By David Minsky
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By Bill Wisser
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Well, perhaps that is a bit harsh. The sushi bar tenders a first-rate array of pristine maki rolls, nigiri sushi, sashimi, and temaki (cones) even the California roll, usually crammed with crappy surimi, is laden with luscious lumps of blue crab. The sake selection rocks as well, from aged, sherrylike Hanahato Kijoshu ($74 bottle/$16 glass) to fruity Harushika Daiginjo ($110 bottle). Sakes infused with Asian pear or raspberry are also poured ($32 bottle/$8 glass), as are vodka-juiced saketinis ($12). The elegant interior, replete with a loud, splashy waterfall and marble floors, and the spacious outdoor terrace, replete with sweeping vistas of Biscayne Bay and the Brickell skyline, are among Miami's prettiest dining areas. The sky is clear, the waters calm. Smooth sailing thus far.
Café Sambal, positioned one flight below the Mandarin Oriental's posher Azul, premiered along with the hotel in 2000. Chefs have since come and gone, each new Pan-Asian menu a thematic sequel to the last. The latest installment, starring chef Gerdy Rodriguez, is billed as "contemporary Asian with Latin and European influences," but those additional culinary sources are mighty difficult to spot.
Rodriguez has cooked seafood at Red Fish Grill, contemporary American at Pacific Heights, Brazilian at Barroco, northern Italian at Peppy's, deconstructionist Spanish as sous chef at La Broche, and New World cuisine as chef at Norman Van Aken's Mundo. He would have been executive chef at Karu & Y in 2005 had the Wynwood restaurant and "ultralounge" been ready to open (seems as though its imminent debut has been promised since 1993). Instead the Cuban-born chef hopped aboard the S.S. Sambal in November.
It's only natural the stint at La Broche influenced Rodriguez's ideas about cooking; experimenting with foods such as bread ice cream, gelatin paper wraps, and chilled liquid peas with hot bacon foam will tend to do that. When the chef first arrived at Café Sambal, his menu included seductive selections such as sea bream salad with cucumber, radish, and chili oil; grilled strip loin steak with potato in three textures; and warm coconut gelée with ginger flowers. This is not exactly molecular-based alta cocina, but it was more enticing than the current lineup, which includes only a few token froths and foams, specifically in two starters: shrimp hargau with garlic froth, chervil, and squid ink vinaigrette (which seems to me would mute the mild-mannered herb); and asparagus tempura with ginger-mayo foam and salmon caviar, in which anorexic stalks of pencil asparagus were entombed in crisp batter. Whatever delicate earthy flavor that emerged from the asparagus could then be drowned by a dunk in the whipped ginger-mayonnaise. Orange spheres of fish eggs lay at the bottom of the cup of foam like sunken jewels.
Mixed seafood tempura with tamarind/miso glaze provided an unexpected twist. The crusts were crunchy enough, each bite bringing a crackle followed by the taste of fried, ever-so-slightly stale air. That was the surprise most of the tempura shells were blanks, as in devoid of seafood. Now and then, when a snippet of squid, smidgen of shrimp, or scrap of scallop was discovered within a battered husk, it was akin to coming up with the prize in a box of Cracker Jack. Our waiter picked up the plate, which was covered with shattered pieces of the fried batter, without questioning whether anything was wrong.
Main courses are divvied up into noodle dishes and "large plates." The former grouping includes a deconstructed nasi goreng and makes a powerful argument for never taking anything apart that you cannot properly put together again. This Indonesian specialty traditionally features rice stir-fried with various ingredients, including shellfish, meats, chicken, eggs, chilies, peanuts, and an array of seasonings. The idea, much like paella, is to meld a diversity of flavors into the grains as they cook. Sambal's rendition presents a neat dome of hoisin-heavy rice in the center of the plate, with a not-quite-runny-enough egg yolk on top. Accompaniments surround the rice like components of a pu-pu platter: fried chicken wings glossed with sweet/sour chili sauce, which tasted like it was poured from a bottle; "beef" satay that turned out to be two skewers of chicken breast coated with peanut/coconut sauce; a pair of plump, assertively spiced shrimp; slices of cucumber; and "prawn crackers," also known as shrimp chips.
"Singapore prawn laksa noodles" brought a bowl stocked with a pair each of large, moist shrimp and "jumbo scallops" (really one horizontally sliced in half); shreds of chicken; poached (hard-boiled) quail egg; and thin, firm, eggy noodles. A "spicy coconut broth" with "vegetables" was to complete the soupy dish, but the vegetables never made it to the bowl, and the coconut broth was decidedly unspicy insipid, really.
"Large plates" present a limited selection of seafood and meats, the latter encompassing grilled strip loin with kim chee and sesame chili sauce, and Australian rack of lamb with tamarind barbecue sauce. These are the menu's most expensive entrées, at $35 and $39, respectively; most others run from the low to mid-twenty-dollar range. Still, Sambal is not the bargain it used to be, when a grilled strip loin with spicy roasted garlic-pepper jam cost $22.75, and goat cheese-crusted lamb chops with sambal-mint barbecue sauce were $29.50.
Roast chicken is the lowest-priced large plate, at $21, and it is one of the best. A golden-seared breast and teeny leg and thigh were served atop an earthy, aromatic ragout of wild mushrooms (including the fabulously fragile enokis), papery-thin sheets of bean curd, and a dash of soy, sesame, and supposed eucalyptus oil, though the last ingredient did not register.
I rarely order salmon, but Sambal's menu description of it being teriyaki-seared with edamame fried rice, eggplant, sautéed pea tendrils, and green tea butter sauce sounded too alluring to pass up. The succulent pink square of fish was missing the tendrils, which on another evening I espied atop a salmon at the next table; the bright green color enhanced the appearance, and the extra flavor no doubt elevated the fish as well. More pressing liabilities included the green tea sauce being too bland to have much impact, and two logs of Japanese eggplant arriving hard and practically raw no vegetable tastes worse when uncooked.
The eggplant remained on the plate, chewed but uneaten, throughout dessert and while we waited for the check. And while we waited for the check. And while we waited for the check.... Service was titanically inept, the staff neither polished nor even remotely attentive. Glasses of water remained unfilled throughout one dinner, were only sporadically attended to in the course of another, and the table was never wiped down during either meal (guess you have to dine in a diner to be extended such courtesies). Whenever anything was needed, we were left looking around, waving for help as if trying to hail a taxi in the rain and often, like such wet, frantic gesticulators, to little avail.
For dessert, some of the hotel's buffet pastries are presented tableside on a wooden tray. All are glossy, many shaped and decorated like mini pillbox hats: fruit tart, cheesecake, chocolate éclair, and so forth. No complaints in this department, for a muffin-size, brownielike chocolate cake with dense chocolate mousse filling, and an über-fresh napoleon were both undeniably delectable. Yet a $4 cup of lukewarm coffee, poured from a pot that was apparently sitting on the burner an hour or two too long, put a damper on even dessert.
I am, in essence, suggesting you stick to sushi and sake at stylish Sambal. To do otherwise is ... well, let's just say if you are desperate for dinner with an oceanside ambiance, you would be better off stranded on a remote island with some coconuts and the ghost of Shelley Winters.