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By Bill Citara
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If you want to feel like a tourist in your own town, go to Balans.
It's on Lincoln Road, for god's sake. When was the last time you hung out there, oozing along with the flow of bug-eyed Midwesterners in their neatly pressed shorts and Tommy Bahamas, elegantly dressed Latins, baseball-capped party dudes, and the occasional slumming businessman, as obvious as a turd in the punch bowl in his conservative dark suit and neon power tie?
It's a Lincoln Road type of restaurant too lots of tables outside under a field of canvas umbrellas, a lot fewer tables indoors, albeit in a larger, spiffier, much hipper-looking dining room than most of its neighbors. The clientele is typical Roadie young and old, ethnically polyglot, tourists, and a smattering of locals, romantic couples, and tables of twentysomething women doing their best Valley Girl imitations. ("Like, it was soooo amazing!")
1022 Lincoln Road
Miami Beach, FL 33139
Region: South Beach
6789 Biscayne Blvd.
Miami, FL 33138
The menu reflects the same variety, a something-for-everyone grab bag that touches all the culinary bases without committing to any of them. Not in the mood for a quesadilla? How about some pot stickers? Or maybe a spicy lamb curry or upscale-ish sea bass, or a nice plate of pasta? Service is similarly diffident, competent but delivered with the kind of impersonal politeness that says, "We're just here to move the business."
That mentality may explain such dishes as the prosciutto and artichoke salad. Skirting the dark side of rip-offery at $11.95, it does feature two big, thick slices of decent-quality prosciutto, but then does them wrong with too little of a too-bland balsamic vinaigrette, an abundance of sickly yellow spinach leaves among the otherwise acceptable mixed greens, and inedible baby artichokes that tasted more of either preservatives or the metallic insides of their can; it was hard to tell which.
Deep-fried shrimp rolls were only marginally better, long, skinny sticks of pasty-texture shrimp that glistened with excess oil, served alongside a "sweet soy dipping sauce" that served mainly to kill any smidgen of real shrimp flavor, though it did help to cut the grease.
While Balans does on occasion reveal more corporate calculation than culinary inspiration, it can surprise you. Just when you think it's one more "churn 'em and burn 'em" joint cranking out indifferently prepared dishes to fill the stomachs of the visiting masses, the kitchen delivers something that makes your taste buds sit up and take notice.
An entrée of sea bass with smashed red potatoes, roasted tomatoes, and basil oil was the kind of white-tablecloth dish that could have come from most any of the beach's tonier restaurants. It wasn't perfect the fish betrayed no hint of its promised "herb crust" and the basil oil (really more of a pesto) was egregiously oversalted. But the fish was impeccably fresh and just as well cooked, the potatoes were plentiful and hearty, the tomatoes contributed a pleasing sweetish counterpoint, and even the salty pesto kicked in a bit of herbal character.
Balans being a UK-based company, lamb jalfrazi showed off Brits' affinity for a spot of good curry. It wasn't a hugely generous portion for $15.95, but it was quite tasty, the lamb tender, the thick sauce redolent of cardamom with a piquant chili bite, the plate adequately filled out by rice, raita, chutney, and a brittle papadam.
You're playing tourist on the Beach, so of course you have to try the dulce de leche crêpes. Of course you do, and they're damn good: two delicate crêpes rolled around the lush and luscious caramelized milk filling, a drizzle of chocolate sauce, and a scoop of creamy sabayon ice cream.
Sometimes being a tourist isn't all that bad.