Chef Bee Returns to South Beach With NaiYaRa

Sunset Harbour's NaiYaRa is like an Asian night market nipped, tucked, and primped to meet South Beach standards. The wicker baskets that, on the streets of Hanoi, might bear the purple, razor-edged herb called red perilla have been refashioned into tall, dangling light fixtures. The sheaths of Thai magazines and newspapers that could wrap fish or meat instead envelop a central column that greets the constant crush of patrons.

There's no doubt the 2-month-old place is the moment's hot spot. On one night, real estate developer David Martin, whose Terra Group is building Coconut Grove's twisting condo towers, is pacing back and forth just beyond the front door calmly giving orders into a cell phone. Another night, sports commentator Dan Le Batard is holding court at the sushi bar while nightclub impresario Emi Guerra's table situated below a marquee-lit bar slowly fills with plates.

This is, after all, the long-awaited follow-up to Chef Bee's stint as the face of the now-shuttered Khong River House. When the meticulous Lincoln Road spot opened in late 2012, it seemed to signal a new era for Asian cuisine in Miami. Bee, whose real name is Piyarat Potha Arreeratn, had previously worked as a sous chef for Nobu at the Shore Club and under Kevin Cory at Siam River in North Miami Beach.

At Khong, he was brought on to oversee a northern Thai-focused menu featuring dishes rarely seen in Miami. It was a style of cuisine — heavy on fish sauce, chilies, and fermented products — that was only just beginning to penetrate the mainstream.

Miami Beach finally had its own place for the fiery ground pork salad called larb. The boat noodles were also a hit. Bee's family recipe loaded rice noodles, pork meatballs, and a bounty of herbs and spices into a jolting broth fortified with fish sauce, beef blood, fried garlic, and Thai chili vinegar.

Yet the romance that in 2013 earned Khong a nomination for the James Beard Foundation's Best New Restaurant was short-lived. Bee and Khong parted ways and then began trading barbs in court. In a lawsuit, Khong's owner, 50 Eggs Inc., said the chef broke his contract by using his position at Khong to promote his own restaurant in North Miami. It was also full of weird personal attacks: He "would break out in hives if he had to cook" and "did not know how to run a professional kitchen," the suit claimed. Bee responded in a more civil fashion. The suit was later settled out of court. Details were never disclosed.

As the drama unfurled, Bee also announced plans to open this latest project, named for his daughter. The title also means "peaceful and calm" as well as "female elephant." There are stencils of the latter ironed on to the windows and walls throughout the new space. It would be nice if there were as many of the intensely flavored Thai dishes Bee has long said were family recipes.

During his childhood, Bee spent summers at his grandparents' home in northern Thailand learning to cook at his grandmother's side, according to the website of his restaurant Oishi Thai. He learned to prepare the marinated pork jin som, crisp pork rinds, and sweet caramel shredded taro that would later be sold at market.

Instead, NaiYaRa's offerings are mostly expensive takes on Asian-tinged dishes served in glitzy environs. The standard pad Thai is just that: standard. There's no hint of the ultra-sweet, almost pruney tamarind pulp or salty fish-sauce funk that signify this creation's best iterations. Similarly, many miss the sweet-spicy-sour flavor combination that is the hallmark of Southeast Asian cuisine.

Another plate, called Vietnamese fish, presents fingers of swai, a cheap, Southeast Asian white fish that's a distant relative of catfish, simply battered and heaped atop a mound of briefly stir-fried scallions. It's a generous portion — it should be for $21 — but there's no hint of the five-spice powder the menu promises. Even a quick dusting of the stuff should fill your head with the aroma of star anise, cloves, and fennel. A half-dozen or so chicken wings come doused in a cloying, barely spicy sweet chili sauce.

The kitchen's tom khagai is also a letdown. Usually, this coconut milk soup filled with chicken and mushrooms sets your mouth aflame and throws your cheeks into a pucker, thanks to an aggressive helping of lime juice. Instead, NaiYaRa's version amounts to little more than a bowl of warmed coconut milk.

Beyond the crowd pleasers and plates that help pay the rent is a handful of ambitious dishes offering a peek at the possibilities. Bee's beef jerky is crackly, smoky, meaty shards of addictive goodness. The woody, almost incense-like perfume of ground coriander overtakes your senses. The spicy dipping sauce called nahmjimjao made with sweet tamarind pulp, lime juice, and chilies functions almost like a barbecue sauce. Yet it's far superior, as its clean flavors — spicy, sour, and sweet — complement rather than overshadow the meat.

After this, your palate is primed for Bee's Chiang Rai sausage, an apparent carryover from Khong that at the time was stuffed with a bounty of spices including galangal, lemongrass, and coriander. Yet on two separate visits, our server politely informed us the kitchen was out. One night, "it was pulled from the menu, as the chef wasn't happy with the quality of the meat," a spokesman said.

A seemingly too-simple dish of crispy bok choy is another hidden treasure. The lime-green leaves are fried until they turn emerald with the crunch of a thin potato chip. The slivers of fried garlic throughout are ingeniously half-cooked, resulting in some bites with a raw, spicy pungency and others with cooked, nutty aromas.

Bee's khao soi, which the menu lists as Chiang Rai curry due to its popularity in Thailand's north, is also exemplary thanks to a fragrant yellow curry that smacks of cumin, mustard, and black pepper. It clings longingly to luxurious egg noodles that coil around fork-tender shards of braised beef. There is also some do-it-yourself fun here thanks to the small dishes of lime, chopped red onion, and chili oil riding shotgun. The red curry is similarly impressive and, unlike the tom khagai, swaps overpowering coconut flavors for the more detailed whiffs of chilies, ginger, and lemongrass. It cascades over a gorgeously crisped half-duck anointed with basil, crisp red pepper curls, and charred cherry tomatoes.

Even though Bee's red curry puts most of the city's others to shame, it's also a testament to how much more could be done here. Things have changed since Khong's early days. People are now demanding Thai dishes beyond commoditized curries and pad Thai. You can see this at Cake Thai Kitchen on Biscayne Boulevard. Only a few months ago, this manifested on Calle Ocho when Bas Trisransi opened Lung Yai Thai Tapas offering a fiery larb and a sticky bowl of braised pork belly and shoulder in sweet soy fluttered with cilantro. Good luck getting a table there on the weekend. Yet a seat at NaiYaRa seems equally difficult to land. Hopefully you'll grab one before the jerky and khao soi run out.

1854 Bay Rd., Miami Beach; 786-275-6005; naiyara.com. Open daily 6 to 11 p.m.

  • Coconut soup $8
  • Beef jerky $14
  • Sriracha wing $13
  • Crispy bok choy $11
  • Chiang Rai curry $18
  • Red curry $28
  • Vietnamese fish $21
  • Pad Thai $16

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