Residents of Sunset Harbour in South Beach’s secluded West End smugly stroll still-under-construction streets, seemingly unaware they’re losing their hood’s secluded status.
The well-intentioned spoiler: NaiYaRa, the urban-chic Thai restaurant by Piyarat Potha “Chef Bee” Arreeratn.
Serving only dinner since it opened in December, NaiYaRa is seducing outsiders into the once-isolated domain of Joe Allen and Purdy Lounge with artisanal sushi and elevated interpretations of Northern Thai specialties the Thai-born Bee learned at his grandmother’s side.
If it seems that he knows just the right amount of heat to apply with his sting it’s because Chef Bee knows us so well. Before opening his own Oishi Thai restaurant 11 years ago in North Miami Beach, Bee worked his way up the Miami food chain, learning his trade under sushi chefs Nobuyiko Matsuhisa (Nobu) and Kevin Cory (Naoe). More recently, he earned four stars for the opening of Khong River House in Miami Beach.
I’m rarely taken with trendy craft cocktails, but NaiYaRa’s “killer bee” gin drink, a slushy concoction infused with lemongrass syrup, ginger and Thai chili, has such a perfect pow of fire and ice that I plan to make it my preferred starter on return trips. And there will be more, thanks to an ADD-inducing menu filled with eye-catching distractions.
Bee has brought over his beloved Burmese wrap rice noodles with peanuts and palm sugar from Khong, as well as sushi-sashimi Japanese classics from Oishi Thai. Two new appetizers worthy of repeat are the lightly fried Thai street dumplings — stuffed with chicken, celery, oyster sauce and chili — and crispy bok choy chips. The wisps of organic greens are fried until they become shiny, emerald shards bearing layered flavors of soy, sesame oil and scattered garlic chips (although I would have preferred the leaves hot instead of room temperature).
Among the 10 entrees, the green curry sea bass sang in creamy coconut sauce with snappy bell peppers, bamboo shoots and basil over jasmine rice. Crispy duck in red curry, jazzed with bell peppers and slivers of pineapple, also was superb, although diners seeking more heat may be disappointed by Bee’s restrained hand.
Black pepper skirt steak marinated in oyster sauce was juicy and yielding under the knife, with a bright red middle. Served on a narrow cutting board, the meat was a smoky base to a handful of crunchy bok choy, peppers and garlic chips. A bowl of tamarind-lime fish sauce provided sweet-and-sour accompaniment.
In contrast, strips of catfish-like Vietnamese swai whitefish fried in a light, five-spice batter were so mild, we became bored before reaching the bottom of our paper-coned dish. Propped on oiled greens and slivered onions and decorated with a purple edible orchid, the basket was a pretty date all dressed up with nothing to say.
Standards, such as pad Thai and tom kha gai coconut soup, also produced shrugs around the table.
Narrow teak tables and fishing baskets hanging overhead create a warm atmosphere at NaiYaRa, which shares its name with Bee’s young daughter and the honest, hard-working female elephant. An elephant mural painted on one brick-red wall and collages of black-and-white Thai movie posters with stenciling by Miami artist Danny “Krave” Fila give a slight edge.
A shiny-tiled open kitchen in the back is divided from the 120-seat dining room by the zinc-topped bar. Additional seating is outside on the covered promenade that NaiYaRa shares with Icebox Café and Panther Coffee. A small bar to the side and the waiting area up front tend to overflow with hungry customers hovering expectantly over diners, which makes it difficult to relax.
The wait staff is courteous, swift and well-versed in the menu, providing almost exhaustive detailed guidance on drinks and dishes. With such attention, we were disappointed that one of our orders — the popular coriander-spiced beef jerky appetizer — never made it to our table.
The lack of vegetarian options also dashed hopes for some of our dinner guests. Even the eggplant entrée has pork and oyster sauce in it.
Desserts redeem with brown sugar cake, a glass filled with layers of caramel bananas, coconut mousse, lime cream and guava granita —and the milk chocolate pots de crème, dreamy custard topped with vanilla-flavored whipped cream and chocolate puffed rice.
There goes the neighborhood.
Critics dine anonymously at the Miami Herald’s expense. Follow Jodi Mailander Farrell on Twitter: @JodiMailander.
Address: 1854 Bay Rd.Road, Miami Beach.
Rating: 3 stars (very good)
Hours: 6 p.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Saturday, until 10 p.m. Sunday.
Prices: $5-$17 appetizers, $15-$29 entrees, $16-$22 sushi and sashimi, $8 desserts.
FYI: VS, MC, AmEx; full bar; $15 corkage; parking in adjacent garage or limited on street; reservations strongly recommended; noise level high.