Zen Sai at Essex House: Secret Sushi on SoBe

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Literally hidden in plain sight, the terrace is tucked behind a wall of foilage, safeguarding this hidden gem from the cliches of Collins Avenue. Soft sounds and colored lights set a serene tone as you cross onto the veranda. Much like a child stumbling upon a secret garden, I knew I had discovered something different after entering Zen Sai.

Following in the tradition of great Izakayas, Zen Sai is more than just sushi. It's a Japanese gastropub that's gone incredibly chic, yet remained undeniably unpretentious. Zen Sai means "small plates" in Japanese, but we were in store for big flavors.

Service was swift and sincere. Our waters were poured and the daily drink special was delivered in a flash. Crisp and light Sake Sangria ($12), balanced perfectly with white wine, quickly whisked the soupy day from our thoughts. Relaxation continued as we met our server, soft-spoken and articulate; each dish and drink recommendation was delivered with detail and passion.

The small plates were delivered when ready and were perfectly spaced. Garbanzo Spring Rolls ($8) served with cilantro curry cream, were crisp and delicate. The Spicy Tuna ($10) roll was excellent. The satisfying chew of sushi rice juxtaposed with the creamy texture of spicy tuna kept us coming back for more, despite the growing heat. Dipped delicately into the balsamic teriyaki, one of three robata sauces brought to the table, its complex sweetness played perfectly with a spicy companion. With our palates awakened and drinks emptied, we decided to order another cocktail.

Our server boasted of a Strawberry Basil Martini ($13) that tasted exactly like fresh strawberries; my companion jumped but I wasn't buying.

Craving something clean and bright, I ordered the Cucumber Basil Martini ($13). Made with Hendrick's gin, basil, cucumber, simple syrup and fresh lime juice, the Cucumber Basil Martini had an alluring quality I couldn't quite pin. Upon inquiring about its mysterious floral undertones, we find a little St. Germain liqueur was the elusive ingredient. Our server was thrilled that my palate picked up on the hint. It sounds condescending, but it was so endearing. He was genuinely excited about the cuisine and cocktails and that spoke volumes. Across the table, my friend's Strawberry Basil Martini stood defiantly. The deep pink shade and lack of seeds screamed of a sweet syrup. Upon tasting, I could not have been more wrong. It was just like biting into a strawberry, fresh from the farm.

Onward to a Scallion Ribeye ($13) dish that was tender and satisfying, served with a sweet yakitori sauce. The Chili Garlic robata sauce paired best with this dish. The red chiles in the sauce danced on your tongue as the mirin and ginger notes of the ribeye came through. Rounding off the evening was a Black Cod ($16) in a yuzu and miso sauce. The silky fish had an incredible bark, what aficionados call that heavenly ring of smoke and flavor seen on only the best barbecue. The Black Cod was a enrobed in a cloud of umami and honey that floated us away to dessert.

With a flawless experience almost over, we find that Zen Sai does not have their own dessert menu. Dishes are brought over from The Clevelander, the neighboring sister property to the Essex House. While our Fried Bread Pudding ($8) was delectable, it lacked the thoughtful intricacies found on the rest of the menu. Next time, I'd skip dessert and still leave satisfied.

Bottom line: With big flavors on small plates, spectacular service and an excellent selection of custom cocktails, Zen Sai won't remain a secret much longer.

Follow Arlyene Marie Ponce on Facebook and on Twitter @UltimateFoodFan

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