Miami restaurant review: Is Iron Chef Morimoto up to the South Beach challenge?

Another big-name television chef has made his way to Miami. This time it’s Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, whose flashy appeal and pricey Americanized Japanese fare seem like a perfect fit. 

That fit will require a few more stitches to qualify as couture, however.

Finding this raw fish palace is the first of a few minor frustrations on a typical night. Walking through the long, winding lobby of the Shelborne Wyndham Grand is like trying to get to baggage claim at Miami International Airport. No signs or friendly faces guide the way. We walked past a bar and through a breezeway, down a corridor and finally into a door to the dining room. Two steps in and we were intercepted by a manager, who told us it was the wrong one. He led us to a hostess stand and finally through a patio to a table facing the bustling sushi bar. 

Once seated, we were charmed by the copper-colored fixtures, warm wooden tables, soft electronic music and sexy candlelit glow. We were not happy, though, with tables set so close you could eat off your neighbor’s plate.

An international selection of beers and wines along with rarified sakes are an expensive romp. Consider a 4-ounce pour of a 2010 Quintessa cabernet blend from Oakville for $68. A record?

On one of my early visits I was intrigued to see the television personality himself looking as fit and tan as a tennis player in his white shorts and ponytail. 

Handsome waiters in designer Boy Scoutish khaki uniforms — yes, they all seemed to be men — start out attentive, but once the dining room is in full capacity after 9 o’clock, they disappear. Bussers are prone to clearing plates before they are finished, and servers don’t seem sure who ordered what. Water glasses go unfilled.

The food is mostly exceptional, although some blah choices are mingled in.

In the best of East-meets-West cooking, pastrami fish, curly-cued ribbons of silken, iridescent yellowtail are encrusted with togarashi (a chile pepper blend) and served with creamy dill and gin-spiked crème fraiche. Candied olive pieces create a sweet foil to the smoky, cured fish. This is a Morimoto calling card that exhibits the delicious results of techniques that combine strong flavors and textures with the perfect balance. 

Another signature is the hamachi taco with exquisitely fresh, diced mild fish and smooth guacamole in bubbly taco shells that were only a bit greasy. 

Not for fat-phobes, the best dish we sampled was the rich-as-Midas kakuni, a cube of 10-hour braised pork belly with a sweetish soy scallion jus over a pudding-like rice congee — as comforting as soft summer grits.

Also rich and frankly a little over-the-top is the Duck Duck Duck. It includes a fried egg over rice with velvety confit leg and tender slices of breast that were juicy but could have had crispier skin. 

We liked the ceviche of conch, lobster and local whitefish, a bracingly acidic blend of tomatoes and hot aji amarillo. 

Sushi lovers will appreciate the pristine treatment of super-fresh specimens, including gorgeous tuna tartare served on a plate of ice-like glass, stunningly tender lozenges of sweet eel, silvery slices of unctuous mackerel and artfully wrapped rolls.

Though a standard at every sushi restaurant in town, the rock shrimp tempura is not worth the trouble. It’s made to mimic chicken wings, explained the server. The oily nuggets arrived cold and shedding their coating and drenched in two gloppy sauces (one with wasabi and the other chili). Three celery spears only made the pricey platter sadder. Uni carbonara was also disappointing, with too many hunks of flabby bacon and a weepy sauce. 

Pastry chef Manabu Inoue shows off theatrical desserts, including a chocolate sphere that implodes when hit with a shot of flaming rum. Tropical coconut mango pudding, which arrives in what looks like a fishbowl, is a carnival of color and flavors. Lemon yogurt powder lends a sour note to the sugar-cube-sweet meringue, chewy mochi beads, silken coconut-green tea sorbet and tangy passion fruit pulp.

The Key lime tart lacks oomph.

While most of the food is good, the experience at Morimoto is ruined by the lackluster service and a few meh plates. But with some nips and tucks, I expect it will fit into the Miami dining scene like a Parisian sewn Kenzo suit.

Follow Victoria on Twitter @VictoriaPesceE. Critics dine anonymously at Miami Herald expense.