By Zachary Fagenson
By Bill Citara
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A tsunami of near unanimous praise has catapulted Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill to the top of Miami's dining scene at breakneck speed. No doubt the immediate impact reflects today's quickened pace of social networking — word-of-text/tweet reaches eyes infinitely faster than word-of-mouth could ever reach ears. Yet even in the days of The Pony Express, any establishment with as much going for it as Sugarcane would eventually be known far and wide.
The place's success all but screams at diners as they enter the large space. It isn't just that the room is packed and very loud (although this always seems to be the case), but it exudes the big city allure of a longtime landmark oyster bar and grill in New York, Boston, or New Orleans... Not to overstate the distinctiveness of Sugarcane's vibe, but it's almost as though the buzz of the crowd declares: Miami has arrived! Or at the very least: Midtown Miami has arrived! That's where Sugarcane, sister venue of SoBe's Sushi Samba Dromo, is located.
To the left of the entrance is a bar that opens up to an outdoor patio; clustered around it are a boisterous cast of babes, blokes, blades, buddies, businessmen, and during one of our visits, Belkys Nerey. A raw bar sits on the right side of the lengthy, lofty room, and an open kitchen runs along the back. Rattan fans drop from the ceiling, antique mirrored panels hang on distressed walls, and a pastiche of hardwood floors, red banquettes, and mismatched chairs produce a pretty patina that seems neither glitzy nor new. But it is the intangible feel of the place that sets it apart. As in: It feels like a place you want to be in.
3250 NE 1st Ave.
Miami, FL 33137
Region: Midtown/Wynwood/Design District
"You can't eat atmosphere," as an old cafeteria ad slogan once proclaimed, which is why Timon Balloo was brought in as Sugarcane's chef de cuisine. The menu divides into three categories: raw bar options, foods cooked in a Japanese robata grill, and some 20 small plates of globally inspired snacks. The raw fish items include blackboard selections of seasonal oysters, shrimp cocktail, king crab legs, a half-dozen crudos, and a limited list of sushi/sashimi/rolls. Some local products are utilized, such as yellowtail, red snapper, and white water clams from Sebastian Inlet, Florida. But otherwise the catch extends from Maine (lobster) to Madagascar (shrimp) to the Bahamas, which is where the conch in our salad came from — a bracing toss of julienne mollusk, lettuce greens, red onion, orange sections and cilantro.
Yellowtail crudo brought five meaty oblong slices of pristine hamachi, double-plated over crushed ice, each piece sprinkled lightly with lava salt and dappled with dabs of grapefruit and avocado — very quiet accompaniments that allow the pure notes of fish flavor to be heard, but are not an especially inspiring match. White grape halves, droplets of red shiso, and a mist of vinegar season a crudo of fluke in similarly subtle fashion.
Balloo oversaw sushi bars during his time at Sushi Samba Dromo and as head honcho at Domo Japones. The modest number of sushi and sashimi selections here are fresh, adeptly assembled, and prettily presented; but they aren't distinguishable in quality or style from that found at most other places. An exception is the pressed sushi called El Topo, rectangular wafers of Atlantic salmon, rice, shiso leaf, and jalapeño under a sheen of melted mozzarella cheese capped by crispy bits of onion — with eel sauce slithered on the plate. The combo is sweet, hot, salty, and weirdly delicious — as a dish named after a hallucinogenic cult movie should be.
Sushi provides safe gustatory satisfaction, but more unique items are produced in the hot kitchen. Those cooked in the Japanese robata grill are especially noteworthy. The grill utilizes binchotan, a white oak charcoal so hard that it sounds like the ring of a tuning fork when two pieces are rapped together. More pertinently, slow cooking close to the coals yields a crisp, caramelized finish — practically smokeless, too, because the minute amount of plumes that binchotan creates are swept up the vertical grill.
Chicken yakitori was one of our favorites among the dozen or so robata foods — soft, plump, pieces of breast meat interspersed with snippets of thick, almost leek-like Tokyo scallions, all lightly charred and glazed with a slightly sweet, mirin/soy-based tare sauce. Unfortunately, the yakitori also yielded an unpleasant surprise: pieces of poultry were too tightly packed onto the skewer, so a couple of center slices were served with raw spots.
No such problem with juicy wedges of skirt steak, nor with tender triangles of peppery squid sided by lemon aioli. An admirable selection of vegetables are robata-sized as well, like cauliflower, asparagus, sweet potatoes sweetened further with maple soy, and a lengthy spear of Japanese eggplant with a dark, shiny, sweet soy coat and an almost pudding-soft interior — very much like the fried, miso-topped agedashi nasu popular as an appetizer at sushi establishments.
There is no shortage of alcoholic beverages to match with the fare — wines, sakes, signature fruit cocktails, the world's skimpiest glass of sangria (poured over lots of ice, although only $6), a diverse selection of sipping rums, and a serious focus on beer (categorized according to taste characteristics).
The small plates section of the menu showcases Balloo's more creative, New American culinary sensibilities that were no doubt honed while working under illustrious local chefs such as Susser, Bernstein, Wessel, and Andriola. We tried a wide swath of the choices, and while some were more impressive than others, there wasn't a clunker among them.
Highlights included delicate little veal meatballs in sticky-rich, sherry-fueled demi-glace (an antidote for those wary of the meatloaf-size meatballs that land with a thud upon local restaurant tables); a New England lobster roll that foregoes the traditional mayonnaise approach but bursts with the crisp flavors of a shaved celery/fennel salad (if a bit cheap on the namesake crustacean); five fried goat cheese croquettes composed of small, brittle-breaded spheres breaking way to hot, flowing chevre (membrillo marmalade on the side is the ideal yang to the yin); and steamy white pork buns brightened with apple kimchi and cilantro (the pork belly obsession evidently having morphed into a mass craving for Momofuku-style pork buns). More adventurous diners might elect to try tripe with kimchi or duck egg with beef tongue stew; vegetarians can venture toward Brussels sprouts with orange and sweet soy or golden beets boosted with burratta cheese and braised romaine (bravo to Balloo for bravery in boosting contentious vegetables like brussels sprouts and beets).
Torrejas, a custardy French toast served with apples and vanilla ice cream, is too heavy a finish for my taste. Hot, fresh, petit donut rounds dusted with sugar crystals and filled with quince jelly, on the other hand, were delectable with milk chocolate dip and hazelnut ice cream. Desserts come lighter still via vanilla panna cotta with clementine soda, and assorted flavors of sorbet.
While the pricing concept for "small plates" is generally lauded as reasonable — most Sugarcane items are $10 or less — discussion of such is inevitably punctuated by the phrase "but it adds up." This can't be denied, but a single person could indulge in a filling and fulfilling dinner of wedge salad with blue cheese, tomato, and bacon ($8); a not-that-small Kobe beef slider with quail egg ($6); sweetbreads with capers, oranges, and arugula ($9); that yummy chicken yakitori ($8); and a strawberry cheesecake parfait layered with guanábana sorbet and Sapporo beer foam ($7), for $38 — the cost of a single entrée at one of our well-heeled spots, or a buck less than a "bargain" three-course Miami Spice dinner of similarly sized portions. Work the arithmetic any way you want: Sugarcane is a great deal. And it is a great restaurant.