Chow Down Grill, Morgans open in South Beach
If an initial restaurant is often based on the proprietor's dreams of feeding people and making them happy, the second one is usually propelled by prayers of finally turning a profit after so much hard work. Operating a dining establishment is tough, and making substantial money doing so is even tougher. The decision to open a follow-up venue comes down to a matter of math: The additional locale can strengthen purchasing power and thus lower food costs, while the increase of seats yields higher intake of cash. Plus, in the case of Chow Down Grill and Morgans, the sequel eateries just happen to be in South Beach, which inflates the visibility and viability of both businesses. The only real downside is the potential watering-down of the brand, because chefs and/or owners responsible for the success of the primary operations can't be in two places at once.
Morgans Wynwood opened in January 2010; the Surfside Chow Down debuted six months later. Both spots proved popular with the public and critics alike. The new Chow Down Grill is larger than the first, with an extra bar-and-lounge room; altogether it seats close to 100. The décor is thematically consistent with that of the Surfside space: richly earth-toned walls, bamboo-woven globe lamps, wood benches and tables, and cocoa-hued banquettes providing most of the seating. An open kitchen draws attention at the far end of the room.
Chef Joshua Marcus's menu, too, is a similar version of the original. Handmade dumplings remain specialties of the house. There are five types offered; four to an order are presented on an open plate. I'd prefer having these served in a covered dish — preferably a small bamboo steamer, which adds an alluring aroma when opened at the table — to retain the heat. That said, carotene-colored carrot dumplings are tastily filled with slightly sweet pork-and-chive filling, and jade-tinted basil dumplings please with fennel and chives mixed in with minced organic chicken. A sextet of sauces in squeeze bottles is placed on the table: soy, sriracha, spicy mustard, hoisin, sweet duck, and peanut; all but the sriracha are prepared in the kitchen.
Chow Down Grill doesn't profess any allegiance to authenticity, so it's probably not fair to say the pair of white duck bao (buns) lacks whatever it is that make Chinatown versions so addictive. But it's true. The ones here are filled with sweetly tasty duck, but they are not as puffy, not quite as white, and don't possess the same airy texture.
All aspects of appetizers are made in-house, including dumpling doughs and egg roll wraps. Excepting barbecued eel lettuce wraps, each is $6.95 or under.
Traditional soups such as won ton and sweet-and-sour are similar in nature to those found in neighborhood Chinese restaurants, but the flavors are noticeably fresher; there is no sugar, MSG, or cornstarch used. Waiters are likewise without filler — just honest, friendly, and efficient.
Noodle soups and stir-fries ($9.95 to $12.95) come with a choice of chicken, pork, shrimp, braised beef, vegetables, wild mushroom, or tofu. Among the soups, meaty, tubular udon noodles in a mirin-sweetened dashi broth are enriched via a softly poached organic egg. Those seeking sharper flavors should go with the pho, a beef broth invigorated with jalapeño and cilantro.
A bowl of wide, chewy chow fun noodles, like the rest of the food here, exudes the crisp flavors that come from getting cooked per order. The fun is flush with onion, red pepper, Oriental kale, garlic, and ginger. It may lack the intensity of tastes found in real Chinese cuisine, but you're not paying Hakkasan prices either (on the other hand, you are paying a couple of dollars more per item than when Chow Down first opened).
Entrées also entail a choice of protein matched with a selection of sauces. The former includes sirloin and rib eye steaks, sautéed shrimp, organic chicken, roasted fish, tofu, and duck. House-made tofu, of soft-to-medium consistency, was smooth, fresh, and characteristically sponge-like in soaking up a spicy green curry sauce. A few wedges of roasted baby potato and some sautéed kale filled out the plate.
Green-tea-smoked duck brought neatly sliced breast with shiny skin and moist, smoky meat. The duck is $21.95, rib eye is $19.95, fish is market price, all other entrées are $14.95 to $16.95.
If you're a stickler for dessert, go with the moist pumpkin bread pudding instead of the dry chocolate Swiss-roll cake.
The Surfside Chow Down's strongest virtues are freshness, flavor, and value. This new place offers more of the same, only in a bigger format, at a hipper address, and with later operating hours (until 5 a.m. daily).
Barclay Graebner's new Morgans South Beach takes over the Sunset Harbour space that was occupied by Joe Allen for 13 years. The simple square room hasn't been tampered with much, except the streamlined walls are now hued in subdued lavender. The bar area up front is still separated from the dining area by a wood-and-glass divider, and tables are still dressed in white linen — although now the cloths are topped with white butcher paper and a cup of colored pencils for doodling.
The "modern comfort food" here is in thematic sync with the first Morgans as well as with Joe Allen: Appetizers, main course salads, pizzas, sandwiches, and a dozen or so entrées fill out the menu. The last are mostly American-style, with a few Asian and Mediterranean dishes thrown in. Starters, however, are a global grab bag, from a quesadilla with pico de gallo to yellowfin tuna tartare with sweet chili-ginger sauce.
On one visit, we began with house salad and the soup du jour, French onion. The former brought a modest-size mix of greens with a cherry tomato and Belgian endive spear dressed in a sweet white balsamic vinaigrette. The soupe a l'oignon boasted a bronzed cap of Gruyère cheese and a hearty crouton, but the dark broth was defined more by salt and beef than sweet, slowly simmered onions and sherry.
Our Margherita pizza was just awful. The crust was thin, pale, crackly — like a poor brand of frozen pie — and topped by a thin slick of melted mozzarella cheese with sloppily chopped fresh tomatoes and a smattering of large, whole basil leaves. Plus, to paraphrase Woody Allen, not only was it bad, but also the portion was too small!
The burger was better, even if it was cooked well-done rather than the requested medium-rare. The moderately thick patty gets garnished with lettuce and thinly sliced tomato and red onion on a brioche bun with dark grill marks. Diners have a choice of fries, salad, or coleslaw — a crunchy, freshly composed mayonnaise-based salad with dried cranberries and walnuts.
With our steak frites, we sampled a generous, crisp pile of homemade fries. The "charred" steak wasn't quite, but it was assertively enough grilled, plump, and juicy. Fried onions, roasted red peppers, and herb compound butter are spread atop the meat, and chimichurri sauce is served alongside. That's more than enough.
We were in the mood for calf's liver, but the kitchen was out. Next visit we were still in the mood, and the kitchen was still out. So we settled for roast chicken, which proved to be a standout item. The half-bird was partially deboned and pressed with a weight while cooking. The resultant skin was golden-crisp and flecked with fresh herbs; the meat was juicy and imbued with the flavor of those herbs. Accompaniments were ever-so-lightly sautéed spinach leaves with garlic, and bland, watery mashed potatoes.
My wife never thought she'd see the day when a wedge of banana cream pie placed in front of me wasn't immediately gobbled up. Now she has. Morgans managed the feat via a thin, soggy crust and gelatinous banana custard the consistency of tough, overcooked Jell-O. The touch of a fork sent the loose meringue flying off the pie like a toupee in a windstorm, but why use meringue to begin with on a so-called cream pie? At this point, the answer is irrelevant: The banana cream pie has been removed from the menu.
Service wasn't especially attentive, and there wasn't much in the way of manager oversight. On both visits, getting a basket of ciabatta bread was a matter of luck rather than policy; some diners received, some did not. Morgans still has a few kinks to iron out before being able to step into Joe Allen's shoes.
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