Rosemary isn't typically associated with Japanese cuisine, yet at Sushi Garage in Sunset Harbour, a specialty roll combines the aromatic herb with freshwater eel and avocado. It arrives crowned with crisp rosemary flakes atop a layer of white-pepper-infused rosemary aioli — a delightful pairing in which the herb's intensity draws out the umami flavor of the fish.
Husband and wife Jonás and Alexandra Millán, along with their partner, executive chef Sunny Oh, came up with the idea in the unlikeliest of places: a pizzeria. They were enjoying some oven-baked bread infused with rosemary when Jonás decided their third restaurant absolutely had to offer a roll with his favorite herb. He says he knew if anyone was up to the challenge, it would be Oh, the former executive chef at Nobu Miami who was with the group for ten years before joining the Milláns to open Juvia on Lincoln Road and Bonito on St. Barts.
But whereas Juvia serves upscale Japanese cuisine with Peruvian and French influences, Sushi Garage is laid-back, affordable, and streamlined. Indeed, with the exception of a few creative-leaning dishes such as the rosemary roll, Sushi Garage concentrates on perfecting Japanese classics. "Japanese cuisine has been around for so long there's no need to reinvent it if executed correctly," Oh explains.
Chef Oh is a native of South Korea but has been cooking Japanese food for nearly 27 years. He and his partners like to joke they were forced to open Sushi Garage so they'd have a place to eat Japanese food in Miami Beach that's neither too expensive nor too experimental.
Searching for a simple California roll? Sushi Garage does the staple justice. They offer both mock crab and king crab versions because they recognize some folks are just used to the fake stuff. Other well-executed standbys include organic chicken teriyaki, miso soup, and the most mouthwatering chicken and shrimp dumplings on the Beach.
With regard to the restaurant's décor, however, the trio has certainly ventured outside the box. Juvia won a James Beard Award in 2013 for outstanding restaurant design, and for Sushi Garage, the owners again teamed with designer Alejandro Barrios.
As you walk through the garage-door entrance of what was once an auto body and paint shop, you immediately notice koi fish sculptures dangling from the ceiling. The pastel swimmers are about a foot long and look like origami, but in fact they're handmade out of aluminum.
Light wood furnishings and pale-green accent pieces create a tranquil atmosphere that's further accentuated by an abundance of succulents and ginger plants. Each table holds a lantern and two bottles of soy sauce, one regular and one reduced-sodium. Eye-catching details abound, yet Sushi Garage succeeds in being visually impressive without going over-the-top. This is, after all, an eatery striving to become a spot that locals can frequent in their heels or workout clothes and feel equally at ease.
During a recent visit, the playlist was a mix of Top 40 hits and '90s pop favorites, and the room was filled with beautiful young things — many of them with their fashionable children in tow. At this nearly 4-month-old eatery, service can be a bit inconsistent; one waiter was perky and professional, while another seemed distracted.
A specialty at Sushi Garage is fried rice proffered in a stone pot with a choice of vegetables, organic chicken, tenderloin, or shrimp. A waiter then carries out a steaming bowl of rice covered with finely chopped, color-coordinated rows of vegetables. The server mixes everything together tableside, and the bowls' contents continue cooking, the rice along the bottom becoming increasingly crisp.
Chef Oh drew inspiration from a classic Cobb salad and the Korean staple bibimbap for the look and taste of the dish. He says he uses butter, light soy sauce, and chilies to make the ingredients pop. The butter adds an excellent layer of creaminess that prevents the rice from getting too dry and binds all the elements together, while the chilies pack ample heat and balance out some of the acidity. It's an effortless dish you'll want to return for week after week.
For something lighter, try the tuna tataki appetizer. Bigeye tuna is seared on the plancha and dressed with a white soy sauce that has a lovely tartness. The plate is adorned with microgreens, daikon radishes, and lightly fried slivers of shiitake that enrich the fish without overpowering it. That said, when a beef tenderloin carpaccio comes topped with almost identical accoutrements, it begins to feel a bit repetitive. And though the carpaccio is good, it would benefit from a more vibrant sauce.
A section of the menu is devoted to specialty sushi. One interesting dish is the tuna with a dollop of soy salt, which is basically freeze-dried soy sauce. Chef Oh also rubs kizami wasabi — a mixture of the skin and the stem of the wasabi plant — on the fish and rice to add spice and offset some of the saltiness from the soy. It's not the finest raw tuna, but as a whole, it's a quality piece of sushi.
With Sushi Garage, the Milláns and Oh set out to create a neighborhood Japanese spot in an area that's becoming increasingly community-oriented. They've achieved just that by concentrating on serving basics people love in a setting that's new and exciting. Sunset Harbour and Sushi Garage are trendy, yes, but good food defies trends, and the food here is definitely good.
1784 West Ave., Miami Beach; 305-763-8355; sushigarage.com. Dinner Sunday through Wednesday 5:30 to 11:45 p.m., Thursday through Saturday 5:30 p.m. to 12:45 a.m.
Unagi white-pepper rosemary aioli roll, $14
Traditional California roll, $9
King crab California roll, $15
Organic chicken teriyaki, $18
Chicken-shrimp gyoza, $14
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Fried rice stone pot, $13 to $16
Tuna tataki, $18
Tenderloin carpaccio, $16
Tuna soy salt nigiri, $12