Dining After Sunset
The SouthSide Café is located across the street from the Shops at Sunset Place, which really is the restaurant's raison d'être. The menu, modeled toward accommodating families accustomed to eating at chain restaurants like the Cheesecake Factory, is well balanced, with a wide selection of soups, salads, wood-oven pizzas, and contemporary American-fusion riffs on pasta, seafood, chicken, and meat (they call it "modern world cuisine"). The 200-seat space is centered with a massive mahogany bar that alone can fit 40. Sponged walls, some caramel-color, some golden yellow, and a variety of red-and-brown-wood stains streaking through the tables, chairs, and floor, create a warm, handsome ambiance. A backroom bakeshop/café provides a separate space for those who want to fuel up with breakfast before hitting the stores, or for weary shoppers seeking coffee and cake or a light lunch. And refuge.
Starters are formulaic crowd pleasers with minor twists, from a spring roll with citrus sauce, to fried calamari with blue cheese aioli, to a "shrimp parfait" with mango, tomato, lime, and wasabi, which, if you remove the fruit, is similar to cocktail sauce. Jumbo lump crabcakes fried crisp and flecked with red peppers, red onions, and zesty seasonings, came piquantly paired with adzuki beans and habanero peppers ($9.50). The downside: less lumps of crab than filler, and while the busy squirts of mango, mamey, and some other fruit purées were appropriate in terms of playing sweetness off heat, they were, in the end, just too cloying. No such problem with the four fried coconut shrimp, because the fresh kumquat marmalade they supposedly were coated with never registered in taste. They were nicely browned and coconuty, though, each resting on a small log of yuca fritter.
Salads are one of the SouthSide's stronger suits. The "Tower of Avocado" piled creamy, ripe slices of the fruit with mango, citrus, and mache, all pooled in passion fruit vinaigrette. Looming even taller was the "Stack of Italian Glory"; this time the cylindrical high-rise comprised buffalo mozzarella cheese, red and yellow tomatoes, sprouts, greens, and an opal-basil vinaigrette. The tomatoes could have been riper, but it was a clever variation on a tomato and mozzarella plate. Grilled vegetable salad with zucchini, yellow squash, red and yellow peppers, tomatoes, four types of onions, and portobello mushrooms ($6.95), was huge, enough to easily satisfy four people. Tasty, too, the veggies brushed with pommery mustard, balsamic vinegar and walnut oil, and served over field greens.
An Oriental-tropical theme swims with the fish: sea bass with fresh chow mein noodles, bok choy, and a "pineapple bayonet"; diver scallops crusted in Thai peanuts and "varnished by" adzuki beans and a mamey, mango, papaya, and star fruit compote; and red curry-guava glazed salmon with spicy port wine. I was tempted by the last, but the name, "Chef Michael's Miami Herald Publicized Salmon" unwhet my appetite. I went instead with the "Bermuda Triangle" -- sautéed snapper studded with pecan pieces and finished in brown butter ($18.95). I sensed a marketing ploy: Patron asks, "What does Bermuda Triangle mean?" Waiter replies, "It's so good, it disappears off your plate." I never gave him the satisfaction, but the moist, fresh snapper, with a sprightly mango salsa, did in fact vanish quickly, as did the bright green broccoli rabe on the side. The kitchen exhibited a consistently skillful touch with the vegetables and starches, and most meals come with both. Just wondering: Will this dish become known as "New Times Publicized Bermuda Triangle"?
The meaty main courses at SouthSide Café take fewer liberties with commonplace offerings than the seafood does, and far fewer than the menu takes with the English language. Example: "rosemary grilled pork chops collaborating a meritorious smashed Yukon Gold potato" ($16.95). Which isn't to say it wasn't good. Chicken dishes don't exactly cross the road to the other side of originality either, one featuring a breast sautéed with Marsala sauce, another stuffed with the usual Mediterranean trilogy of sun-dried tomatoes, ricotta, and pesto. Grilled chicken with "margarita flavors" -- garlic, cilantro, and tequila lime sauce -- was a bit different, though the Mexican influence turned out to be as unnoticeable as the sound of a kazoo in a mariachi band. Still the breast was tender, the butter sauce pleasant, more yuca fritters on the side quite good; grilled corn on the cob was a bit charred.
While overall the dinnertime food was commendable, a return visit for lunch yielded less satisfying results. The highlight: "nouveau white" pizza baked in a wood-burning oven (also available at night). The crust was thicker and softer than many brick-oven versions, which is good or bad depending on your pizza perspective; the spread of roasted garlic cream underneath mozzarella, ricotta, and provolone cheese was inarguably appealing. Black and gold fettuccini, also tossed in tasty garlic cream (probably the same one), contained juicy strips of chicken, but the thick strands of black squid ink and gold egg pastas were undercooked and starchly stuck together. Slices of flanklike Japanese steak, actually a sirloin cut of beef, were themselves flanked by basmati rice and julienned vegetables soaked in a too-sweet hoisin-tamari sauce; to get the unsullied flavor of the meat necessitated pushing it off to the side of the plate.
A genial waitstaff performed their tasks without incident if also without polish; I suspect their informal manner masks inexperience in some of the finer points of service. Not too many fine points concerning desserts. "Mile High" chocolate cake was served too cold, making the multiple levels of dark/hard and light/soft chocolate tough to cut through while also chilling out the flavors. Créme brûlée ($4.95): fair to middling. The "Pyramid of Illusion" promised layers of coffee, white chocolate, and milk chocolate mousselines, but the low price ($3) and unreliability of menu adjectives made me second-guess what was meant by "illusion." In retrospect I should have tried it. The "apple delight" I ordered instead was anything but, the circular pastry dry, the apples so thinly sliced and baked into the dough I'm not certain they were there at all. The scoop of cinnamon ice cream on top was very good, and you can order it by itself, as well as other flavors like Baci chocolate or peach-ginger sorbet. I suggest going that route, and also suggest giving Southside Cafe a try for dinner when you finally make it out that way to return your holiday gifts.
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