Unless you're picky, religious, or allergic to everything, there is no better way to dine than at the chef's discretion. And in Miami, restaurants have slowly begun to offer such options to diners who are increasingly willing to turn themselves over to the whims of the city's ever-growing stable of talented cooks.
Today lengthy gustatory adventures are plied by the kitchens of José Andrés' two South Florida restaurants, Brad Kilgore is doing it at Alter, Jeremy Ford is doing it at Stubborn Seed, and it's long been the norm at the Biltmore's Palme d'Or. The same can be said of Kevin Cory's Naoe, Makoto, Doral's Maido, and Coral Way's Sushi Chef. Yet for decades, the omakase — Japanese for "I'll leave it up to you" — at Michio Kushi's departed Sushi Deli remained the gold standard for its accessibility, affordability, and sheer delight.
That spirit is now back at Gaijin Izakaya, where Phuket "Cake" Thongsodchaveondee offers meals with a rainbow of fish not often found at South Florida sushi bars.
The full experience, priced at $90, is a worthwhile endeavor that on a recent weekday brought a bounty of sashimi followed by clams in a thin broth spiked with miso. What came next hardly conformed to Miami standards. There were two kinds of mackerel — Spanish and Norwegian — hamachi belly, buttery scallop coin, and vinegar-cured sardines. Bites of a flowery, tart salad of pickled onion and shiso served as a palate cleanser.
Next came nigiri in which local varieties such as blue runner and sardines were set atop rice and garnished with strands of dried kelp or pickled ginger and purple shiso. For the penultimate dish, the hot kitchen took over with a tableside fried rice in which short, sweet grains were crowned with hamachi, a truffled iteration of the spicy-salty paste called doubanjiang, green onion, and translucent katsuobushi shavings. A tempura dashi is poured into the heated bowl, releasing a sizzle and a poof of steam. A few minutes later, you're left with an ultrasavory, crisp-bottomed fried rice.
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Since opening in July, Thongsodchaveondee has toyed with many facets of Japanese cuisine. There have been ramen and yakitori experiments, exercises in donburi, as well as dishes featuring simply grilled proteins such as mackerel and duck breast. Yet it's been the sashimi and nigiri that have been the most alluring, with raw preparations of species like strawberry grouper and bluefish swimming onto and off the menu. And if $90 is a bit steep, the kitchen can put together something for $30 or $50.
"We want people to come in and try something they've never had before," Thongsodchaveondee says, "something they won't be able to get anywhere else."
Gaijin Izakaya by Cake. 3500 N. Miami Ave., Miami; 305-570-9430; facebook.com/gaijinizakaya. Monday through Wednesday noon to 2 a.m., Thursday through Saturday noon to 3 a.m., Sunday 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.