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Review: Sweet smell of success at KYU

Review: Four stars for KYU in Miami's Wynwood neighborhood

 

★★★★

I could get all fancy with my words and descriptions, but I'll take my cue from KYU executive chef Michael Lewis, whose philosophy is, "Keep it real simple."

So I'll simply say this: KYU (pronounced cue) exemplifies what dining should be in the early 21st century, a restaurant that is an exciting embodiment of its time and place, Miami's artsy, vibrant Wynwood neighborhood. KYU embraces all the excellence of fine dining – pristine ingredients, clean flavors, disciplined technique, artful presentation – with none of the fuss, formality or pretense.

The moment you step inside, you're enveloped in the sweet smell of Florida oak, piled high along a wall and used in a smoker and grill that are the centerpieces of an open kitchen. The odor is pleasant, almost perfumed, subtle smoke that's a harbinger of KYU's earthy delights.

The food, atmosphere and service are great. And all are treated as equals here. "Like family," says Steven Haigh, Lewis' business partner who runs the front of the house. That goes for the staff as well as the diners. When we were seated before 6 p.m. on a recent Saturday, Lewis and his crew were eating their staff meal at a large communal table in the 100-seat dining room. There are two staff meals daily, which explains why everyone seems so happy. It also sends a very clear message. There's no hierarchical class distinction here. There is no wall between the tables and open kitchen, and when it's time to eat there is no wall between servers and those who get served.

"It's our dining room, our family," Lewis says. "That's just the way we do things."

Lewis and Haigh met in London and worked together in Miami at Zuma, a high-end Japanese eatery with worldwide outposts. They opened KYU in February. Haigh comes from a small town in Scotland. Lewis was born in Baltimore, grew up in New York and is a well-traveled disciple of Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Haigh and Lewis both love Wynwood's creative vibe. Both live near the restaurant and have young children.

"Steven and I really believe you can still have that high level of service, that high quality of food without the same formality and price point," Lewis says. "We wanted to have an affordable neighborhood place, and we really wanted to play with that family style of eating. Everything is meant to be shared. We like to see people reaching out, grabbing, dipping and dunking."

Lewis calls KYU's cuisine "wood-fired and Asian-inspired." I call it delicious.

It's a place where nearly every bite bursts and pops, such as the salt-splashed cubes of crispy fried pork belly ($12) that triggered involuntary ecstatic screams at my table. The texture was just insane – crunchy on the outside, warm, gooey and gelatinous on the inside, like some campfire marshmallow made of pig.

It's a place where you will love – and devour – things you thought you hated, in my case coconut. Lewis makes a diabolical coconut cake dessert ($8, with a scoop of coconut ice cream and toasted coconut), the cake recipe from Lewis' mom. She made it for his dad, who didn't like overly sweet things.

It's a place where you'll feel equally comfortable bringing a millionaire or a 10-year-old. Friendly servers smile and anticipate needs before you have to ask. When a purse fell from a chair at our table, someone quickly placed it on a smaller end table that we didn't even realize was there. When we hit our saturation point after a leisurely-paced meal of a dozen small and large plates, a server asked, "Can I wrap that up for you?" They'll crouch down and explain dishes and ingredients to you, and lovingly stir up the sizzling ingredients of the show-stopping, stone-pot fried rice with king crab and egg ($28) before spooning them in small bowls.

My only complaints were minor. A server didn't know the bar ran out of Japanese whisky for a special cocktail, but the whisky drink still showed up on the final bill (it was quickly removed when we spotted it). And it can get loud when crowded during peak hours. More sound insulation is being installed, Haigh says.

Things are utilitarian, practical. Bottles of complimentary water, still or sparkling, are brought so you can pour on your own. If you can't use chopsticks, utensils sit in a box on each table. Tables are adorned with a small planter of micro shiso, a Japanese herb that is used in many dishes. Chipped plates and bowls aren't discarded, but instead line a case between the bar and dining room, a sort of modern art display. There's a special composter in the back that turns waste into water, a way to cut down on trash hauling. KYU says it plants five trees for every tree burned, and Haigh says they've made arrangements to plant 10,000 as a start. The two bathrooms are gender neutral, one commode in each, no markings outside to distinguish between sexes. (Note to North Carolina: See how easy that is?)

The square dining room allows clear sight lines for all. Servers can see when dishes are ready. Haigh can survey all staff and diners. And diners can watch line cooks and chefs make magic from the piles of oak. The smoker and grill are used to prep and finish meats, seafood, fish, fowl, vegetables and even fruit – such as the smoked pineapple in the Wynwood Mule cocktail (served in a Warhol-esque soup can, blanketed with the same visage found on the huge mural outside).

That entranceway mural, just down the block from Wynwood Walls and painted by two Miami-based artists known as 2Alas, sets the tone for an evening that's big, bold and imaginative. Crispy baby back ribs ($28) are arranged like a Jenga game, crisscrossed and layered so that the whole pile will tumble if you don't eat from the top. Korean-style double fried chicken ($18) is served atop a mound of braised chicory and a delectable puddle of iridescent red-orange sauce made from butter, sriracha and gochujang Korean chili paste. Beef tartare ($17), finely diced cubes of raw tenderloin mixed with jalapenos, cornichons and pecorino cheese, is topped with a soy-cured egg and sits on a wood-grilled slice of sourdough bread from nearby Zak the Baker. Wow.

Roasted cauliflower ($14), tuna tataki ($18), and sliced hamachi ($18) were exercises in restraint. Same goes for the duck breast burnt ends ($32). Lewis cold smokes a whole duck for 30 minutes, then finishes rare slices of breast on the wood grill, sprinkling the crackling skin with kosher salt, Japanese shichimi pepper and paprika.

"Jean-Georges used to say it's harder to deal with simplicity, dishes with only two or three ingredients, because they all need to be perfect, they all need to be handled perfectly," Lewis says.

Mission accomplished. Bravo. KYUdos.

KYU

251 NW 25th St., Miami

786-577-0150, KYUMiami.com

Cuisine: Asian-inspired, wood-infused small plates and meats

Cost: Moderate-Expensive.

Hours: Noon-11:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 11 a.m - 9:30 p.m. Sunday; closed Mondays through Oct. 24, then noon-11:30 p.m.

Reservations: Accepted

Credit cards: All major

Bar: Full bar

Sound level: Loud when crowded

Outside smoking: No

Wheelchair accessible: Yes

Parking: Street parking (pay by app/phone) and valet

mmayo@southflorida.com, 954-356-4508. Follow my food adventures on Instagram: @mikemayoeats. Sign up for my weekly newsletter: SouthFlorida.com/eatbeatmail.

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