When Beatlenut first opened last winter, neither I nor any of my foodie friends were tempted to try it, for one main reason: the nauseatingly cutesy misspelling of the name. The betel nut, the natural mood stimulant that Bloody Mary (the amply fed Hawaiian earth mama to all singing sailors) chewed throughout the musical South Pacific, is one of the most popular plants in India, Polynesia, and much of East Asia. Thus Betel Nut, spelled normally, might well have suggested an appealing party-hearty pan-Asian eatery.
Beatlenut, on the other hand, with its none-too-subtle reference to the Fab Four, suggested a restaurant specializing in English grub of the 1970s. Which meant well before England's recent taste revolution. Which meant steak-and-kidney pie. Which meant ... we need say no more.
Flashing forward several months, however, press announcements revealed Beatlenut's owner to be chef O.A. Chu, formerly of Tropical Chinese, one of Miami's few truly New York Chinatown-quality restaurants. A rave review shortly thereafter in a leading local publication, placing Beatlenut in the paper's highest category along with Norman's and Chef Allen's, pushed us through its Sunny Isles door.
17004 Collins Ave, Sunny Isles Beach; 305-947-8322.
Open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 4:00 a.m.
The bottom line is that to rate Beatlenut on par with South Florida's finest is just as misleading as my original Brit-twit food judgment, and is just as unfair to the place (which, on our three recent visits, was nearly empty twice and less than half-filled on a Saturday night). Because judged by more modest standards, Beatlenut is indeed the pan-Asian party place its real spelling suggests: definitely rough around the edges in consistency of cooking and service, but offering both good fun and, as the English say, "good value for money."
Actually good value is an understatement. Ranging from $3 to a maximum of $19, and averaging about $10 for enough food to stuff an average adult, prices on the double-themed menu (one side devoted to interpretations of cooked food from numerous Pacific Rim nations, the other side mostly to raw sushi), are phenomenal. And all menu items are served all day, from 11:30 to 4:00 a.m. Better make that "all available items," because Beatlenut is, organizationally, not a tight ship. Listed but unavailable during all of our visits, for instance, was anything whatsoever on the wine list. An acquaintance, on a previous visit, found zero desserts.
The good fun is mainly provided by assistant manager Michael Foo, who works the disco-décor room like a crazed cruise director to smooth over such shortcomings. Aside from Foo service was problematic, owing largely to a severe language barrier. Like most Miamians, I can manage basic food Spanish. Asian languages, however, are a different story, and few of the staff members seem to speak or understand much English. In addition server familiarity with the menu was minimal, and items finally delivered (after a loooong wait) were often unfamiliar. "Most of my friends who eat here agree that the food is quite good, as long as you don't care whether it's what you ordered," one of my companions offered defensively.
I ordered an Orient Express, one of the house specialty cocktails, and what was delivered was a glass of cheap California jug chardonnay that the clueless young server insisted was "Orient Express, yes!" No! But it was hard to work myself into a typically-right-but-self-righteous-reviewer uproar when Foo charged over, declared the chardonnay free, and ordered an on-the-house round of Orient Expresses for the entire table. These, as he described them, consist of "Alcohol, different alcohol, alcohol, ice, alcohol, alcohol, an umbrella, and ... alcohol." His description seems accurate.
Less accurate was a number of printed menu descriptions. The "mixed field greens" promised in Beatlenut's house salad, for example, were iceberg lettuce with three -- exactly three -- thin shreds of radicchio; and the promised "choice of dressing" was a choice of ginger dressing -- period. The latter was very tasty, tangy, and subtly sweet.
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More distressingly inaccurate were "sautéed White Water clams" in black-bean sauce, which we ordered because of our fond memories of Norman Van Aken's version of this dish. But whereas Norman's famed White Water aristocrats were tiny, tender, and bursting with briny flavor, Beatlenut's clams were huge, bland, and tough as rubber bands, suspiciously similar to the unpedigreed wild cherrystones of my Jersey Shore childhood. A call to White Water Farms' owner Steven Garza, who carefully double-checked his distribution list, confirmed that the monster mutts were not genuine White Water clams.
Dishes also were inconsistent in quality, possibly because Chu, though executive chef, is not actually the cook in the kitchen. For example: The thin beef slices in Beatlenut's authentically incendiary "Korean Bulkori Salad," served on a lettuce and bean-thread bed, were grilled to tender perfection. The thin beef slices in the somewhat confusingly named "Rice Bowl with a Beef & Shrimp Roll" (actually beef negamaki plus four medium shrimp over rice) were topped with an addictively savory sauce, but grilled to the texture of cardboard.
An appetizer of soy/citrus-marinated orange pork chops was similarly savory, similarly overcooked. But at five bucks for three whole chops, who's complaining? The raw conch in a special of "Spicy Conch Salad," dressed with a rich and tingly chili-spiked pink sauce (which I loved, and the table's mayonnaise haters loathed), was pristinely fresh in taste, but varied in texture from nicely toothy to almost unchewable, simply because some slices were perfectly thin while others were thick as plywood.
The "Beatlenut Rap" is an appealing concept (and really no more horrible a name than that of its traditional Chinese prototype, "Ants Climbing a Tree"): a minced mix of shrimp, sautéed pine nuts, and vegetables, wrapped in lettuce. Unfortunately the filling's predominant ingredient was canned water chestnuts, which gave it an off-putting metallic taste. What was surprisingly consistent was the sushi side of the menu. True, the shrimp tempura in the signature "Beatlenut Roll" had a cold, soggy coating, a sure sign it had been deep-fried way too long before. But without exception the raw sushi was impeccably fresh: succulent marbled salmon, firm yet silky hamachi, even a remarkable nonbland maguro tuna. And the sushi prices ($1.50 per piece, $3 per hand roll, and $4 to $6 per multipiece maki roll) are not merely remarkable but miraculous. Desserts are uninspired, as at most Asian eateries. But with the Rascal House deli, cheesecake capital of South Florida, just two blocks north, who cares? Have another Orient Express and enjoy.