Restaurant Reviews

Makoto ranks with Asian greats

Makoto, a new Japanese restaurant in the Bal Harbour Shops, is sure to bring comparisons to Nobu, Zuma, and Sugarcane. Like those popular spots, it is orchestrated by a noteworthy chef with a yen for producing pristine sushi and exquisite contemporary Asian cuisine.

Makoto Okuwa was the executive sushi chef of Morimoto — iconic Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto's property in Philadelphia and part of Stephen Starr's expansive national restaurant portfolio (represented locally by Steak 954 in Fort Lauderdale and now Makoto in Bal Harbour). "He's a superstar," is how Starr described Okuwa to New Times in March, shortly before the new venture opened. Okuwa was also a short-lived TV star, having competed on Iron Chef (where he was edged out by Michael Symon in a sea urchin competition).

The 200-seat indoor/outdoor venue is located on the south end of the genteel mall, parallel with but distanced from Carpaccio and La Goulue. Makoto's lovely earth-toned décor is organic-looking and Zen some — a wood-dominated space with distressed white oak floors and stretches of darkly stained oak paneling. Crisscross lighting that cuts across patterned taupe walls lends an elegant shine, like sparkling tobiko atop nori, yet this space is by far the most subdued of Starr's signature showy designs.

A 13-seat sushi bar fronts the lengthy interior, which is divided into two sections. Outdoor tables bookend the restaurant's opposing entrances; the ones up front are used for dining, and the ones in back (inside the mall) congregate before an alfresco bar setup. A modest wine list offers global selections by glass, carafe, and bottle; the half-dozen beers include Asahi ($6), Sapporo Light ($7), and 22-ounce portions of Sapporo and Kirin Ichiban ($12, $16). There are five or six offerings each of Junmai, Ginjo, and Daiginjo sakes, also sold by the glass (most $8 to $13), carafe (most $19 to $35), and bottle (most $44 to $175). You might also consider the scintillating sake cocktail of Junmai, ginger, grapefruit, and rosemary ($12).

Exceptional sushi/sashimi selections cover a wide swath of ocean: hotate (live scallop), aoyagi (orange clam), and shime saba (cured Japanese mackerel) to name a few. Much of the catch is delivered fresh from Tokyo three times a week (no big-eye tuna for sustainability reasons). Unagi (barbecued freshwater eel) sashimi melts in the mouth like ice cream; the pair of über-fresh slices are lacquered with a sweet soy sauce culled from reduced fish stock, mirin, sake, and sugar. All choices, $8 to $14, are accompanied by fresh wasabi and soy sauce made in-house with an infusion of bonito flakes. The smallest of three sushi and sashimi samplers ($30, $50, $75) generally brings six pieces of a featured roll and another dozen composed of various seafood.

Makoto's maki includes a "traditional" quartet, from which we plucked a negi toro: six pieces of chopped otoro tuna (the fattiest belly cut) rolled with rice, julienned scallion, and a teeny bit of fresh wasabi; regular green wasabi putty garnishes the plate. Toro also comes as a tartare — the fish wrapped in nori and topped with caviar and gold leaf. Many presentations are striking.

From the "American classics" maki: a tempura soft-shell crab roll that fairly explodes with crusted buds of sweet white meat. Ripe avocado cradles the crab along with thin strips of cucumber and a skinny asparagus spear; orange tobiko glitters on top.

Okuwa is a serious practitioner of his craft, yet a sense of whimsy weaves its way through many dishes. Signature among his starters is "frosty Kobe fried rice," a twist on the frosty sea urchin fried rice he unleashed against Symon. The combo of warm liver and beef "popsicle" — along with shichimi spices and an organic jidori egg — brings an invigorating hot/cold/smooth/crunchy sensation that would make a molecular gastronomist foam at the mouth (foie gras foam, of course).

"Spicy tuna crispy rice" is likewise distinctive. Four sushi-size rectangles of rice with browned sides and heavily caramelized bottoms (chewy rice cakes) are each topped with a smooth purée of tuna heated with Serrano chilies. Even the standard Caprese salad gets a face-lift: momotaro tomatoes (a rich, sweet/tangy hybrid that's very popular in Japan) layered with silken tofu.

