Following a split with Phuket "Cake" Thongsodchaveondee, restaurateurs Javier Ramirez and Leo Monterrey debated what to do with their space on NW 29th Street in Wynwood.
They considered keeping a Thai kitchen but eventually settled on classic renditions of Cantonese fare in an area where Richard Hales' Blackbrick Chinese has long been the lone option.
"We thought there was an opportunity in this area to create something where whenever you think about Chinese food, you say, 'Let's go to Palmar,'" Ramirez says.
Yet Palmar also represents a change in their strategy. It's the first place where the pair hasn't partnered with a chef who boasts a following in her or his own right. In the past, they teamed up with Brad Kilgore to launch Alter and later with Thongsodchaveondee to open a Wynwood outpost of his MiMo District restaurant. Here, they've brought on former Zuma Executive Chef Albert Diaz as a consultant to help get the kitchen running while slowly expanding the menu. Meanwhile, their forthcoming Venezuelan bistro that was to be helmed by Carlos Garcia has been put on hold. Garcia's Caracas restaurant, Alto, was ranked number 23 on Latin America's 50 Best Restaurants in 2016 but didn't appear on this year's list. Garcia, however, is still moving forward with plans to open Obra Kitchen Table in Brickell.
At the moment, Ramirez and company have little to distract from Palmar and invited New Times for dinner during its first week. Before the place opened, it received a fresh coat of paint, turning the space a bright crayon green. Raw wood tables remain inside but are now surrounded by metal folding chairs and pink banquettes. Amorphous, upside-down baskets still dangle from the ceiling as they did during the space's previous life.
The menu for now is brief and replete with items one expects of Chinese food in America. Prawn and squid toasts ($11) arrive as a pair. The crusty, grease-laden bread is fattened with a savory, salty smear of crustacean and cephalopod, while a sprig of Thai mint helps freshen each bite. There is also a trio of dim sum offerings that Ramirez says will expand over time. At present, it includes a pair of pork buns either steamed ($10) or baked ($10), as well as the translucent shrimp dumplings har gow ($14). Though the latter were unavailable, the former presented as a perfectly fluffy rendition of the stuff that rides on dim sum carts. An interior of fatty pork in a sweet sauce make these buns the perfect hangover food or drinking companion, depending upon which way you're going.
Another area that will grow are the vegetables, which include eggplant ($12) thinly sliced, fried crisp, and scattered with yuzu and togarashi. Again, good drinking food, but the price tag is hefty for such a small portion.
Moving on to more sizable entrées, there are a pair of fried rices, including a $23 affair enhanced with fried soft-shell crab, as well as a pair of pad Thais ($16) — perhaps for those who miss Cake — and chicken lo mein ($14).
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For proteins, I didn't try the enticing-sounding half roasted duck with house-made hoisin ($31), but a Mongolian beef made significant improvements on the takeout classic. The sauce was far richer without being cloying, while the beef was sliced a bit thicker and actually tasted like beef. A scattering of shiitake mushrooms and some whole scallions were nice touches.
Palmar seems to be the latest in a wave of Chinese restaurants that offer many of the dishes you might have huddled over in takeout boxes but do so with a bit more finesse. You can find one in South Miami, where the crew from Uvaggio has opened No Name Chinese. And just a few blocks away from Palmar, Hales' Blackbrick has combined his love for traditional Chinese cuisine with some Chinese-American dishes the way they should be prepared. Of course, the best move remains a drive to North Miami Beach for spots such as King Palace Chinese BBQ and hot-pot spot CY Chinese Restaurant or Broward for places like Gold Marquess Fine Chinese Cuisine or Pine Court Chinese Bistro. However, if you don't want to deal with the shlep and are willing to fork over a few extra bucks, there's now no shortage of spots that are a quick ride from downtown Miami.
Palmar. 180 NW 29th St., Miami; 305-542-0532; palmarmiami.com. Tuesday through Sunday 6 p.m. to midnight.