Restaurant Reviews

Little Lotus: Asian secret in downtown Miami will bloom big

Downtown newcomer Little Lotus is not easy to find. It's secreted within the International Jewelry Center, and the only indicator outside is a colorful blackboard sign posted along North Miami Avenue. You might drive by without a second glance, which would be a real mistake. Hidden in this most unlikely of locations is an izakaya (that's the term for the smallish, Japanese-style pubs littered throughout Tokyo) offering a surprisingly large menu of sushi and tapas-style plates that capture the essence of an authentic Asian kitchen.

The restaurant is indeed small. There are only 30 seats (half of which line the outside hallway) plus four stools at the tiny sushi bar. Decorations are modest — no giant Buddha statue or bamboo garden here — but lack of pretension is precisely why Little Lotus delivers such a pleasant shock when it comes to culinary consumption.

In this case, it takes two to make a thing go right. Chef Inyoman Atmaja deals mainly with the hot kitchen dishes, while chef Michael Asalie oversees the sushi bar. The menu might look familiar. Atmaja hails from North Miami's Yakko-San and brings knowledge from that experience to the table. From crispy baby bok choy ($6.50) to trigger fish jerky ($6.50), the crossover is readily apparent. Asalie worked for Masaharu Morimoto in NYC, so his sushi skills were developed while working under one of the greats, and it shows.

Our server warned us up front that the miso black cod ($13.95) was actually Chilean sea bass, which is slightly easier to procure in South Florida. Sweet, earthy miso deeply permeated the flaky layers of white fish, which honestly was as good as any high-end restaurant offering. On the side, a plump little tomato came threaded with a slender straw of Japanese chive; it's one of those plates whose garnishes you should definitely eat.

See a photo slide show of Little Lotus.

The caramelized glaze on the kabayaki (grilled eel, $10.95) delivered a crisp edge while protecting the soft, salty flesh from drying out. The eel was at least an inch thick, yet bones seemed to be miraculously removed without a trace. We were blown away by the Little Lotus version, compared with the same dish we ordered on a recent trip to Yakko-San. Atmaja instructed us to eat the provided oshinko between bites; the pickled radish boasts a subtle flavor that cuts through the eel's richness and clears the palate for the next luscious forkful.

Ginger, garlic, and soy sauce seasoned the squid kara age ($7.95), which was then tempura battered and fried until slightly crisp. The cooked squid had a meaty density not unlike Italian-style fried calamari. Unfortunately, an accompanying side of Japanese mayo lacked luster. A bit more wasabi in the mix could have made the difference between bland and umami excellence. Another dish, panko-crusted oysters ($7.50), came with a side of spicy mango sauce, which might have worked better with the battered squid rings and tentacles.

Rock shrimp tempura in a creamy spicy sauce ($10.95) rivals that of well-known restaurants and is infinitely more reasonably priced than many other versions (for example, Nobu's costs $26). The shrimp was tossed, rather than doused, in sauce, leaving the crisp coating intact instead of soggy — often a danger zone at other establishments.

The only true disappointment was the highly anticipated uni pasta ($12.95). Had it been served in its natural state, the raw sea urchin would have turned into a creamy sauce upon contact with the warm, buttery noodles. Instead, chunks were first sautéed in garlic and butter, giving new meaning to the old saw, "Tastes like chicken." Gone was the briny afterglow that uni can bring; the heaping helping of pasta was an oily mess, with chicken cutlet-like urchin tossed on top. There was no harmony between the noodles and the uni — a sad waste of an expensive delicacy.

Owner Sari Maharai hails from Jakarta, so a few Indonesian specialties round out the menu offerings. A homemade dumpling called pastel tutup ($8.50) is stuffed with potato, carrots, mushrooms, chicken, egg, and peas — sort of an Indonesian potpie. Choose from red, green, or panang curry with beef, chicken, pork, or shrimp. Spicy braised beef with coconut and spices, fried Singapore rice noodles, and chicken simmering in coconut sauce are all available as well-priced lunch specials ($7.50 each).

Sushi rolls have curious names such as "Angel Heart" (eel tempura with spicy tuna, $11.95) and "Big Mac" (crunchy spicy tuna with snow "krab," $11.95). The Hawaiian roll ($10.95) is the kitchen sink of sushi yet works surprisingly well as a conglomerate of flavors. Tuna and salmon compose the inner belly, which is then topped with slices of tuna, salmon, and eel. Crunchy tempura flakes and masago are scattered liberally on top. A balsamic reduction coats the plate, adding a distinct note of sweetness that at times is overpowering.

Little Lotus doesn't sell hard liquor, so don't come here expecting some kind of lychee martini on fire. Go for a simple carafe of hot sake, or ask your server for cold sake suggestions (try the Nigori-style sake in the ice-blue bottle). A limited selection of beers and wines is also available.

We don't generally seek sugar after sushi, but if your sweet tooth calls, pick from an array of ice-cream flavors. Vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry are trumped by the more adventurous red bean, green tea, and an unexpected taro ($4.50 for two scoops). Alternatively, feast on banana tempura ($6) or fried cheesecake ($7.50), each crowned with a choice of ice cream.

See a photo slide show of Little Lotus.

Delivery is available in the Brickell area, and because most basic rolls (tuna, Cali, salmon skin, etc.) are priced from $3.95 to $5.95, they are an excellent everyday option. Asalie shared a secret during our visit: turns out plans are in the works to open a second Little Lotus in the Loft Downtown II, at NE Second Avenue and Second Street. From yaki tori to yaki udon, everything is fresh and tasty. We see this little flower blooming big.

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Lesley Elliott
Contact: Lesley Elliott