Restaurants, like politicians, have to play to their bases. Two new Miami Beach dining venues Sam's Deli and Grill on 41st Street, and Clarke's, an Irish-style pub located south of Fifth Street in SoBe are doing just that, and both seem well suited to satisfying the distinctly different needs of their constituencies, respectively composed mostly of:
2. Young professionals, South Beach types (you know what I mean), and typical tavern trawlers those who have a mild drinking problem but don't know it.
South Beach and mid-Beach cultures might be as antithetical as yo! and oy! but everyone likes to eat. And eat out. And eat out at new places. This brings us to Sam's, the kosher eatery that's exhibited plenty of chutzpah in challenging the long-running reign of nearby kosher-style Arnie & Richie's Delicatessen. The rectangular, 50-seat dining room is a clean, handsome throwback to delis from days gone by. A lengthy row of glass display cases filled with foodstuffs extends across the right side of the restaurant; the opposite, olive green walls adorned with nostalgic black-and-white photographs of old Miami Beach interspersed with wood-framed mirrors and broken up by a brick wall in the back of the space. Antique lanterns hang from a lofty tin ceiling, and wooden tables, chairs, and accents contribute warmth to an otherwise standard delicatessen setup.
Unfortunately some of the food falls below deli standards. Mind you, expectations weren't too high kosher cooking doesn't enjoy a particularly robust reputation but I still wasn't prepared for such a shabby corned beef sandwich. It reminded me of my youth when I had the regrettable habit of chewing on those pink, nubby pencil erasers. Of course I never actually ate the things, but I can't imagine their being any more rubbery in taste than this corned beef. Worse, there was an abnormally high amount of fat, which after being heated in a microwave took on a plasticlike consistency that made the meat seem tender by comparison. A side order of potato salad was, curiously, blander than plainly boiled potatoes, even though it contained peas, minced red pepper, and a minimal amount of unseasoned dressing. Cost for the sandwich and potato salad, with tax and tip: about $18.
I didn't gripe about the price, but a man seated at an adjoining table did, telling his waitress that $14.25 for a lean pastrami sandwich "seems awfully high." She countered that the meats are kosher and thus have to be flown in from New York. In any case, my experience at Sam's suggests it's worth splurging an extra two dollars for lean meat, because a fat, fatless pastrami sandwich was far superior to the corned beef.
The rest of the menu is as hit-or-miss as the cold cuts. Stuffed cabbage is a winner, with its savory chopped beef interior and a raisin-studded sauce seamlessly suspended between sweet and sour. Velvety-smooth hummus also lands in the plus column, as does a buttery-crusted potato knish and heartwarming matzo ball soup with snippets of chicken and carrot. Regrets include overcooked "rare roast beef," and chopped liver so muddy-looking it makes one wonder, Haven't the Jews suffered enough?
Just as Sam's successfully reconstitutes traditional delicatessen décor, Clarke's has the big-city-neighborhood-pub look down pat: mahogany bar, voluminous display of wine and liquor bottles, cozy pub accouterments of brick, wood, and mirrors. Back in the kitchen, chef Noah Lowenstein cooks up expected tavern specialties like fish and chips, shepherd's pie, and hamburgers, along with more elaborate entrées such as seared ahi tuna, double-cut pork chops, and filet mignon. What's totally unexpected is how delicious the dishes from both categories are easily the best pub fare in Miami-Dade County.
From the beginning we were captivated by a rousing rendition of popcorn shrimp. Admittedly the tawny-battered, crisply fried, über-juicy crustaceans were twice as large as any popcorn kernels you're ever likely to pop, but who's complaining? A squeeze from the cloth-wrapped lemon half is all these sweet shrimp needed, but a rémoulade redolent of Old Bay seasoning was too good to ignore. For a salad I suggest a sturdy wedge of iceberg lettuce bathed in balsamic dressing and blanketed with bacon, blue cheese, and beefsteak tomatoes. A "chopped salad" of romaine, red peppers, green beans, feta cheese, and the same balsamic vinaigrette was not nearly as rewarding the lettuce was tired, the vegetables scarce.
All else was faultless. Juices flowed freely from a nine-ounce Black Angus hamburger, scrumptiously plumped with Swiss cheese, bacon, and mushrooms and accompanied by fresh coleslaw and crunchy fries. Shepherd's pie pleased with a minced, mildly seasoned mix of beef and lamb, and a puffy-soft potato purée piped on top. Even the duck, a tricky bird to roast right, arrived with crisped skin, moist meat, and an orange demi-glace exuding depth rather than sweetness. Accompaniments were steamy-hot wild rice pilaf, and Brussels sprouts oven-cooked until coated with a sweet caramelization that countered the dour cabbage flavor. Bread pudding "soufflé" wasn't really a soufflé, but the light, fresh, delicate treatment nevertheless rose to the occasion.
Like all pubs, Clarke's is as much about hoisting a glass as lifting a fork. Draft beers include Harp, Bass, Guinness, and Yuengling, a Pennsylvania lager from the oldest brewery in America. Any of these would pair perfectly with New York-style pretzels warmed, salted, and served with mustard. An eclectic wine selection encompasses more than 100 reasonably priced bottles, 17 of which are poured by the glass. Clarke's is inviting any old time but would be particularly welcoming on one of our chillier winter evenings. Irish coffee, anyone? Or would you prefer chicken matzo ball soup?
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