As chef and co-proprietor of Macchialina, the successful Italian eatery in an Alton Road strip mall, Michael Pirolo has built a reputation around sourcing top-grade ingredients and letting them do the talking in creative yet simple dishes.
Pirolo is putting that philosophy to work at Bazi, his modern Asian spot located several blocks from Macchialina, in the renovated Marlin Hotel on Collins Avenue. Starting with a dedicated fishing boat in Islamorada that hauls in the catch of the day, Bazi is a showcase for locally sourced, high-quality seafood as well as grass-fed beef and farm-fresh produce. From Italian to the Far East, nothing is lost in translation.
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Pirolo’s menu exploits Asian flavors in line with a new trend, eschewing Eastern-cuisine purism in favor of creative mash-ups that delight with their textural variety and surprising ingredients.
Bazi’s setting is dark and a bit mysterious, kind of a cross between opium den and man cave. Rich brown leather banquettes line the north wall of the slim space. There are bars in front and back, a giant dragon lording over the room and a lot of candles that augment the dim Edison-bulb lighting.
The menu features raw-bar items — chirashi bowl, sashimi, tuna tataki and the like — and a tantalizing array of starters. Steamed buns might be the menu item that most closely resembles the traditional Chinese version.
The buns are steamed each day, then stuffed with succulent slivers of grass-fed short-rib that’s slowly braised in pureed Asian pear, Korean red-pepper paste and the Asian trinity (ginger-garlic-scallion). A slice of pickled cucumber provides a welcome crunch.
Eggplant Kobra Kai is a superbly satisfying appetizer. It starts with house-ground Kurobuta pork, whose high fat content and rich flavor make it the brother-from-another-mother of Kobe beef. It’s sauced with fermented black bean paste and brown chicken stock. The eggplant is done two ways, thin discs lightly dusted with rice flour and flash-fried, and batons sautéed in Bazi oil: grapeseed oil flavored with star anise and Sichuan peppercorns. All is combined with Thai basil, Fresno chiles and cilantro stems, which bring texture the leaves don’t have.
Baby bok choy from Swank Farms in Loxahatchee goes raw in a salad that, with the bitterish green and purple leaves and a dressing built around the tart juice of the kalamansi lime, might get too assertive except for the saving sweetness of bits of homemade cashew brittle sprinkled around the plate. Pea tendrils, creme fraiche and the zest of lemon, lime and orange round it out, with citrus sorbet shaved over the salad.
With the exception of bok choy and water spinach garnishes here and there, most vegetables are a la carte, and they’re excellent. Bazi rice is seasoned with sugar, black and white sesame, red chile, lime zest, dashi and soy, and is festooned with a sous vide-poached egg cracked over top tableside.
Zesty cabbage (has anyone ever said that?) is sautéed in Asian trinity with chili and soy, finished with soy, lemon and cilantro stems. If you detect a little extra sweetness with your three half-ears of grilled corn, know that it’s because they’re doused with corn juice that has been freshly squeezed in a juicer, with lime zest and red chile and soy adding a happy ending.
Those of you old enough to have gorged yourselves on Howard Johnson’s fried clam feast are familiar with gigantic Venus clams. Unlike most large clams, these have super-thin shells that, when steamed, open just-like-that and yield tender meat. At Bazi, these big beauties are tossed in the shell with yellow miso noodles, shiso, toasted garlic and extra virgin olive oil (linguine vongole, anyone?) and wakame, an edible seaweed, for a gorgeous dish that with its quick count of 11 clams, plus bits of king crabmeat, is one of the menu’s most filling.
Venus clams pop up again in a goodie bag called grouper en papillote. A fat, today-fresh filet of grouper is cooked in the clear plastic bag with a handful of clams and bok choy, lobster mushrooms, ginger and lemon zest. Tableside, a server pours in a beaker of lush, gingery grouper broth cut with shiso butter. As is typical with this preparation, the fish is impeccably moist.
If your home-cooked boneless chicken breast is dry and bland, get thee to Bazi, where the meat is brined in dashi with sugar and salt, hit with a bit of red chile and cooked sous vide. It is moist and juicy like none you’ve ever tasted. This perfectly executed plate gets textural and visual variety from roasted shiitakes, water spinach and a crunchy touch — five or six spears of tempura-fried asparagus. A mustard-miso sauce adds body and flavor.
Bazi’s winning streak ended with simple grilled bream, a substitute for the menu-listed snapper. The generous filet was overcooked — with angry grill marks ruining the intended delicate flavors of sake, soy, julienned ginger and lime zest — and the flesh dry. Water spinach was served here too, a savory side.
But two desserts excelled. Key Lime Halo Halo is a festival of textures. There are puffs of Key lime flan, distinct cubes of raspberry and coconut gelee, and kidney beans that have been cooked with sugar (“What’s for dessert, Mom?” “Beans.”). Molten chocolate bowl is your standard flourless chocolate cake with all its dark and gooey glory; the Asian twist is fresh passion fruit and a Thai basil anglaise, with white chocolate-green tea touilles on top for a little crunch.
Critics dine anonymously at the Miami Herald’s expense. Kendall Hamersly: @KHamersly