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I've been married for a while now, but I still remember the combination of expectation and dread brought on by a blind date. The opening of the door to a complete stranger with whom your mother, neighbor, or colleague set you up. The visual assessment, ranging from "hot stuff" to "he'll do" to "help me, Lord." The lengthier examination of his personality, if he has one. If he doesn't, then the pointed glance at the watch, the headache plea, the aversion of the face from the proffered goodnight kiss.
Of course, not all blind dates end in cliched disaster. Some folks like their dates enough to test their mutual chemistry in the bedroom that very evening, then forget about each other until they desperately need to bring a guest to the office Christmas party. Others are a love match that leads to a relationship that eventually crumbles. A statistical few even get married. My parents met on a blind date. (They weren't out with each other, though; it was a double date, with my dad paired with my mom's best friend at the time, and my mother matched with my dad's navy mate.) And my newly engaged friends Howie and Susie, frequent dinner companions of mine, were set up by their mothers -- a doubly tough inspection to pass.
I've reviewed restaurants for a while now, but I still find eating dinner at a sight-unseen restaurant to be a lot like a blind date: a combination of expectation and dread. The same opening of the door to a complete stranger. The same visual assessment. The same lengthier examination, all too often leading to the same hasty retreat.
1022 Lincoln Road
Miami Beach, FL 33139
Region: South Beach
Of course, I like some restaurants enough to gorge myself that very evening, though I probably wouldn't return unless I was in the neighborhood. Others turn out to be a love match, with me becoming a regular before I eventually take my business elsewhere. And a very few become all-time favorites, places I might even take my mother. (A tough inspection to pass.)
Like some dates, some restaurants fall into that nebulous category: worth a second look ... maybe. A few characteristics you enjoy, a couple you could do without. Or the visuals worked for you but the inner workings somehow didn't, though you're willing to give it another whirl.
I guess you could say I'm sometimes a sucker for a pretty face, because I'm willing to give Balans, the chic three-month-old restaurant on Lincoln Road, another chance to prove there's more inside than interior design.
Quintessentially South Beach, this outpost of a British restaurant mini-chain (there are two others in London) features ceilings and walls painted with blocks of primary colors and bearing animal prints, gleaming chrome stools, a stunning mirrored bar, and nearly translucent bathroom doors. The prices are reasonable, the boisterous atmosphere appealing, vibrant and warm despite the metallic coolness of the decor. But the acoustics are a little too bright -- clanging cutlery and dropped dishes (there were a few accidents the night we visited) echo as if you're dining in a cave. And service, unfortunately, is also typically Beach, with long lapses between courses and staffers who can't pronounce those really difficult words. Like "boniato."
The presence of a Caribbean vegetable on a British menu warrants, I think, a digression: I'm sick to death of hearing that English cuisine is nasty, all boiled meats and lumpy starches. That might have been true in Victorian times (though even then it was a generalization), and yes, Sunday roasts, shepherd's pie, and dense puddings do tend to dominate the menus at pubs and some countryside inns. But London has been a cosmopolitan city longer than any of its American counterparts, so it stands to reason that the culinary revolution that took place here in the mid-Eighties also occurred internationally, and the cultural influences that have come to roost -- or roast -- in London are as varied as the ones in Miami. The menu at Balans reflects this phenomenon, though the dishes, which borrow Mediterranean, Asian, and Middle Eastern elements, don't always succeed.
Tom yam gung, a Thai soup, could have used a little help from lemon grass. The clear broth, adequately stocked with pink shrimp and straw mushrooms, had the spice but not the sour to balance it. And linguine with pork and Japanese eggplant, a good-size entree we shared as an appetizer, would have been better with a chewier Thai or Vietnamese rice noodle rather than with the Italian stuff, which was overcooked. The flavor of the dish was pleasant, with tomatoes providing plummy sweetness, but the ground pork and barely there eggplant made this pasta seem like an Asian version of Hamburger Helper.
A roast tomato and thyme tart, on the other hand, was an example of how well the kitchen can cook when the idea isn't too complicated. The tomatoes were slow-cooked to peak flavor, accented by the aromatic herb and arrayed over a delicate pastry crust. A handful of fresh, peppery arugula thrown over the top and a savory herb aioli garnish finished the dish handily.
Specials may take intriguing directions other than toward Europe or Asia. The Caribbean made an appearance in an appetizer of shrimp-plantain cakes napped with pineapple salsa. The kitchen's effort here, borne out in a stacked presentation, was slightly more involved, and we were receptive, remarking on the plump shrimp sandwiched between the two outwardly crisp, inwardly moist pancakes. The salsa too was excellent, slightly pickled red onions and chopped red bell peppers softened by sugary pineapple and intensified by cilantro.