The goods: The boutique Essex Hotel has transformed its tiny bar into Zen Sai a hip, Japanese tapas spot.
Ambience: Zen Sai is outfitted with low-slung tables and a glass-enclosed sake window featuring 20 varieties of sake, including sparkling Zipang. The majority of seating is on the patio, nicely shielded from the South Beach fray by palm trees and Buddha statues.
The grub: Tokyo-style small plates. Chef Mike Hiraga (Bond St Lounge) blends traditional Japanese izakaya and French influences. Prices are reasonable – most plates average $12, maki rolls $9-$18 and noodle dishes $14.
Start with a Zing martini made with bourbon, sake and lemon, then enjoy an avalanche of shareable plates like chewy squid jerky with aioli dipping sauce, crispy bok choy lightly tossed with soy vinaigrette, garbanzo spring rolls with addictive cilantro curry dipping sauce and yakimeshi fried rice flecked with rock shrimp, scallops, bacon and egg.
Pork belly sliders are spiked with a spicy bean sauce while black cod is brushed with sweet yuzu miso. Specialty rolls worth exploring include the Proscuitto Roll blending asparagus, goat cheese, truffle oil and balsamic vinegar (pictured).
Verdict: Inspired maki and tapas, casually presented in a sleek SoBe space.