One of the first ideas for a planned Southeast Asian restaurant at the Setai Hotel was bento boxes. But executive sous-chef Vijayudu Veena proposed offering something from his native India instead. Thali — Hindu for "plate" — refers to a round stainless-steel platter with small bowls arranged around the rim, each one containing a different dish.
Now, a year after opening, Jaya serves that platter with offerings that change regularly, though the pillars are basmati rice, naan bread, and Indian lentil wafers known as papadam. Among the eight surrounding Indian delicacies during a recent visit was chicken tikka masala cooked in a creamy tomato sauce. It was the uncontested winner, remarkably pungent yet light — a rare feat for this popular item. Grilled lamb chops glazed with Indian spices, as well as a portion of gently roasted cauliflower, were also toothsome.
Meanwhile, grouper fried in gram flour was too tough and underseasoned, while the yellow dal, spinach samosas, and roasted eggplant were laggards in the flavor department. The kitchen can easily improve the dishes that lack oomph.
In addition to Indian cuisine, Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese specialties appear on the menu at Jaya. The Setai's top toque is the 2015 Chopped champion Mathias Gervais, who grew up in the South of France but has always been fascinated with Asian food and culture. Indeed, prior to joining the Setai five years ago, Gervais honed his culinary skills at Joël Robuchon's Takeo Yamazaki in Monte Carlo. Before that, he worked at Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence, which boasts three Michelin stars and is where he met his Japan-born wife.
Thus, when the Setai's new owners wanted a different flagship restaurant for the five-star property, Gervais put forth his modern-Asian concept. A couple of factors worked in his favor. The hotel once had a successful Asian eatery, the Restaurant, and the Setai resembles a Buddhist temple, albeit a thoroughly modern one. The new restaurant's name pays homage to the Setai's award-winning Indonesian designer, Jaya Ibrahim, who died suddenly several months before the eatery's opening. Jaya also means "victory" in Sanskrit.
Like the rest of the 10-year-old Setai, the glamorous high-ceilinged restaurant is dimly lit and punctuated with wood and red accents. The clientele is mostly foreign, and on a recent evening, the expansive space began to fill around 8 p.m. Jaya oozes luxury, and every meal begins with a hot towel, an amuse-bouche, and shrimp crackers with a pleasantly sweet edge.
One of the kitchen's specialties is roasted Peking duck. It's served DIY-style with steamed pancakes, scallions, cucumbers, and bean sauce. But if that's too heavy, try the duck salad instead. Gervais adds blackberries, lychees, and crisp leeks to the mesclun mix, which balances the richness of the bird and the plum sauce dotted around the plate. He also saves the duck trimmings and sautés them in the wok with spices and olive oil to give extra depth to the appetizer. The only complaint is that for $22, more duck would be nice.
As a nod to Miami, mango sits atop the hamachi starter. The silken fish is presented on a bed of thinly sliced Hawaiian hearts of palm that have been marinated in mirin and sake. Place the yellowtail between the firm mango and heart of palm, and dip it in the accompanying yuzu juice for a multitextural bite that's sure to impress.
Har gow — Cantonese steamed shrimp dumplings served in dim sum — are commonplace. But Jaya's version is perfect. They cost $14, while for $21 you can try the dumplings topped with a truffle emulsion. Gervais served them at the James Beard House to great acclaim, and it's no wonder: These irresistible pockets of flavor knock you back.
If spice isn't a problem, Jaya's panko-crusted fried calamari is a great bet. The kitchen dusts the squid with a combination of Szechuan pepper and chili pepper and then fries them before finishing the dish in the wok. The calamari brings the heat and pairs well with an accompanying baby gem lettuce salad. Order the gently fried squid to share; otherwise, your mouth will be on fire.
Another seafood item is the Mandarin classic Szechuan scallops. Gervais caramelizes the scallops with chilies, ginger, garlic, and scallions in the wok, and places them on a canvas of thin rice noodles. He recommends enjoying the entrée with a dark beer from South Florida's very own Funky Buddha Brewery. It's a filling and dynamic main, although the scallops are a notch too chewy.
Desserts are the domain of pastry chef Kimberly Pearson, whose previous position was concocting Japanese-influenced treats at the now-defunct Morimoto. The best way to sample as many as possible is to order the dessert tasting. A plate of Pearson's favorites includes bread pudding, tofu cheesecake, a deconstructed key lime pie, and a chocolate praline air cake. The four-compartment plate resembles a work of art, and with the exception of the bland tofu cheesecake, the desserts taste as lovely as they look.
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Unlike some other chefs with a similar level of experience, Gervais relishes getting his hands dirty and being on the line with his team. He and Veena have been working side-by-side for several years and created Jaya's menu together. Veejay, as Gervais calls Veena, is his right-hand man, and the chef insists that the executive sous-chef be acknowledged for his talent and dedication.
Gervais' commitment shows through in the attention to detail and caliber of cuisine here. It's true that Miami Beach hotel restaurants don't have the best reputation, but there's no reason Jaya shouldn't be as popular as, say, Hakkasan at the Fontainebleau. The prices are fair for fine dining (minus the $10 for the order of tea), the food is good, and the venue is beautiful without the clubby vibe of some hotel restaurants. All that's missing is some locals.
2001 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 855-923-7899; thesetaihotel.com. Daily 7 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Thali platter $42
Peking duck salad $22
Har gow $14
Salt-and-pepper calamari $25
Szechuan scallops $29
Dessert tasting $16