LONG STORY SHORT
Disappointing and not for me. A perfect example of a newcomer dog and pony show, one with excess flash and no substance. Miami may be quick to initially follow a red carpet path, but also brutally greedy with its loyalty. What remains once the novelty fades? Probably not this.
THE LONG STORY
Last year, Hiden’s arrival inspired me to visit other local omakase-style restaurants within the same price range (old favorite NAOE and newcomer Azabu). I called it “research.” I knew I needed to try the new Sushi by Bou South Beach installation at the grand Villa Casa Casuarina (known to locals as the Versace mansion) the second I read about it. How would it compare? Who is Bou? What makes this one special?
The speakeasy, small space concept stems from other similar ones already in place in New York. The former Boca Raton local, chef David Bouhadana, began his journey at Yokohama Sushi followed by years of training in Japan. Ultimately he landed at New York’s Morimoto before embarking on his own successful ventures.
I quickly snagged a reservation for the first week in March and patiently waited for its arrival. Days later I found several dated controversial and unflattering articles about the chef, one of which focused on his tendency to occasionally use of a fake Japanese accent during service. Wait. What? Given my pre-paid reservation was nonrefundable, I decided to follow through with it and perhaps see if my experience was the same as reported. How would I feel if someone used a fake Cuban accent when serving a plate of black beans and rice? What if he/she said “azucaaaaarrrrr”? Honestly, I think I would burst into laughter and not take it too seriously, but that is just me. I do understand this goes deeper than just an accent, especially if he was a repeat offender. Why wasn’t this mentioned in any news outlet when announcing the restaurant’s arrival?
I then started seeing photos of “the experience” pop up all over my social media feeds with the expected kudos and accolades given by the first to dine in (usually comped media, celebrities, and influencers-for-hire). I found it odd that the chef photographed was not Bouhadana. Instead, it seemed 22-year-old Chinese chef Wenjie Lian (newly self-named “chef Miami Mike,” but really from New York) would take the lead at this location. Oh! So young. Doesn’t it take years to perfect the art of sushi rice alone, I thought? When did he start training, exactly? And he is being trusted to open? In Miami? So many questions! By the time my 60-minute dinner finally arrived, I could not wait to dive in and find out more.
I received a text from the Sushi by Bou “concierge” earlier in the day with a reminder, parking information, and a request to please arrive at least 15 minutes earlier. Arriving 30 minutes before my 5 p.m. reservation, I checked in with the hostess at the front gate who shook her head and said she “...hadn’t seen the Sushi by Bou people yet,” and “…there isn’t a place for you to wait. We don’t have a bar you can use. You have to stay here until they come down for you.” I sent a text to the concierge to make sure they knew I had arrived early, but never received a reply. By 4:50 p.m., a hostess arrived and escorted our party of two upstairs.
Even after all this time and with some admittedly gaudy moments, the villa never disappoints. I still admire the detail and amount of work that went into its design and construction. Truly spectacular. We took the three flights of stairs and arrived at the G. Lounge (aka Gianni Versace’s former master bedroom suite). Joe, our mixologist in-the-know, led us to a couple of custom cocktails and rocked my sake tasting for the night ($30 for three pours). I appreciated the amount of time he spent explaining every option and diving into a bit of sake history. Unfortunately, the lounge visit ended abruptly and a hostess transferred our drinks to the next area; dinner would begin immediately, without a second to spare.
The sushi portion of the night took place in a low-lit quaint room, adjacent to the lounge. Hip-hop played softly in the background and set the too-cool-for-school mood. I admit, I dug it at first. Five leather barstools faced the counter where the chef started the timer and promptly began. Four barstools fit comfortably; the fifth seemed out of place. Water and drink refills initiated over my shoulder. It took a bit of getting used to constantly having to turn around and lean out of the way for service. Imagine my surprise when not Bou, not Miami Mike (and sadly not Magic Mike either), but now chef Luis was at the helm. Quien? Someone else is on board now? When asked, local Cuban chef Luis said he trained at North Miami Beach’s Hiro (did I hear that correctly?) and in Oregon. By the time everything ended, to the loud ding of a bell signaling the 60 minutes were up, I sat frozen in disbelief. “How was it?” the hostess asked as I strolled on my way out. “OK,” I said. “OK amazing, or just OK?” just OK, I replied. She ignored my somber tone and excitedly handed me a card with a phone number to text for next time so that we could receive “…direct and personalized attention.”
