The bright, shiny interior of Novikov Miami was almost within our reach when a Hulk-sized doorman stepped out of nowhere to block the entrance.
“Sorry, we don’t allow open-toed shoes,” he said, pointing at my husband’s favorite leather sandals. Over the big guy’s shoulder, pounding dance music and the clatter of a packed dining room beckoned.
Russian restaurateur and Kremlin caterer Arkady Novikov’s first restaurant in the United States is a swanky, Chinese-Japanese eatery that has spent the summer settling into its prime space in downtown Miami’s Met 1 condo. It’s part of a 50-restaurant empire built by the so-called “blini baron” that stretches from Moscow to Dubai to London, drawing the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Drake and Prince Harry.
Born and raised in Miami, my husband doesn’t think twice about exposing his well-kept feet in a nice pair of leather sandals. But if Russians can influence our elections, why not our dining attire?
We pointedly looked at the throng of barelegged women in strappy heels lining the bar then back at my man’s un-caged toes. The doorman shrugged apologetically. “We can make an exception, but only tonight.”
And just like that, we were in, colluding with the doorman.
It’s a Miami scene in here
There is no borscht at Novikov Miami. The only sign of the restaurant’s Russian roots are three pricey caviar choices at the bottom of the one-page menu.
On the left, sashimi, sushi, maki, tempura and dim sum. Or the right, robata-grilled steaks, chicken, seafood and wok-tossed vegetables, all prepared for sharing.
At the back of the restaurant, although our young waiter didn’t suggest any as options, is a glassed-in market, designed to get diners up close and personal with what they’re eating: globally sourced fresh catches and veggies dramatically stacked in baskets against a red wall.
Instead, it feels more like a museum exhibit amid the lacquered banquettes and high-gloss tables, all stone, Plexiglas and mirrors.
Combined with the non-stop bass beat, it creates a showy, loud dining experience designed for looking and eating, not conversation (or hearing your server).
But how’s the food?
Like a beauty obscured by too much makeup, there is surprising substance beneath the excess.
Resist the poached quail eggs with truffle and other extravagant options to focus on simple pleasures, such as the light and refreshing yellowtail cilantro sashimi.
The firm fish was sliced into transparency, each strip topped with a spicy pepper ring and paraded single-file on a cold, stone plate atop a snappy citrus sauce, with sprigs of fresh cilantro.
The four-piece chicken and morel siu mai, served in a bamboo steamer, is another taste bud-stirring dim sum starter. Spicy and tart chili and soy sauces served on the side insert a contrasting spike.
Despite the absence of Asian chefs in the main kitchen, where ducks dangle from the ceiling, our Peking duck was one of the top entrees on the menu.
The skin: crackling-crisp over moist meat piled high on the plate. The mini-smorgasbord was served with the obligatory hoisin sauce and a long platter of celery sticks, cilantro and scallions, sliced as thin as grass. It’s a lighter, less authentic version of Beijing’s celebrated fatty dish, suitable for warm South Florida nights.
From the robata grill, our 8-ounce beef fillet came properly seared and stacked high in chunks for diners to pull away like bricks from a wall. The meat was juicy, but cried for more seasoning.
Wok-tossed Szechuan prawns with crunchy red bell peppers, mushrooms and asparagus also delivered a wimpy kick.
Be spoon-ready for the separate dessert menu, where sculptural bites offer petite endings.
In one of the few nods to Miami, the matcha quatro leches with adzuki beans is topped by torched meringue and a giant Yuzu-soaked strawberry. Kudos to pastry chef Natalia G. Corrales for injecting rare local flair into Novikov’s formula.
How’s the service?
The wait staff was informed, although rushed and distracted.
We had to request a wine menu after sitting for quite awhile, and were forced to make a mid-air grab of our last bite of duck as the plate was whisked away in a premature clearing frenzy. A tip of 18 percent is automatically added to the bill.
It is Novikov’s misfortune that Miami has experienced an explosion of excellent, modern Asian cuisine prepared by Asian heritage chefs.
To name a few: James Beard award winner Paul Qui’s Pao at Faena Miami Beach, Fernando Chang’s Itamae inside St. Roch Market in the Design District, and Raymond Li’s Palmar in Wynwood, which made this year’s cut for Bon Appetit’s list of America’s 50 best new restaurants.
In the end, I’m not sure it warrants a return trip.
Despite putting Miami in the name, once you get past the toe test at the door, it might as well be Novikov New York or Novikov LA, frequented by (insert celebrity name here).
I have no problem with a scene restaurant by a Russian restaurateur — Novikov the man is reportedly worth more than $300 million — serving Asian food in a Latin city. Hey, it doesn’t get more Miami than that.
But if the restaurant tsar wants to take this restaurant from good to exceptional, he needs to kick off his shoes, ditch the cookie-cutter portfolio and get a sense of place.
Follow Jodi Mailander Farrell on Twitter: @JodiMailander.
Critics dine unannounced at Miami Herald expense. For the latest restaurant inspection reports, visit dine.miami.com.
Address: 300 S. Biscayne Blvd, Miami
Rating: ⭐️ ⭐️ 1/2 stars (Good)
Contact: 305-489-1000, www.novikovmiami.com
Hours: Noon-midnight Monday-Thursday, until 1 a.m. Friday; 6 p.m.-1 a.m. Saturday; 6 p.m.-11 p.m. Sunday
Prices: $5-$180 appetizers, $10-$110 entrees, $11-$14 vegetables, $13-$14 desserts
FYI: High noise level, full bar, valet parking $15, reservations suggested.
What the Stars Mean:
⭐️ 1/2 (Fair)
⭐️⭐️ 1/2 (Good)
⭐️⭐️⭐️ (Very Good)
⭐️⭐️⭐️ 1/2 (Excellent)