By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
By Bill Wisser
By Dana De Greff
By Laine Doss
By Zachary Fagenson
According to an old dining axiom, a restaurant's bread basket is an indicator of the rest of the meal's quality. At Duo the bread reached even beyond the heights of the restaurant's ceiling, which is very high indeed. The ambiance is informal at this seven-month-old eatery, as is the place's outdoor café, which enables patrons to keep an eye on what's happening in this up-and-coming area's nighttime streets -- admittedly not a whole lot just yet. But Duo's looming, industrial-chic interior area, wallpapered with glassed-in wine racks, is a vote of confidence that 24/7 gentrification of this stretch of Miami's financial district will arrive shortly.
For such a stylish venue, prices are remarkably low. While wines by the glass start at the usual eight to ten bucks, dozens of bottles were under $30, a treat from co-owner Charlie Frumkin's astonishing and growing inventory of roughly 600 pampered wines (even the reds are temperature controlled). An $18 bottle of Domaine Pierre Sparr "Alsace One," a blend of the Alsace region's five premier white varietals (Riesling, pinot blanc, pinot gris, muscat, and Gewürztraminer), was floral but dry and crisp, an irresistibly refreshing accompaniment to one of two summer dinners -- especially since it was priced at just four to seven dollars above the normal retail price.
As for the food, main courses start at $16 but top out at only $19. The lowest priced was a sizable chicken breast (with the meaty lower wing joint still attached), roasted a bit too long to be ideally juicy, but fortunately with the skin on. The flesh did, therefore, retain moisture, supplemented by a powerful truffle broth, whose flavor was countered by strong accents of thyme and rosemary. Since the soup was far too thin to adhere to the chicken, a spoon was thoughtfully provided to slurp up the earthy stuff. An accompanying Tuscan bean and applewood bacon casserole featured perfectly cooked creamy white beans that had a subtle complexity, free of the overwhelming smokiness too much bacon can imbue. The dish was also free of visible pork, so faux vegetarians who are squeamish about Close Encounters with Big Chunks, but who appreciate the heft meat flavoring gives a dish, would have no problems with this item.
Not even a pretentious Parisian could have found fault with chef Cinthia Medina's white fish en croute, a delicate fresh sole fillet amusingly encased in a flaky, fish-shaped pastry crust. The sauce was a classic shallot-flecked beurre blanc, rich but with plenty enough lemony tang to balance the smooth wine emulsion's butter. The sauce's only fault was its meagerness; there was enough fish that the dish could've used a third again as much.
Of the trio of $19 entrées, we tried Duo duck. Pairings of duck breast and leg done differently are not uncommon these days -- the magret rare and sliced like steak, the leg as a confit. A properly done confit, however, is far too rare in Miami. This traditional method of salt/spice-curing and then slow-cooking duck legs in duck or goose fat was originally invented for preservation -- in the days before refrigeration. It produces meltingly tender meat. But most of Miami's alleged confits seem little more than overdone roasted legs.
Duo's confit, shredded and piled on a toasted brioche, was appropriately moist and full of concentrated, cooked-in flavor. The breast (reddish pink, not as rare as I prefer but probably right for most tastes) was served fanned out on a bed of custardy fennel fondue, cut with enough leeks to skillfully smooth out the anise overtones.
For the same $19, diners could, alternatively, assemble their own two- or even three-course meal from a large list of starters -- salads, soups, carpaccios, designer pizzas, and pastas, plus substantial vegetable sides like the Tuscan bean casserole. Among the sides that would make half a meal for a vegetarian was a nicely crusted macaroni gratin and an impressive seasonal wild mushroom ragout. The latter's seven-dollar tag may seem relatively high, but this stew was not the mix many eateries pass off as wild mushrooms -- a few portabellos and perhaps a lonely shitake in a sea of button mushrooms. Our ragout included luxe chanterelles, or a trumpet-shaped close ringer well worth the price.
One terrific and filling combination of small plates was an intense roasted-tomato soup, followed by a bowl of naturally creamy risotto with chewy rice grains, plenty of saffron, and fresh, tender shrimp. And to finish: What could be our town's best Caesar salad, with homemade herb croutons and an exceptionally savory creamy dressing that adhered beautifully to the crisp greens.
Another appealing combo began with Duo's carrot and ginger soup, a thick bisque with no discernable taste of ginger but with a nice chili kick. The velvety purée was topped with shrimp, again impeccably fresh but this time lemon "cooked," like ceviche, making them a clever foil for the carrots' sweet blandness.
Unless you're a totally terminal Atkins dieter, follow with a bowl of house-made gnocchi, which the menu could have accurately called "Food for the Gods." Blessedly, the menu avoids all such hyperbole. The cloud-light pillows, with balsamic marinated fresh figs and a subtle, not too cheesy, gorgonzola sauce were labeled simply as gnocchi. But they were exactly what you always want when you order gnocchi -- not the common tough, sticky little tooth-coating starch pellets that necessitate a midmeal run to the rest room with a toothbrush.
Duo does have ample provisions for low-carb dieters. Duo tartare, for instance, was a pair of riceless makis filled with diced raw fish: toro topped with aioli (not spicy as advertised) and caviar (black but not sturgeon), plus salmon topped with mild wasabi mayo and avocado. Only someone suicidal would have ignored the homemade potato chips that came with this dish.
That brings us back to Duo's bread: crusty baguette slices; delightfully dense, slightly sweet peasant bread packed with cranberries; breadsticks so good they needed no accompaniment, not even the excellent hummus and cruets of olive oil and balsamico that came with the basket.
Carbs or no carbs, when the baking is handled by chef/co-owner Maria Frumkin, from the old favorite French Bakery on Kane Concourse, it would also be a major mistake to skip dessert here. Chocolate sushi was fun: a faux maki with coconut "rice" and dark chocolate "fish," sort of an Almond Joy for grownups. And Frumkin's reinterpretation of classic American devil's food cake was divine -- moist layers of coffee-enlivened chocolate cake filled with bittersweet chocolate ganache.
The few off notes during two meals concerned service, such as the waiter who asked, practically before we were seated, if we wanted sparkling water. We didn't. Because of the customary huge markup, I rarely order bottled water in restaurants, and my dining companion that night, who swills water like it was water, never does. "Just still water?" the fellow followed up. We said yeah.
What came wasn't tap water but a $4.95 liter of Evian, which is not "just" still water. It is "expensive" still water. "I think I'll have to start saying öwater from the sink' from now on," my friend groused.
Even more annoying were some overeager busboys who attempted to whisk several dishes off the table before they were finished. The second time it happened, I hooked one fellow by his belt and reeled him back, along with our tartares. Food as delicious as Duo's shouldn't go to waste, at any price.