Thai-Japanese hybrids have become the norm from Toronto to Tampa. And though it is easy to dismiss them as less than authentic, Bonsai makes it worth forgetting whatever you might have learned in world history class. The stunning new sibling of the Tamiami Trail original is a surprisingly sexy spot with delicious food and a young, eager staff.
A pair of the namesake gnarly-trunked, dwarf trees surrounded by smooth, black, river stones flank the open kitchen, tucked into dramatically lighted, recessed wall boxes. In Japanese culture, bonsai represents harmony and balance between man and nature, an apt symbol for this peaceful oasis in a fluorescent-flooded Kendall strip mall.
Guests are welcomed by a team of hostesses with wide smiles and easy manners standing in front of a beautifully lighted glass waterfall.
The vast menu includes plenty of goofy only-in-Miami rolls like a mango and tuna topped soy paper roll stuffed with cream cheese and shrimp tempura, but also lots of delicious renditions of favorites, from a lemon grass-laden tom yum soup with tender strips of white chicken, lots of lime, plump straw mushrooms, and sweet Thai basil.
I am not a fan of crazy rolls stuffed with more items than you find on a brunch buffet, but for those who are, there are nearly 50 to choose from along with classics from salmon skin to tekka rolls. We sampled three or four renditions, including the Savvy Girl (without rice) and the Bonsai Special with eel and tuna. All were cleanly prepared, tightly rolled, gorgeously displayed and fresh as a teenager talking back to mom.
Other appetizers, including a snappy octopus salad dotted with toasted sesame seeds and a sweet and spicy sauce over sliced cucumbers, are impressive, as is a respectable copy of the Nobu classic, Rockin’ Shrimp. The generous platter of smoking hot, deep-fried rock shrimp doused in a honey ginger dressing over shredded lettuce disappeared before it had time to cool.
Curries, including a fiery red version — I had mine with chicken — were creamy with coconut milk but still nicely spiced. A fantastic ginger stir-fry got a kick from loads of fresh ginger threads and hints of garlic. Perky shrimp and crunchy slips of celery cut on the bias, carrots sliced as thin as paper, snappy red and green peppers, fresh threads of sweet yellow onion and pops of mushrooms brought it all together in a confetti of flavors, colors and textures.
Perhaps our favorite, and certainly the most surprising hit, is the teriyaki duck, a mahogany-colored array splayed out beneath an umami-laden, soy-based sauce. The skin shattered with a crispy bite while the meat beneath was as tender and pleasantly unctuous as foie gras.
The wine list is young, small and budget-priced to match the menu and the dishes.
Desserts are equally well executed. Hot, crispy and puffy Thai donuts smothered in condensed milk and deep fried banana and ice cream are sweetly predictable.
The setting could qualify as one of the coolest I have seen in Kendall. In fact, it would be easy to think you were in a South Beach club with the gray, subtly iridescent concrete floor, stark white plates, cool paper lanterns and black lacquered tables, cozy booths and even hipster house music piped through the airy space.
But with prices so reasonable, the staff so easy-going and the parking such a breeze, it is clear this oasis is no South Beach.