UPDATE: I hope to fully update this review soon. I visited again a five-year hiatus and genuinely enjoyed the follow-up dinner with Chef Atsushi Okawara.
“Did you hear about Azabu? It’s a Michelin-starred restaurant that just opened in Miami!” Or so I misleadingly heard and read over and over. Except that’s not factually accurate, and there’s so much wrong with that statement. This rumor has become a terrible game of telephone throughout our city. Sushi Azabu is actually not currently ranked on New York City’s Michelin Guide. As per my research, the last time it received a one-star rating was on October 2015 (when the 2016 recipients were awarded), and it has not yet regained its star (the 2019 list was announced today). Even if it’d remained on the list, Azabu doesn’t get to take it with them to a new location. Florida does not have a Michelin Guide. Therefore, Michelin-starred restaurants do not exist here yet. Does it matter? I don’t know. Not really. Maybe. Yes. I do know I’m disappointed those “in the know” keep parroting the same phrase without checking first. That is all.
Located at The Stanton Hotel on Ocean Drive, New York’s traditional edo-mae Sushi Azabu now has two concepts in South Beach: Azabu (robata style) and The Den at Azabu (omakase-style sushi). I first visited The Den for an early Sunday supper several months ago. As I followed the hostess to the secret back entrance, I noted the muted decor: light-hued terrazzo floors, wood-paneled walls, earth-toned palette, and the occasional royal blue accent. A sliding farm-style door opened and revealed the (much talked about) secret dining room. As luck would have it, although there was enough seating for 14 guests, my husband and I dined alone that night: an accidental private dinner.
What I tried:
HIT: The Grilled King Crab with Kani Miso, a rich, umami bomb, delicacy.
MISS: The rest.
I’m always torn over reviewing a restaurant after only one visit. Instead of sitting this one out as I do many others, I’m choosing to share my experience, and here’s why. After championing Hiden’s arrival, I felt inspired to visit a couple of other restaurants, all within a similar price range, and see how they compared. Given I had not dined at NAOE in a couple of years, it was time to return there too. After trying all three, I concluded NAOE still ranks as one of Miami’s best and, albeit technically different in their daily omakase selection, can easily share the limelight with Hiden. Unfortunately, when compared, The Den didn’t even show up to play. Not even close.
The concept, advertised as being led by chef Masatsugu Kubo and featuring “sushi chefs trained in Japan,” just didn’t add up to our experience. The calm, yet intense focus, form, and style shown by Chef Cory (NAOE) and Chef Tadashi (HIDEN) throughout service wasn’t there for the chef working that night. Knife skills didn’t flow as gracefully either. There was also the same one towel used the entire night to “freshen up” the knives and the occasional (into the arm) sneezing and coughing. Cringe. Shocker, but we weren’t surprised when our chef actually mentioned how this had been a career change for him, not too long ago. Wait, what? How quickly does one become “trained” in Japan? Did I misunderstand his comment? Courteous and generous, he even threw in some additional pieces. I gluttonously anticipated each, hoping it would be “the one,” but it never happened.
I know the drill and usual excuses as to what must have happened that day. Perhaps it was an off day for the chef, or there was a problem with the purchase of the best ingredients that weekend, or the dog ate his homework. The fish might have been genuinely flown in from Japan, but it didn’t taste any fresher than that of any local spot. I didn’t want acceptable, good, or great. At Azabu, I wanted bites that made me swoon and thank my lucky stars. Some pieces arrived with a borderline chewy bite and unwelcomed slimy texture. Zero flavor. Zero feels. I’m pretty sure boiled Uncle Ben’s rice would have tasted better than the underseasoned version served that night. Perhaps our chef freshly grated the wasabi right before my arrival (I never saw it done in front of me, as I did at NAOE and Hiden), but I doubt it. By the time I got to the gummy tamago and slushed raspberry dessert, I wanted to cry.
At this hyped level of dining, how many times should it take for a diner to receive the much-talked-about “Azabu experience” at The Den? At what expense? The New York location must have continuously delivered excellent dinners from beginning to end, and why it received accolades from the Michelin Guide in the past. But in South Florida, The Den has big shoes to fill, especially if a Michelin Guide connection is continuously and deceivingly name-dropped. Not only do we already have notable omakase experiences to brag about, but even some of our smaller mom-and-pop spots can leave this one in the dust.
I’d love to hear from regular diners who visited and paid their own way (NOT those who dined as comped media, VIP, or as part of any other special guest situation) who perhaps had a similar or better experience than mine. I, for one, deeply regret this $457.20 ($150 pp, sake, tax, & tip) dinner. Clearly, I’m not planning a return visit anytime soon. Would you?
The Den At Azabu
161 Ocean Drive
Miami Beach, FL 33139
786 276 0520