The nonsushi page of the modest menu starts with offerings of miso soup and a half-dozen appetizers. "Black edamame" were mostly green in color, although some were very dark green and a few even black. The waiter explained they were more mature and thus a little richer than the norm. Hard to say, but the portion was large and the pods were thickly coated in coarse sea salt.

Make sure to try at least a couple of items cooked on the robata grill. Its bincotan coal doesn't produce much visible smoke but lends an alluring char to a thick trunk of king crab shell brimming with sweet meat (at $16, this is the priciest of the grouping). And your jaw will drop at the lusciousness of four skewered cubes of truffle/miso-glazed short ribs from the robata. Luckily the meat is so soft you won't need your jaw to chew it.

A bowl of ramen is riveting with thin noodles and ground steak steeped in a spicy red-chili-spiked broth, a specialty of the chef's hometown of Nagoya. Other noodle dishes — green tea soba with sweet soy and fresh wasabi, and udon with steamed chicken, quail egg, cucumber, Japanese mustard, and a sprinkling of chopped peanuts — come chilled. The alternative starch is rice fried with crab, crunchy lettuce, and scrambled egg (as well as the frosted Kobe fried rice).

Main-course plates comprise five seafood ($14 to $23.50), three composed meat dishes ($13.50 to $19.50), and a trio of Wagyu steaks. We fished out the seafood hot pot from the first grouping. The dish is described as "prepared in parchment paper," and that very well might be true, but the seafood medley is served atop a flame and cupped in what looks like a cone-shaped coffee filter made of oak tag. It is delicious. A few each of shrimp, jumbo scallops, plump mussels, and squares of grouper come cuddled in a mildly spicy lemongrass-based broth with enoki and shiitake mushrooms and baby purple BetaSweet carrots as teeny as toothpicks.

Kobe beef cooked tableside on a hot "river stone" brings a half-dozen thin strips of heavily marbled, eminently delicate red meat ($19.50). The stone lets off a lot of smoke, and the beef is delectable, but you can get much more bang for your buck (if not quite the heightened texture) via a grilled ten-ounce premium Wagyu skirt steak. Juicy slices of sweetly marinated meat — almost glowing red in color — arrive piled atop one another on a grated binchotan grill with a single coal glowing beneath the grate. A slight smear of wasabi and a swipe into a sweet/sour ginger-soy-daikon dip make the steak seem like something you've never had before — and perhaps better than what you have had. At $30, this is the low end of the Wagyu offerings: An eight-ounce kurosawa Kobe beef filet is $55; the 26-ounce bone-in rib eye goes for $90.

Service is a tale of two visits. The first time around, we lucked out with a well-informed waiter and back-up team that performed so quietly and efficiently we didn't quite realize how great we'd been served until after the meal. Just one faux pas: The check was plunked upon the table along with desserts.

Our waiter for the second dinner was clueless concerning the menu, but more troubling was that our entire meal was brought to the table at once: sushi, appetizers, and main courses landed one after the other during a 30-second stretch, like airplanes on an overtaxed runway. When I politely asked why the food arrived in this manner, instead of at least acknowledging the awkwardness of the timing, the waiter simply replied that dishes come out as they finish. The pair of experiences here illustrate how service can make or break a meal.

A flourless chocolate soufflé-style cake, oozing an intoxicating yuzu-miso custard center, came with a ball of vanilla ice cream crusted in crushed cinnamon-sugar crisps and rolled in multicolored rice crackers that looked like large sprinkles. Dabs of whipped saketini foam added the finishing kick. Wow.

The only other desserts offered are a fresh fruit plate (including dragon fruit) and a trio of mochi ice cream disks: green tea, strawberry with vanilla, and sakura (cherry blossom) with chocolate-chocolate chip. The mochi were fresh, but the mini bamboo cradle that held them was dirty. Other missed details included soy sauce stains on a pourer and water spots on glasses. The notoriously fussy Bal Harbour crowd won't be pleased.

The restaurant has been operating for only a couple of months, so it's understandable that some service kinks remain (although a couple of the mistakes are unacceptable). When it comes to creative contemporary Japanese cuisine, however, the competition has nothing on Makoto.

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Miami New Times' restaurant reviewer for the past decade, and the world's indisputable master of disguise.
Contact: Lee Klein