And Now, 'Nam Sushi
This winter -- for the umpteenth time since 1971, when Alice Waters and the "California Cuisine" gang at Chez Panisse first fired up their wood braziers and chefs all over America started throwing out their sauté pans -- word from our country's leading food gurus has been that grilling is again one of the hottest Trends of the Moment, this Moment's slight variation being that the theme is Asian grilling. So when the window of the former Sushi Hana in South Beach started sporting a sign several months ago touting the imminent opening of a new "Grill and Sushi Bar," the only surprising thing was that our town had nailed this trend so early instead of holding up the rear.
So it's even less surprising that six weeks or so after opening, the "grill" part of Peppercorn Grill & Sushi Bar's name is already gone from the window and from the menu, if not yet from the waitstaff's jackets, and a number of originally featured items like grilled fish with herb sauce and a grilled Malaysian pork kebab sandwich are no more. Which is actually not as great a loss as one might think, since Peppercorn's grill, unlike that at Chez Panisse (where chefs reportedly go through a cord of wood every week) and those charcoal braziers used all over Southeast Asia, is just a gas grill; if there's no charcoal, there's no characteristic Vietnamese/Thai/ Cambodian/Laotian charcoal taste. Peppercorn's name now more accurately reads Vietnamese Cuisine and Sushi Bar, and if it's not Miami's top Vietnamese eatery, I'd say after three visits that it's nevertheless a most welcome variation on South Beach's standard sushi spots.
That's not to ignore the sushi, though: Peppercorn's is good, certainly at least as good as Sushi Hana's ever was, despite a more limited fish selection. Especially enjoyable was a usuzukuri with a selection of tuna, salmon, and hamachi served in super-thin slices. This delicate cut gives an impression of more subtlety than standard sashimi pieces, and the dish's elegance was further enhanced by the multicolored fish's arrangement: translucent sunny slices of marbled salmon outside, slightly smaller pieces of intense red tuna encircled within, and in the center a tulip-shaped "flower" whose petals were the white Pacific snapper topped with a "pistil" of orange salmon caviar. Instead of standard soy sauce and wasabi, the dish came with ponzu, a potion that's often too puckery but was here so pleasantly tangy that my table ended up using it as a general dipping sauce for everything we ordered except the ginger and lemongrass iced teas (both of which, however, could have used more pucker, or at least a lot less sweetener).
Also excellent were a dragon roll, with its fried shrimp, asparagus, avocado, scallion, and masago combo enhanced by spicy mayonnaise inside and thin avocado slices draped outside; and an amply stuffed daimyo maki, with its raw tuna, salmon, hamachi, scallions, avocado, asparagus, and masago.
Among Peppercorn's Vietnamese offerings are enough interesting appetizers, soups, and salads that it's tempting to ignore entrées and indulge in a meal of what those same Asian grill gurus say is another hot trend: small plates. Right, a new name for the same grazing we've done for years, but who's counting? It's in again, so feel cool cobbling together a dinner of seasonal Vietnamese rolls: spring rolls (cha gio), crisp deep-fried items similar to Chinese spring rolls but smaller, filled with ground pork, surimi, mushrooms, shredded carrot, chopped water chestnut, and cellophane noodles; summer rolls (goi cuon), unfried rice-paper-wrapped rolls filled with fresh steamed shrimp, rice vermicelli, mint, and holy basil; and autumn rolls (bi cuon), basically summer rolls with a filling of cold shredded pork that was fairly flavorless as well as dry. Peppercorn had nothing called "winter rolls," but I'd say that ba`nh cuon, a thicker-skinned steamed-rice-flour crêpe filled with ground pork and chicken plus dried mushrooms and strips of preserved tofu, would do as a cold-weather roll, since the only fresh vegetables were a sprinkling of scallions and sautéed shallots. The shallots, as well as the savory cooked meat, made the last my favorite. Flavor of all rolls was customizable, with an assortment of aromatic herbs served on the side, the idea being to wrap a small bit of roll in a lettuce leaf with herbs and raw veggies.
An appetizer I'd never encountered in any Vietnamese cookbook, ga-ree puff, a sort of deep-fried mini-knish filled with curried potato and sweet potato plus ground chicken, was quite heavy and greasy despite a refreshing cucumber relish side. But another deep-fried dumpling item, golden bags, was fabulous; the thin rice-paper skin wrapped around a beautifully seasoned filling of fresh chopped shrimp and water chestnut.
While few Vietnamese restaurants here feature any food giving a hint that Vietnam was a French colony for almost a century, Peppercorn does. Some are classic colonial-era dishes, including the one you'd expect in an eatery named Peppercorn, steak au poivre. More interesting, though, is one of the few French/Vietnamese fusion items wildly popular in Vietnam itself: the Vietnamese sandwich, combining a French-influenced meat substance (usually paté) with marinated raw vegetables on a buttered baguette. Available only at lunch, Peppercorn's sandwich features two types of thin-sliced saucisson, one a mild white liver sausage and the other a sort of mortadella/cappicola combo, and the one I tried would have been the supreme sub had the baguette not been hideously stale.
Of two salads we tried, Asian tuna was superior, the pepper crust of the rare, seared tuna providing spicy contrast to the green salad's oddly appealing white dressing, a slightly sweet, soothing sauce similar to old-fashioned Fanny Farmer-era boiled dressing. Gado gado, a mixed-vegetable salad with tofu and hard-boiled egg, was generous enough for four to share, but the peanut dressing was bland, needing more salt and more tang. Our leftover ponzu perked things up considerably, but I'd recommend asking also for a small side of the hot chili potion that accompanies Peppercorn's phô soup.
Among entrées, the lemongrass shrimp was disappointing; the five grilled, shell-on shrimp were large but overcooked to dryness, and tasted only slightly of either grill or lemongrass. Banh xeo, one of Vietnam's most popular street-food specialties, was better. The crêpe, however, was not crisp as it should be; the pancake was more like a soft, thick omelet. And though the steamed shrimp/ground pork/bean sprout filling was fresh and crunchy, it as well as the dish's dipping sauce could have used much more oomph -- more fish-sauce saltiness, turmeric, garlic, and especially chilies. Don't be afraid, Peppercorn, to give Miami more spice.
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