Downtown Miami's Urbanite Bistro searches for its groove
Here are two questions to ponder: Is Miami ready for the Urbanite Bistro? And is the Urbanite Bistro ready for Miami? After dining at the new restaurant, located across the street from the Vagabond and just a few blocks from the Arsht Center, we think the answer is still up for debate.
Proprietor Elliott Alexander, however, is pretty confident he has a sure thing. The owner of Miami-based Microbattery.com acquired the freestanding space at 62 NE 14th St. and planned a cafeteria-style eatery. Then chef Frank Imbarlina, a recent Miami transplant who had been working for only a short while at a South Beach hotel, mentioned to an acquaintance he was looking for another gig. Fate intervened when Alexander and Imbarlina met. Soon a lease was signed and a second round of renovations began.
Today the front room of the three-part restaurant includes a hostess stand, a bar equipped with a large flat-screen TV set, and a dining space that fits about ten tables. Then there's a main dining room, suitable for somewhat private parties, and a third space with a grand bar and more dining tables. Dark wood wainscoting decorates the perimeter of the entire interior and unites the three rooms, though the wall colors change from steel gray to burgundy. It sure is sexy in there, especially when Van Morrison is crooning in the background.
One of Urbanite's most attractive features is its rotation of local artists' works every six weeks. On a recent night, Gabriela Sánchez-Vegas's Concrete Tears and some lively Rudolf Kohn paintings made the room simply striking and offered a beautiful contrast to the dark wood tables with single flickering candles. "This place still has that new building smell," my companion commented with a smile as he sat down and put his napkin on his lap. "Why is it so empty?"
The answer probably has more to do with newness and the downtown location than the menu. To one side were what the chef called "tastings," comprising about a dozen soups, salads, and appetizers ranging from simple (wild mushroom empanadas with vegan gravy) to curious (Florida lobster mousse with Szechuan pepper sauce). About the same number of entrées were proffered, including a nightly seafood special and some interesting proteins. Prices seemed fair, with the tastings ranging from $8 to $14, burgers from $12 to $15, and entrées averaging about $22. (The chef wisely created a $37 tasting menu for theatergoers, incorporating an appetizer, entrée, dessert, and free parking voucher.)
The wine, spirit, and cocktail selections certainly hit the mark. There's a Japanese Suntory Yamazaki 18-year single-malt whiskey, a 2005 Mondavi-Rothschild Opus One, and mixed drinks such as the zesty yet sweet "Ron con Cola," featuring Flor de Caña rum, housemade spicy cola, an orange twist, and a sugar cane stick on the rocks. Then there's the cooling "Cucumis Sativus," made with Hendrix vodka, cucumbers, lemon verbena, and lavender simple syrup. Urbanite also has ales, lagers, porters, stouts, wheats, and even framboise, a fruity lambic from Belgium.
But let's get back to the eats.
Two oblong rolls, warm and speckled with baked onions on top, arrived at the table first. Tucked inside were nests of steaming, flavorful onion slices. Instead of foil-wrapped pats of butter, the busboy presented a sectioned glass dish starring sun-dried tomato tapenade, olive oil, and puréed eggplant. The last was quickly deemed a waste of space.
Then a server suggested the duck confit ravioli. Draped in cream, chervil, and Armagnac, the pasta pillows arrived stuffed with a rich filling. The portion allowed for six near-perfect bites; if you weren't worried about calories, you could easily consume an entire bowl. Also intriguing were Moroccan lamb sliders, offering powerful flavors of blended ginger, cardamom, turmeric, and cinnamon. They were playfully presented with yellow tomato slices, tabbouleh, and a squiggle of mayonnaise tinged pink with red chilies. The condiment's creaminess and heat was an appealing complement. Strangely, the "chopped" salad wasn't chopped at all, but no matter. It comprised a few leaves of lettuce, Bermuda onions, toasted almonds, and star fruit sprinkled atop a disproportionately large, hockey-puck-size plank of sesame-seed-crusted goat cheese, which eventually made its way into a doggy bag and later three homemade sandwiches over the course of a week.
Next were alligator egg rolls. Though novel in theory, the four cross sections were greasy and boring. Even the accompanying mango-roasted jalapeño cream couldn't salvage them. But a thick Angus burger topped with melted Manchego scored points for its soft brioche bun, crisp butter lettuce, hand-cut fries, and accompanying crisp paper-thin boniato chips.
A little more than a week later, on another visit, we were seated in the center room overlooking a paved courtyard inhabited by a tabby kitten with an affinity for chasing and devouring bugs. As we watched the live entertainment, a busser arrived with a napkin-covered basket and unceremoniously dropped a round beige roll on each plate. Egads — whole wheat. And this time, the accompaniments included whipped butter, olive oil, and that tasteless eggplant spread. The affordability-versus-quality seesaw began to tip.
An order was placed for the ancho-glazed grouper and the miso-orange-glazed tofu with sautéed red quinoa, a dish that seemed inspired. "We're out of tofu tonight," the server said. "So you won't have any in your pad thai if you order that either."
After hearing the kitchen was out of tofu and the tuna burger was no good, I opted for the magret duck breast. Four thick slices of bird arrived medium-rare, as requested, and were presented alongside Israeli couscous and a pile of wilted baby spinach. The couscous was divine — buttery and soft like caviar — but a heavy hand was employed with whatever spirit was dumped atop the greens. Star fruit compote, a garnish promised on the menu, was somehow translated into grilled slices. The meat was ringed with a great deal of fat and so tough a steak knife couldn't easily cut it. That was confusing, because magret, which comes from a foie gras-producing quacker, typically has only about 5 percent fat. After gnawing away on a few pieces, I lost the battle. And my friend's slightly overcooked grouper, though tasty, arrived without cucumber salsa and malanga, which were promised on the menu.
Picking up our plates, the server noticed the mostly full dish and immediately sent over the gracious, apologetic manager. Without challenging my ignorance (it turns out magret should be served rare), he offered a free dessert. I chose "fruitshi," a selection described as "seasonal fresh fruit wrapped in soy paper with green tea sabayon and strawberry gastrique." It resembled a pale, dense Twinkie with some fresh berries shoved inside. Maybe if the words sponge cake were mentioned on the menu, expectations would've been different.
Yep, Urbanite has some issues to resolve, but many patrons will still consider this new eatery a little gem merely in need of a good polishing. Consistency might be the key. Diners seek the unexpected on their first visit. After that, it's a fine dance of predictability and intrigue. So for now, the verdict is still out on the Urbanite, especially because the chef plans to change the menu in a few weeks.
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