With astonishing gentrification projects from Brickell and Edgewater to the Design district, and the artsy-fartsy concrete canvasses dotted around Wynwood, there is much more to Miami than the faded bling and gangster-glam of South Beach. But Miami’s recent renaissance isn’t limited to architecture and the arts. The city’s food scene has also exploded into a culinary destination for chefs and foodies alike.Cuisines range from Latin-Caribbean delights at Michael Schwartz’s Amara at Paraisa to his fresh upmarket flagship Michael’s Genuine, to the authentic Greek-Turkish hideaway at Mandolin, but the most staggeringly impressive entry is the brainchild of Zuma alums Michael Lewis and Steven Haigh who opened a wood-fired Asian-inspired grill called KYU (pronounced “cue”, as in Barbecue). In deference to the neighboring Wynwood walls’ rural murals, a 20-foot vertical garden of mosses and ivy’s aptly contrasts the raw industrial concrete and dark welded steel interior. As you pry open the doors you’ll notice two things – first, the smell of smoky Florida oak wafting over the wooden high-tops affording great views of the high-action open kitchen at one end, and the high-drama artisanal bar at other – both vying for attention. Second, you can’t help noticing the friendly, unpretentious and rather jocular vibe that builds on the concept of a neighborhood joint that doesn’t want to take itself too seriously. But there are no happenstances when you’ve been voted Florida’s best restaurant by Time Magazine, or nominated by the James Beard Foundation as Best New Restaurant. No, my friends, this is one very carefully curated and perfected experience from host to toast.
The food and service are a fair fight for top billing, that by the end of the night we weren’t sure whether to wrap up and take home some of the leftovers, or a couple of the waiters instead.
The menu is a lengthy tumble of Korean, Japanese and American flame-grilled treats of all sizes. Despite the pervasive veil of “simplicity” with “no more than a couple of ingredients per dish”, like the much-photographed and utterly scrumptious Whole Roasted Cauliflower with dollops of creamy goat cheese to add some funk to the already magnificent shishito herb vinaigrette, or the heavenly refreshing Avocado Salad with lemon, crispy ginger matchsticks and house-made feta, it is the abundance of intricate preparations that has earned chef Lewis his unique signature, which is everything but simple.
As the dishes grow in size, they seem to grow in flavor too, with the Korean Fried Chicken as one of many show-stoppers. Prior to frying, the chicken is first marinated and then smoked, before being dipped into a wonderfully hot and sour gochujang chili sauce. Even the Smoked Duck Burnt ends aren’t just cold-smoked for 30 minutes either, they are then flame-finished on the wood fire with a sprinkling of salt and Japanese shichimi peppers. And if you listen carefully, you can just hear the dish that still calls my name: Crispy Baby-back ribs Yakiniku. The Jenga arrangement of ribs are first smoked, then braised, and then finally fried before being tossed in a deliciously sticky sweet and savory sauce that very mysteriously relocated itself everywhere from chin to nose.
And to round things out, the chef’s mother’s simple dessert is a great final act. Four layers of delectable Coconut Cake interrupted with a tart cream cheese filling which offsets the sweetness, yet pairs flawlessly with a serving of house-made coconut ice-cream.
For decades, chefs have tried to demystify the notion of what “simple” or “approachable” food is. And when you peer under the hood of the kitchen, it’s not always as easy as A-B-C. That’s because it might have been K-Y-U all along.