell peppers, and basil sprinkled about -- though ordered medium-hot, arrived quite mild. During a return visit, we made the same request for an order of duck in basil leaves sauce with bell peppers and onions, but it, too, was docile (a bowl of chilies were brought on the side to remedy this). Deep-fried pieces of duck breast, in an overly salty brown sauce that was strewn with fried basil leaves, contained a few luscious pieces of meat but too many overfried, chitlinlike crunchies.

Thai donuts presented the usual fingers of fried dough with a condensed milk dip. Other desserts involve red bean or green tea ice cream, banana or ice cream tempura, and "rigonachimo," an inverted cone of dark chocolate with chocolate mousse inside. They were resplendently plated and tasty enough, but desserts are not the reason you go to an Asian restaurant. In this case, you'll be going to partake of exquisitely scintillating Japanese food. Chef Hepp sure is a find, and so is Asia Bay.

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