Mary Brickell Village still isn't much of a village, with many of the storefronts as empty as the concept of a downtown urban mall. Think of it more as a quaint clustering of that rapidly replicating creature known as the casual-upscale restaurant chain. On the plus side, Brickell Village has imported some of the better specimens of the genre. Places such as Oceanaire Seafood Room, Rosa Mexicano, P.F. Chang's, and Grimpa's Steakhouse offer diners chic design, full service, and usually fully packed bars, friendly staff, and fresh, accessible fare at prices lower than those found at less "casual" upscale establishments (except Oceanaire, the best of the lot, but noticeably more expensive). Abokado, the most recent arrival in the Village, isn't quite a chain — or not yet, anyway. This locale is the first link, with another under construction in Georgia and more on the way. It shares positive traits with its fellow tenants, as well as some characteristics that make such establishments less than ideal for folks who take their dining seriously.
Abokado's outdoor dining patio, situated by a gurgling fountain, is the quietest in town; surrounding storefront windows post signs of shops to come. The indoor design is Zen-like in a sleek and formulaic way. The walls are draped in expensive, textural earth-toned materials, while wooden trellises break up the spacious area into intimate dining arenas. A stylish sushi bar sits at one end of the room, a stylish liquor bar at the other; flat-screen TV sets flash new-age imagery (a waterfall, the time-lapse blooming of a flower). The décor is accessible, comfortable, and utterly soulless. Just like the food.
Abokado's "Japanese Pan-Latin" cuisine leans more toward the Asian side — excepting a few token dishes like a selection of "cebiches" that are distinctive in more ways than the spelling. A sampler allows diners to try any three of the six offerings ($30), the favorite at our table being cold-water prawns marinated in a bracing chipotle-tangerine sauce. Plush, lime-splashed chunks of lobster intertwined with bits of mango and red onion were tasty too; cubes of barely dressed, definitely not marinated salmon came tossed seemingly with only a single edamame bean. A scoop of yuzu-kiwi sorbet is served alongside the cebiches.
Mary Brickell Village, 900 S Miami Ave, Miami; 305-347-3700. Open for lunch and dinner Sunday through Wednesday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Thursday through Saturday 11 a.m. to midnight.
Salmon, tuna, and hamachi come marinated in strip form (tiradito), but we chose a beef version. Bad move. Thimble-size twirls of pinkish-brown meat arrived rolled around strips of cucumber (the menu promised jicama), with dabs of lightly truffled aioli faintly drizzled on top. Go with tuna estiradito instead — a sort of sushi carpaccio topped with truffle oil and iridescent dots of yuzu and wasabi tobiko. As the tuna and truffle flavors melted on the tongue like snowflakes, the yellow and pale green dots of fish roe popped like champagne bubbles, the trio of flavors melding together wondrously — a creative and culinarily credible combination.
Sometimes this isn't the case. "Why put jalapeño with hamachi?" asked one of my dinner mates, who is admittedly a cynic in regard to such contemporary fusings. "What good can it possibly bring to the fish?" His point, well taken, was provoked by an "envy" roll that included those two ingredients with rice, cilantro, and avocado, the whole thing wrapped teardrop-shaped in pale green soy paper. It is true the subtle, buttery aspects of hamachi can only be obscured, not enhanced, by such a partnering, but in this case the kitchen's consistently timid hand worked to its advantage: The chili was applied so parsimoniously that the hamachi was able to shine. Still, there are numerous menu items here that seem to have been conceived according to how they read rather than how they taste. Casual-upscale chains like to titillate their patrons.
Nigiri, sashimi, and sushi samplings showcase about two dozen varieties of seafood, all fresh and appealingly presented on white plates. Not much out of the ordinary here, although tsubugai (baby conch) is something you don't see everywhere (some at the table deemed it too chewy). About a dozen nonraw fish appetizers encompass yakitori, tempura, and tartare, along with some con-fusions such as Abokado "nachos." There's no gooey cheese or salsa, but a quartet of fried shiso leaves, which tenuously resemble tortilla chips, are topped with a purée of spicy tuna tartare and tidbits of avocado, cucumber, and micro sprouts. It hit the spot in a small, amuse bouchée sort of way, yet we preferred a petite but rich filet of miso-glazed Pacific sea bass, the sweetness of miso balanced with a medium-spicy escabeche of pickled vegetables (including underutilized cauliflower).
Salads are all Asian-influenced and include wakame salad, seafood salad in tosazu dressing, tuna tataki over field greens, and chilled soba noodles, the last threaded with julienned vegetables and tossed in poblano-miso vinaigrette. The vinegary tang was off-putting in tandem with the buckwheat noodles — one of those dishes that are better on paper.
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There are so many options here that the short listing of "signature entrées" on the last page comes across as an afterthought. Yet short ribs braised with pasilla chili was the heartiest, most robustly flavored course we encountered. The long, boneless strip of meat was sumptuously soft and supported by shiitake grits mildly tinged with wasabi. A mound of full, lush sprigs of lemon-laced watercress on the side completed the beautiful plate of food — great deal at $24. Another entrée of five seared, slightly overcooked scallops came sauced in a zesty ginger-soy butter sauce that complemented the mollusks well, although lukewarm cilantro-specked rice and fried strips of leek on the side didn't contribute much. Except a grilled beef filet, main courses are less than $30; most starters, and fancy sushi rolls, are $12 to $16.
Abokado is a great place to be thirsty, boasting as it does an exceptional array of beverages. The relatively short wine list is user-friendly: Whites are categorized into "crisp," "spicy and playful," and "medium to full-bodied"; reds range from "light" to "spice" to "full-bodied." Asahi, Sapporo, and Kirin are available by the bottle, along with half a dozen other beers, while Sapporo, Stella Artois, and Amstel Light are on draft. Some 16 sakes are offered as well, including aged Akitabare "Suirakuten." At $120 a bottle, this is one of the more expensive picks, but a sake flight brings a two-ounce tasting of the Akitabare along with a pair of other sakes ($20). Plus there are green, white, black, and herbal-infused teas for the teetotalers.
Besides creatively flavored sorbets (like yuzu-tequila, served with a half-ounce of Cuervo) and not creatively flavored ice creams (vanilla or chocolate), there are three desserts. One is, of course, the ubiquitous flourless chocolate cake with a melted middle (misleadingly called soufflé). Yuzu cheesecake, arriving in a ramekin, was citrus-scented and custardy but was set between limp meringue and a hard crust that stuck to the bottom of the cup. Two tart yamamomo berries on the side were a nice touch. The third dessert option is an adeptly fried string of churros, whose outsides were clean and crisp, the interiors hot and steamy. Three Japanese soup spoons, the white porcelain type, each contained a different churros dip: white chocolate, dulce de leche, and mango. "Why are so many things served in these spoons nowadays?" queried the cynic. I could have replied that such frivolous gestures represent the nature of the casual-upscale beast, but that wouldn't have been much of an answer. Fact is, Abokado, like other places of its ilk, proves satisfying to a majority of diners by playing things cute and safe. For better and for worse.