By David Minsky
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By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
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On a recent evening at Pan-Asian restaurant Soco, all of the half-dozen nightly specials were Italian except for one appetizer. Which was Spanish. At the bottom of the regular menu -- which features dishes like a Thai fish hot pot, a Chinese Peking duck spring roll, and a Japanese sushi combo -- there were a few odd old-style French touches: a Châteaubriand for two; an entrecôte Paris with frites. And for dessert, there were tooth-achingly traditional cinnamon/sugary Latin American churros with chocolate.
Tandoori borscht, anyone?
Actually Soco's international stew makes sense when one realizes that chef Alfredo Alvarez was classically French-trained, is Venezuelan, and was chef/co-owner of Giacosa, which folded shortly after Alvarez's departure but was for close to a decade Coral Gables' hottest Italian restaurant. After a stint traveling to exotic ports as a cruise line's consulting chef, Alvarez returned to the Miami area inspired by his Close Encounters of the Third (World) Kind, to open this Asian-inspired eatery early last winter.
But you know what they say about Chinese food -- you're hungry again an hour later. There's no way that the chef's former Giacosa fans, returning ravenously to Soco for seconds, were going to be sated with just dim sum when Alvarez has always made what's maybe Miami's most stomach-and-soul-satisfying risotto. If risotto ai porcini, a creamy dish of al dente Arborio rice with pieces of porcini mushrooms and hints of truffle flavor, is a special when you go, forget any plans to eat all Asian and grab it.
Much of Soco's Japanese, Thai, or Chinese-sounding food is, at any rate, more Alvarez's very personal combination-of-countries cuisine than authentically Asian. All Japanese eateries have beef tataki (or, as on one night we visited Soco, a special of tuna tataki), for instance, but do not serve it with asparagus hummus; an accompanying sauce was reminiscent of teriyaki's sweet saltiness but was, rather, soy infused with figs. Neither did dragon tail spare ribs resemble regular sweet-glazed and fairly fatty Chinese restaurant ribs as much as meaty, smoky, succulent Southern U.S.A. wood fire-grilled pork. And instead of standard shrimp tempura, Soco serves up kuruma shrimp phyllo with cilantro sauce, wrapped in crisp phyllo strands rather than batter-fried. The sauce was actually two bowls of subtly cilantro-flavored dips, a sort of Latin/New England tartar sauce and a lighter Asian/Italian olive oil rice vinaigrette.
And the Spanish-sounding special, avocado gazpacho, turned out to taste less like a chunky Hispanic raw purée than like a chilled silky-smooth Italian marinara sauce garnished with guacamole. Normal? No. But good.
Other dishes, though, sounded more creatively fusion than they proved to be. A white tuna sashimi, for instance, was described on the menu as served with litchi fruit and lavender sauce plus osetra caviar, a preparation sounding like Japanese food lavishly dressed up nouvelle French/New American. No litchis came with the sashimi, however, nor any sauce but regular soy; the sole accompaniment was tasty but standard seaweed salad. Additionally, had the black "caviar" dotting the sashimi been expensive osetra as promised, the dish's $13 tag would have seemed reasonable, but since it was not (the stuff looked and tasted like common inexpensive Avruga-brand herring roe), the price seemed high for just five fish chunks, however impeccably fresh. And yellowfin tuna tartare, while also fresh, was not much different than dozens of tuna tartares in town; described as accompanied with roasted daikon radish, it came instead with the usual universal-chichi mesclun garnish.
A couple of dishes were even more disappointing. Crispy lobster and shrimp dumplings were indeed crispy, but since they were steamed, not fried, the pasta's crunchiness was not necessarily a plus. The filling was a bland paste with no discernible shellfish chunks -- a waste of lobster. And both my raw oyster-loving companion and I found Pacific oysters with strawberry ponzu sauce inedible. One of the six was in fact seriously rank, and though the rest weren't spoiled, they were problematically large; I appreciate getting more for my money as much as the next person, but these more-than-a-mouthful mothers, saturated in harsh vinegar (that had been spooned on rather than served on the side, hence was unavoidable), were huge enough to choke a porn star.
"Alaskan black cod" is no more a member of the cod species than "Chilean sea bass" is a true sea bass. The "cod" is sablefish -- yup, the old Jewish deli smoked staple, which has become a nouvelle Japanese classic, too, since Nobu Matsuhisa started miso-glazing unsmoked fillets in the 1980s. At Soco, however, it's the "sea bass" (Patagonian toothfish) that gets the miso treatment, while the "cod" comes atop a rich, nicely balanced sweet/savory sauce featuring coconut milk, sherry, and ginger. The sauce worked well with the softly meaty-textured buttery fish, as well as with an accompanying crisp "bird's nest" of deep-fried boniato and banana shreds. Less effective, in my opinion, were limp slices of ripe banana on top of the fillet and a heap of very sugary jamlike onion compote, which made the dish too altogether soft and sweet for my personal taste; I'd have preferred the cleaner contrast of some crunchy nonstarchy veg, spiced with chili heat. Admittedly, though, sweet-toothed diners might well love these two touches.
If the sleek space's totally packed tables were any indication, many, many Miamians think there's a lot to love about Soco.