Best of Miami

Best of Miami Teaser: Best Japanese

Our New Times Best of Miami edition will once again name more than 350 of the

finest restaurants, hottest clubs, most delightful diversions, and top places to

shop till you drop dead as a zombie."The Rising" is almost upon us, so if you have not voted for your favorites in our "Readers' Poll," the time is now. The ballot closes this Friday for our annual best of the best, which debuts with all appropriate fanfare on June 16.

Sadly, there can only be one winner per category, and we know you want to be teased. Careful deduction will obviously lead you to realize that the winners are NOT on this listing, rather an edited selection of the runners up who are just a tad shy of supreme status. In two weeks time, we will do the big reveal, but in the interim, here's our picks for those who came close in the "Best Japanese" category.

6. Although they are no longer open for counter service on Mondays and Tuesday (boo!), The Japanese Market was chosen as the best Asian market in 2009.

What you may not know is that Chef Michio is making rolls and extremely

good nigiri behind the tiny sushi bar. We love it because the fish is

always fresh and it's unbelievably cheap. Both uni and sweet shrimp are

priced at $2.50 per piece. Plus, they fry up the shrimp head in a

mysterious back room - it's worth the wait. For Japanese without

pretense, this is the place to go.

5. Nobu

may not be the ultra-hip hot spot it used to be, but for nigiri

flown in fresh from Japan, we can ignore the dated decor and low-hanging

ceilings. The bottom line is that the original inventor of spicy rock

shrimp ($26) and miso cod ($34) still

sets the bar for other restaurant's imitations. The tartare, though

ludicrously priced ($30-$40), is a tiny little mash up of caviar

topped tastiness.They tempura batter everything from enoki mushrooms to

sea urchin, bravo!

4. From barbequed eel to spicy clams, Hiro's Yakko-San

continues to offer a wide variety of Japanese tapas. We dig the new

location, which means never having to wait in that tiny vestibule that

used to be called "the bar" ever again. The crispy bok choy ($6.50) is an Asian version of potato chips, and with strange offerings

ranging from "trigger fish jerky" ($4.50) to "chicken gizzards"($7.00)

with chive, they certainly win our vote for most authentic menu. It's open late and it's always full.

3. Toni's Sushi Bar

is always packed with a local crowd of South Beach residents. In

addition to the generously sliced sushi and sashimi, the kitchen turns

out wonderful Japanese small plates. Menu items like grilled hamachi

kama (yellow tail collar) and age nasu (fried Japanese eggplant) are

always well done and well priced ($9 and $6.50). The "specials" are also

a treat -- if they have the rock shrimp-stuffed soft shell crab lightly

fried in tempura batter, order it.

2. Newcomer Zuma

has upped the ante on Japanese for those seeking a bit more ambiance

with their meal. The diverse menu takes traditional plates and infuses a

high-end sense of style, pairing a variety of flavors and a visually

stunning presentation. The shumai here are re-interpreted with prawns as

well as black cod for the filler. "Signature" dishes sound deceptively

simple; "spicy beef tenderloin with sesame, chili and sweet soy" is

actually a prime filet, cut in half and then carefully seared to a

delicate crispy level on the outside, soft as can be on the inside. No

serrated-edge knife required.

1. Last year's pick, Naoe,

continues to astound with beautifully constructed bento boxes courtesy

of Chef Kevin Cory. Although it is impossible to know in advance exactly

what you'll get, the food fun is inherent in the surprise. Your miso

soup may have kingfish in it, your rice may be wrapped with pickled

seaweed, your ice cream for dessert may be "soy sauce" flavored.

Invention and dedication combine at Naoe.

There are only 17 seats in the restaurant, and credit cards are

required in advance for reservations -- this is a hard working man who

only makes what his patrons plan on eating. An added bonus is that his

family makes sake for a living, so ask questions and be rewarded with a

libation far above the average offerings.

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Lesley Elliott
Contact: Lesley Elliott