I wanted to taste the nigiri so badly after waiting so long, that I inhaled the first Red Snapper piece quickly and even forgot to take a photo. We all know by now that is very unlike me. The cold bits of underseasoned rice surprised me. I looked around and confirmed I was not at the shopping center sushi place. I sat, in fact, inside the famed Ocean Drive mansion and hoped to indulge in a top-notch omakase experience. Wasn’t I eating off Versace plates too? I do not really care, but the owner who hovered around made sure to mention it several times. Really? Instead, this lacked flavor, finesse, skill, focus, and attention to detail.
When I asked the chef if he meant for the rice to all have different temperatures per piece, he shook his head and mumbled a reply I could not quite catch. The ratio of rice to fish was equally inconsistent. I watched intently and anticipated each bite waiting for my eyes to glaze over out of pleasure, but it never happened. Most pieces tasted the same with only a few standouts (is butchered otoro better than none at all?), but not one bite justified a wish for a return trip. The mostly pre-sliced fish actually seemed like good quality, but they also appeared to be severely mishandled. The wasabi present was also the usual bright green pre-packaged horseradish used everywhere; the chef said he’d “…been considering using real wasabi, ” when I inquired. Is that so?
The 17-piece progression featured the A5 wagyu towards the end, but then followed it with trout, chutoro, and sea scallops. The staff switched our plates only once throughout, but the leftover soy sauce lingered on both from the messily amount brushed unto the fish. The grand finale involved an overly dry sponge-like square piece of tamago with visible burn marks on top. The chef cut up several servings and plopped them on the same dirty place we had been using all night for our enjoyment. Ding! Time’s up. Next group. Se acabó. The timer’s bell went off and signaled the official end and we needed to exit. I have never dined on an audible timer before. You?
To summarize a very disappointing dinner, I will say this; I can see how the history around the location can become a draw for guests. Unfortunately, I grew up in South Florida, and have visited countless times. It does not mean I am necessarily jaded, but it does mean I am looking out for more than just a pretty place (and plates). If you open in Miami and charge $125 per person (my dinner was $337.48 total), you should be at the top of your game and deliver a memorable omakase adventure comparable to what was offered at Hiden (before chef Tadashi’s recent departure) or what is offered now at NAOE. Even Azabu tops this (and it is not one of which I am a fan). I felt insulted and vowed to never return. After my initial reaction, I had a brief change of heart. Knowing that if I review a restaurant, I prefer to do so after a couple of visits, I reached out to find out how to reserve on the ticketing site on a day chef Lian would be there instead. The reply? Nada. I suppose they excel at remaining mediocre from start to finish.
In very Miami fashion (and I am not talking about the woman who arrived 40 minutes into her 60-minute dinner #truestory), I am now convinced diners overlook the gimmicky tactics and fall in love with the idea of the experience as a whole. There is a difference between visiting the little sushi corner spot next to Publix, and investing in a haute sushi experience. Am I a sushi master? Of course not. Do I need to be one to know what I like, based on what I have experienced before? Hell to the no! Instead of impressive sushi, I received rushed globs with occasional flavor, enhanced by “truffle” and charcoal salt. And maybe that is just it, not everyone cares. Perhaps the opportunity to take several Instagrammable photographs trumps the need for execution and a respect for the craft and product. I am not expecting South Florida to turn into a serious sushi town overnight, but this location is closer to a tourist trap. Might as well follow it up with a visit to Mango’s down the street.
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