At a sprawling communal table made of old cherry trees, a black-clad figure appears with an unadorned beech-wood box. As you sip green tea tinged with the faint aroma of burning leaves, she sets the box on the table and slips off one of its sides, revealing three trays. She draws them out with the utmost reverence and arranges them neatly in a triangle. Nearby diners look confused and delighted as each of the half-dozen tiny masterpieces held within is explained.
The precious contents of the bento box -- the only thing served at Kevin Cory's 16-seat N by Naoe (pronounced now-ay) -- aren't all that command attention. The stunning, carefully hewn tree trunks that frame the room with church-like reverence come from massive cedars hauled in from the Pacific Northwest. Only "one log out of 3,000" is free of limbs and knots and is large enough to be used this way, Cory says in an email. Floating among them is a pair of huge glowing circular lamps that flood the simple-looking space with a cool yellow light, warmed by the russet wood laid onto the walls. Other beams come from old white pines that grew in New England forests. The only other striking element is a bare, illuminated service bar at the far end of the room.
Such subtlety hiding complexity is Cory's trademark. His Japanese family runs a soy sauce brewery in the town of Oono and a sake brewery, Nakamura, in Ishikawa Prefecture. In the late 1990s, he worked for his chef-uncle Yasushi Naoe in Toyama, on Japan's north central coast. Then, more than a decade ago, Cory led the sushi bar at North Miami Beach's Siam River, where critics first noticed him. He later opened Naoe (his family name), a 17-seat space in Sunny Isles Beach, where he became known for his omakase tastings. He moved it to an unmarked space in a Brickell Key office building in 2012, and loyal crowds continue to flock to his three-hour, $200 nigiri progressions, which include delicacies such as sweet, slippery sea cucumber ovaries. He opened N by Naoe in another unmarked space next door in July.
Today the notoriously soft-spoken chef is more elusive than ever, answering only a few questions via email, but in 2009 he told New Times: "I will quietly prove myself with the hopes that someday my Japanese family can be proud -- yet I'll feel it is never possible... which will drive me to keep building."
N took nearly two years to debut because of construction and permitting delays. The restaurant is open only for certain seating times: noon Monday through Friday and 9:30 and 10:15 Saturday nights. Reservations are mandatory and accepted only through OpenTable.
At Naoe, Cory stands behind the counter, cuts the fish, and explains each course, but during two visits to N, the tranquil chef was not on hand to offer guidance through his maze of exotic ingredients and preparations, though a server was capable. Cory sources seafood from Japan and local boats on a daily basis. He visits Homestead twice weekly for produce.
The elaborate, $80 experience might be described as kaiseki, a traditional Japanese meal guided by changing seasons, but Cory calls it "natural Japanese cuisine." Either way, it's welcome in a town where most so-called Japanese restaurants proffer California and JB rolls alongside pad thai and green curry. It must be tried.
But how to do so is another matter.
The server says the six dishes inside the box need not be eaten in any particular order, but moving from lighter to heavier is always a good plan. The bento box comes with accompaniments of miso soup (sweetened with blended corn) and rice (studded with crunchy, slightly bitter shreds of bamboo shoots) on the side.
What's inside the box varies slightly from season to season. In July, the summer's house-made tofu was born of jackfruit with a slightly sweet, almost bubblegummy flavor and a loose consistency. More recently, a winter version was made with boniato, a white sweet potato that yields a denser tofu with a starchier flavor. Both iterations came topped with a firm lobe of Hokkaido uni that added a touch of creaminess and salt. The sea urchin's oceanic tinge was ratcheted up with fresh wasabi and Jyunsai, a dainty, salty, green sea sprout encased in a thin film of jelly.
Fish, too, appeared. On one visit, a steamed kingfish's light texture rolled together beautifully with pickled Japanese radish. On another, steamed freshwater eel was freed of its usual overly sweet-and-sticky sauce, allowing the savory, flaky flesh to express its subtle meatiness.
Two pieces of softened, umami-packed seaweed called kombu sandwiched a layer of smelt eggs and were served alongside two slices of cuttlefish held together with another briny sheet of kombu. A pressed cube of smelt roe came cupped in a spicy-sweet shiso leaf. A sashimi was made from the delicate Japanese bass called fukko.
Such delicate delights clear the way for more assertive highlights, such as two glistening cylinders of sanma. The Pacific mackerel can be caught only in fall and was presented wrapped in skin that looked like crinkled tin foil. Each must be opened so its hairlike pin bones can be removed -- a tedious task with chopsticks -- but the result is well worth it. A squeeze of lime onto the juicy flesh foils its slight oily flavor, and freshly cooked squares of red and green pepper add a light crunch. The intense parcels segue into tender, tawny rounds of pork jowl slow-cooked in sake and miso, imparting a tempered, nutty flavor accented by a dab of sinus-tingling homemade mustard. Cory infuses this blend with puréed parsnip and matches it with a presentation of simply roasted or blanched seasonal vegetables.
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The finale -- a small bowl of seasonal fruit with sweet, soft adzuki beans and chewy rice dumplings that stick to the teeth -- seems too simple but is the perfect crescendo. The sweet shamrock-green syrup made of the finely powdered tea matcha was drizzled over everything and recalled the first earthy sips that opened the meal. It's a reminder of the attention to detail.
That depth is Cory's greatest success. N is yet another one of his meals of a lifetime, though made with components that might slip your memory. So follow Cory's lead. Move through this meal slowly, quietly, and purposefully. But don't hesitate to summon a server to re-identify any one of the countless, minuscule ingredients you'll want to remember forever.