Eating at Balans is like buying clothes at the Gap. It's like reading a novel by John Grisham. It's like being a Blue Dog Democrat. In a word: meh.
This occurs to me while using a fork to move about a bland nugget of chicken breast, pushing it this way and that on a plate packed with other pieces of poultry, red peppers, bamboo shoots, onions, and basil leaves in the sort of simple curry sauce you can make at home if you follow directions printed on cans of commercial curry paste. Crammed alongside is steamed jasmine rice wrapped in a banana leaf — which, granted, is probably something you would not have around the house.
We are at one of the tables on a 100-plus-seat patio wrapped around Balans in Mary Brickell Village. The original stands in London, and Miami's first outpost opened in 1997 on Lincoln Road. Back then, it felt like a privately owned neighborhood joint — if located on a touristy track. The past decade has brought four more in London, this newest Brickell outpost, and a third local Balans that will soon debut on Biscayne Boulevard at 67th Street.
901 S. Miami Ave., Miami; 305-534-9191; balans.co.uk. Breakfast Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; brunch Saturday and Sunday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.; lunch daily 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; dinner Sunday through Thursday 5 p.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.
As I stare blankly at the chicken curry and music blares loudly enough to drown out the gurgling of fountains that run parallel to the patio tables, I wonder, Just how many branches of a restaurant does it take before the place becomes thoroughly impersonal? It's difficult to say, but whatever that number is, Balans has passed it.
Which isn't to say the establishment doesn't have appeal. On a recent Friday evening, Balans was mobbed (as was Mary Brickell Village, in a way unthinkable a year ago). It's easy to see why: a relaxed ambiance, accessible food (including, incidentally, a very agreeable brunch), hip cocktails, and a final bill that won't break the bank. That last point is particularly pertinent — most plates go for less than $20.
Service isn't a strong suit. During slow times, slow waiters served us; a busier night brought a harried waitress who worked hard and gallantly — and came pretty close to getting the job done. But she was stretched way too thin.
Diners are started with a timbale of olive spread and a basket of Parmesan-herb flatbread plus slices of what is either dull, airy baguette or Cuban bread. The culinary choices are printed on the front of a long laminated menu (same as the one at the Lincoln Road locale), but, as an out-of-town guest noted, "This seems like the sort of place where most people come for the drinks." Indeed, a bevy of beers, wines, and cocktails is listed on the flip side of the shiny sheet, and as if to bolster said guest's assumption, margaritas, mojitos, and Long Island iced teas are proffered by the pitcher.
If it isn't a diner's natural inclination to imbibe, it might be after sampling some of the generously salted snacks, such as chicken quesadilla — four triangles of griddled flour tortilla filled with potently seasoned nubs of breast meat and some type of processed pepper jack cheese. Once you plop fresh tomato salsa on the tortilla and then swipe it through plated squiggles of sour cream and tomatillo salsa, it adds up to a vaguely satisfying appetizer. Other less than inspiring but eminently edible opening numbers include fried calamari, pot stickers, and popcorn shrimp. It isn't so much the formulaic nature of the selections that leaves us cold, but how 1990s they are (one of only two seafood entrées is Chilean sea bass, which is both dated and ecologically insensitive).
Still, you can get a solid burger with tasty char-grill flavor on a toasted bun served with skinny, pre-battered frozen fries that seem popular for their snappy crispness. Steaks, too, come assertively flamed and appropriately juicy. Properly cooked spaghetti is laced with moist morsels of lobster meat in mellow lobster-cream sauce, although small, hard cubes of salty pancetta seemed indelicately paired with the daintily flavored crustacean.
Most diners choose to sit outside this time of year, but the interior is lovely, if misleadingly suggestive of an Asian restaurant.
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Black lacquer tables are neatly arranged in the earth-toned space, and gray Eastern prints in red frames adorn textured taupe walls. So you might define this particular Balans as a London-based Miami restaurant serving globally inspired "modern brasserie-café" fare in an Asian setting. Which brings us to the jambalaya: a base of spicy, Louisiana-style red rice generously stocked with plump shrimp, teeny clams, calamari rings thick as Lance Armstrong bracelets, and an avalanche of chorizo coins that I deemed a jackpot but everyone else at the table thought was overpowering. Also blanketing the rice was an abundance of crisply fried onions — at best unnecessary and at worst reminiscent of T.G.I.Friday's. Yet there are enough brisk flavors involved to satisfy most (but not most discriminating) diners, and the price is right: $19.50.
An abbreviated dessert menu trots out treats such as lemon mousse, dulce de leche crêpes, and a dulce de leche/banana sundae. On one occasion, we were served by a waiter who admitted to having "just started here," which was his way of trying to recover from a muffed description of blueberry and pear cobbler that included news of the granola topping being "solid, not liquid." I went with the brownie, a sizable flat square of microwave-warmed flourless pecan brownie that in tandem with pistachio ice cream does the trick for most people. Sticky toffee pudding was more intriguing — the traditional British dessert rendered as a date-flavored muffin and submerged with a scoop of vanilla ice cream in toffee syrup. There is no sweet tooth on Earth that this dessert can't sate.
Plenty of potential postdinner cocktails are listed alongside the sweets on the dessert menu, but no mention of coffee or tea. An American version of the former brought a very large mug of barely warm brew. In the time it took to get the undrinkable elixir delivered, I could have walked into Starbucks next door and done much better.
Construction workers are applying the finishing touches to the building that houses the latest Balans in MiMo (a three-story project, with ten apartments occupying the top two levels). They have splashed the exterior with coats of beige paint, hung an oversize Balans sign, and prepared the sidewalk for some 140 patio seats. One thing these workers won't be able to do, however, is put a face to it.