By Zachary Fagenson
By Bill Citara
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When One Ninety closed in early 2005, Miami lost much more than a neighborhood restaurant. Located on the bottom floor of an old house in historic residential Buena Vista, just north of the Design District, the funky, friendly food/entertainment spot was hip in a way that was the antithesis of high-rent South Beach glitz. The place, love child of chef/sometime musician Alan Hughes and his then-wife Donna Lee, was more of a classic Sixties hippie hangout, updated for the new millennium.
The homegrown art on the walls, the often weird live music, and the imaginatively conceived eclectic eats instantly drew locals from all walks of life. You could look around at other patrons comfortably ensconced in the outdoor café's mismatched furniture — especially at the fifteen-buck all-you-can-eat Sunday brunch — and see a unique microcosm of multicultural Miami as it could be, minus the cultural squabbling and velvet-rope elitism.
Actually, within six months of One Ninety's 2002 opening, so many curious trendies from SoBe were gravitating there that neighborhood patrons feared the interlopers would ruin the joint. Instead it closed, says Hughes, because a landlord demanded double rent for reupping the building's expired lease. Fans grieved.
They need mourn no more. After the hiatus (during which Hughes operated a modified One Ninety at a SoBe hotel that was a definite vibes mismatch, and then made a run at catering), Hughes has quietly, with no PR hoopla, reopened the beloved bohemian eatery in a new location (eight blocks north and two blocks west) with a very long lease.
Admittedly there are major minuses to the physical setting. The room is much smaller than the comfortably sprawling old place. And there's no outdoor sidewalk café — nor would one be desirable, given that the neighborhood isn't tree-lined Buena Vista but a scuzzy commercial strip. Next to a laundromat, One Ninety's storefront looks less hippie than iffy. But there are amusing touches. The spot still, for instance, sports a sign reading "Little Haiti," the former restaurant tenant.
"The broken window is a nice touch too," offered my dining companion, laughing a bit nervously as he pointed out an expanse of shattered glass behind heavy security bars. But he calmed down considerably after a couple of bottles of Trinity Oaks Pinot Noir, a budget wine with real backbone. Normally fairly priced at $21 per bottle, it's miraculously priced at two-for-one during One Ninety's 5:00 to 8:00 p.m. happy hour.
Most important, the counterculture vibe is much the same. There may be no stage, but no matter; bands simply play in a corner. Prices are also nearly the same — high for the current locale, but only a buck or three more per item than at the old One Ninety. And though there's no Sunday brunch (yet), the food is otherwise much the same: quality tapas till 3:00 a.m. for nibblers and, for serious diners, Hughes's signature globally influenced cuisine — skillfully executed dishes that are simple but often have delightful twists.
Take duck, so often a cloying, sweet-sauced cliché. Here sensual oyster mushrooms and a savory yet light thyme-spiced white wine potion enhanced slices of marinated, perfectly cooked, medium-rare barbecue breast. Sweet potato flan provided all the sweetness any discerning diner would desire.
Duck confit salad was another unique, and even more witty, take on a classic. Don't expect the usual meltingly textured, fat-stewed whole leg; the meat is served here in long shreds, like pulled pork or ropa vieja, molded into a disk. But the shreds were indeed savory, and the boneless presentation a plus in terms of elegance and ease of eating. And the accompaniment of frisée, pistachios, and grapefruit beautifully countered the confit's typical overrichness.
Old favorites include homemade walnut and ricotta agnolotti, in a basic but effective butter/sage sauce; a grilled steak with crisp shoestring frites; and a creamy cod cake (made with bacalao, not fresh fish) with a salad of grilled onions, cukes, and tomatoes, plus puddles of lemony, not garlicky, aioli dressing.
For dessert, a pavlova (traditionally a fresh fruit and whipped-cream-topped meringue, here garnished with passion fruit curd and an odd coconut tapioca crème Anglaise instead of whipped cream) was disappointing owing to a meringue misstep. The pastry, supposed to be crisp outside and soft inside, was puttylike throughout, sticky-chewy enough to cause a dental emergency.
Never mind. One minor mishap couldn't ruin the mellow mood. Given Miami's dearth of truly creative, inexpensive eateries, we raise a glass (or, at happy hour, a couple of bottles) to One Ninety's return.