Today, the lobby of the famed Marlin Hotel looks like an early-20th-century Shanghai opium den. A sinister dragon sculpture overlooks a seance of flickering candles and columns brushed with ebony. Its restaurant, Bazi, which opened in early September, is about the last place in Miami you'd expect to find Michael Pirolo. Here, the kind-eyed 37-year-old best known for his Italian fare serves a short list of pan-Asian hybrids.
But he's here on a Thursday night wearing chef's whites and chatting with partner Jennifer Chaefsky as patrons take their seats. After succeeding brilliantly at the rustic Alton Road Italian hideout Macchialina, their business partners bought this 14-room celebrity-musician hangout last April for $9.5 million and gave Pirolo the keys to the kitchen.
The decision to pivot toward nonspecific Asian cuisine raised many eyebrows. Why, after casting an ironclad reputation as Miami's prince of pasta, would Pirolo make such a move? "I didn't want to box myself in," he says.
The truth goes deeper. At age 21, Pirolo left the United States to return to Italy, where he had been raised for a short time on the outskirts of Naples. After high school, he worked in Michelin-starred kitchens in Piedmont, Lombardy, and Bologna. During the few free moments outside of brutal 16-hour shifts, he found himself in the company of young cooks from China, Japan, and Korea. They had shlepped halfway around the world for training they hoped would entitle them to the best jobs back home.
Those chefs shared simple lessons, like how to prop ice trays on chopsticks to help shorten freezing time. "They taught me how to use Sichuan peppercorns, how to toss them with salt and bake them, and how to use them in moderation," Pirolo says.
Those hours poured a foundation for his career (and for Bazi, which was named for a system of Chinese astrology). At age 25, Pirolo returned to New York City, where he worked at the Michelin-starred Gilt before helping Scott Conant open Scarpetta in 2008. Later that year, he relocated to Miami Beach and was soon revered for dishes such as delicate agnolotti plumped with braised lamb and scattered with minted bread crumbs.
The ethos that helped Pirolo make Scarpetta and later Macchialina such successes has carried over to Bazi. He uses simple strategies to coax the most out of humble ingredients. The pantry here may be different, but the philosophy remains.
Throughout the week hogfish, vermilion snapper, or whatever's available is delivered from Islamorada. The fish is deboned, dredged in rice flour, and pan-fried until the skin crisps into briny curls. It's doused in chili, lime, and soy; then pieces are tucked into Boston lettuce cups lined with spicy, minty Thai basil. The accompanying green papaya salad isn't for the faint of heart but should be heaped on. The musty funk of the fish sauce dressing is as pungent and awe-inspiring as anything on the streets of Southeast Asia.
A bowl piled with Japanese eggplant cooked in various shapes and textures is another clever move. Here, Pirolo seems to riff on Sichuan's mapo tofu. Ground Kurobuta pork shoulder is sautéed with aromatics and punched up with the fermented bean sauce tianmianjiang, fermented black beans, and red chilies. All of that power is spanked with a biting hit of sake.
Yet not everything rolls out quite as well. For one, his deft hand with filled pastas doesn't always translate. Dumplings packed with edamame seem sensible on paper, but the wrappers folded into neat little pyramids worked poorly with chopsticks. Shiso, sour shallots, and a touch of ricotta conjured a mouth-drying feel that overshadowed the beans' delicate grassiness. And a quartet of sturdy hamachi slices was sprinkled with earthy Hawaiian sea salt stained red by the ferrous, volcanic earth; the crystals cut the meat with a minerally pop but don't make this dish stand out from the city's countless crudos or justify the high prices found throughout the menu.
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Still, Pirolo pulls no punches. A bowl of supple udon noodles is tossed with a fresh morning snow of musty bonito flakes that squirm atop the heat. Dashi, puréed porcini mushrooms, and shallot confit turn knots of duck meat into luscious umami bombs. Some might say the dried fish shavings are too much, but they're an indispensable foil to all the richness.
Pirolo isn't dumbing down his cooking or the robustness of Asian ingredients to capitalize on his successes. It would be nice if he, and many of the so-called Asian restaurants about town, would acknowledge the many countries that make up the region rather than lump them together as the place that salts with soy. Yet he pole-vaults the pessimism with the snapper and eggplant. Let's hope that as time goes on, he'll fill out the menu with similar strokes. Who cares if he swaps olive for chili oil?
1200 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-695-0101; bazimiami.com. Monday through Saturday 6 p.m. to midnight, Sunday 6 to 11 p.m.
Hamachi sashimi $18
Edamame dumplings $14
Eggplant kobra kai $15
Whole crispy local snapper $36
- Duck udon $22