Just across the Brickell Key bridge and behind a guarded residential gate, lies a hidden, unmarked room full of Japanese treasures. If you arrive just before the six and nine-thirty seating times, you’ll spot a small woman peeking outside a black tinted door waiting to snatch disoriented patrons inside for their meal. Some people are here because they heard it was the best Japanese restaurant in town, others are here to try to recreate the Jiro Dreams of Sushi documentary they just watched on Netflix. Despite the reason, they know they’re in for a special journey at NAOE, Chef Kevin Cory’s omakase-style restaurant. Now he’s back with even more surprises at his new restaurant, N by NAOE, which serves a multi-tiered bento box lunch for just fourteen lucky diners a day. In traditional Japanese culture, bento boxes are home-packed, portable meals with a fairly rich history dating back to the fifth century, where hunters and soldiers would diligently pack their meals to-go. In today’s culture, bento boxes continue to be a source of convenient and on-the-go eating, but have also taken the role as one of the most loved Internet phenomena as made apparent by the hundreds of thousands of photos of “cute” boxes posted on Instagram and Pinterest. The bento box is typically meant to provide a balanced, delicious meal, but aesthetics plays a pretty big role. Opening a bento box should be visually impactful, getting you to buy into whatever you’re about to eat, before you eat it. Once you finish ogling the bento box and convince yourself that it’s okay to touch it, you should find that the food orchestrates the perfect balance of carbohydrates, protein, and vegetables. N by NAOE’s bento box lunch fully respects and celebrates the art of the bento box with a quiet, ceremonious presentation of each tier. I couldn’t help but stare, a little nervous to touch anything or move it out of place. Each section seemed like a rich, great aunt’s house in which she spent her last eighty years collecting beautiful ornaments and curating each room to her liking. I shook that bad memory of accidentally shattering an antique vase into a million pieces and started the journey Chef put out in front of me. It’s very difficult to take your eyes off the delicate details – the chopstick rests, the gorgeous wood grain, the beautiful glasses. While you’re being distracted by pretty things, you’re quietly ambushed by a server carrying a choose-your-own-adventure bento box. Your journey takes you through three drawers full of mini edible landscapes, each feeling like you’re entering a new world in Super Mario Bros. I started in Tofu World where I met Princess Uni and we tongue kissed passionately for what seemed like an eternity. It was beautiful.
After beating that level, I traversed over to the sashimi section where the Aora Ika (squid) stole the show. It was gummy and delectable, something I’d like to have a bag full of at the movie theater.
The black belly rose yaki seems to be a simple fish at first, but the key lime and daikon awaken its secret powers. In fact, most of the food here makes you feel like you’ve just discovered fire for the first time. I cautiously pop a squishy square of some unpronounceable ingredient into my mouth, squint my eyes while bracing for the unknown, then feel this warm joy rise out of my gut and onto my face.
My absolute favorite was the battera kombu with madai kojizuke and fried canistel. I’m not quite sure what all that means, I just know that it made my taste buds very happy.
At the end of this action-packed adventure, we reached the real peak of the meal. Dessert came in the form of space-age gelatin squares and delectable, locally grown mango. The matcha tea syrup on the side is meant to be poured over the dessert. I’m also pretty sure it can make a grown man cry. The plan is to go home after this and somehow reverse-engineer this godly syrup and make matcha tea-flavored everything.
N by NAOE in Miami is open M-F for just one seating at noon. Lunch has an $80 per person price tag (+18% auto-gratuity.) and lasted about 90 minutes. This is not the place for a cheap or quick lunch, but felt more appropriate as a really fun mini-vacation to a faraway land. Reserve at OpenTable and bring your sense of adventure.