Now that Jonathan Eismann's Pacific Time has closed, his Design District dining triad consists of PizzaVolante, Q American Barbeque, and Fin. The last two share the same building one block north of Volante, and each shines a light on a distinct regional cuisine of the U.S.A. — Texas next door to Nantucket, so to speak.
White wooden wainscot wraps around Fin's 28-seat dining room. Above it, matte silver and white striped wallpaper is adorned with black-and-white photos of seafaring scenes. Whirling ceiling fans, white wooden chairs, and other summery New England touches create a seashore vibe as comfortable to slip into as a pair of Docksides.
A fisherman would consider our experience here extremely successful: All the big ones were hooked, even if some small fries got away — meaning main plates of grouper, halibut, and striped bass were fresh, adeptly prepared, and accompanied by simple yet flavorful sides, while predinner bread slices were dried out, and a cellophane packet alongside clam chowder was filled with stale oyster crackers.
Not all details escaped notice. That bread basket likewise contained soft Parker rolls, and diners are served a luscious amuse-bouche of house-smoked Maine sea scallops with lemon cream and a dab of caviar. Starters are toot-worthy too. The aforementioned chowder was Manhattan-style — thin, spicy, tasty Old Bay-and-fresh-thyme-bolstered tomato broth with onion, celery, diced potato, and little pieces of Florida's own Sebastian Inlet clams. Likewise local yellowtail was used for a buoyant ceviche served in a white bowl with watermelon, chilies, rice vinegar, and citrus.
The least successful starter was "spicy shrimp curry" with "celery, bananas, fermented chili, and coconut water." The crustaceans were plump and pleasing, but the sauce tasted like thinned banana purée. I'm not sure what wine would go with that, but there are about two dozen to choose from — emphasis is on fish-friendly Pinot Noirs and the like.
Our waiter excelled. It was a slow night at the restaurant, which can often cause workers to become sluggish and inattentive. But he kept a watchful eye all evening and operated discreetly and effectively. When one of us hesitated in choosing between line-caught ling cod and snowy grouper, the waiter did not hesitate to recommend the latter. It turned out to be the best fish sampled.
That grouper was the only local catch among five fish entrées, although the menu gets printed daily. It was likewise the sole grilled item (others were pan-roasted). The two thin grouper fillets were subtly, scrumptiously infused with smoky flavor, with a cumin-flecked "succotash" of corn and tomato providing an ideally sweet foil. A hefty, juicy rectangle of wild striped bass from the Maryland coast boasted crisply seared skin; rice pilaf below was tastily herbed and sweetened with carrots. Halibut from Baja, California (printing seafood sources on the menu is more pertinent since the Gulf spill), arrived as a thick square beautifully bronzed from a buttery pan-roasting. Moist flakes of the fish were complemented by lemongrass sauce and an assertively citrus-spiked preserved-lemon risotto.
À la carte sides include a sturdy rendition of potato gratin culled from organic Idaho spuds; steamed broccoli and cauliflower with hollandaise; and curried French lentils, the dominant taste of which was boiled water (another guppy gets away).
Fin's entrées run from $23 to $28, very reasonable for the generous portions. There are usually two Q courses available on the menu too, such as brisket or smoked chicken breast, served with mashed potatoes for $20.
Warm chocolate bomb, the most omnipresent of all Miami restaurant desserts, is said to have been created by Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Credit for serving the first local version is given to Eismann's original Pacific Time, and Fin flaunts what remains a superior rendition — deep chocolate oozing onto the plate.
Q ropes in diners with a nonrowdy roadhouse appeal: wooden tables, black-and-white barbecue-themed photos, a vintage concert poster of Willie Nelson, a rusty old gas pump. There's also a short horseshoe bar featuring two flat-screen TV sets above it interspersed with chalkboard listings of beer and wine selections. A stage area is set aside for live bands that play on weekends (starting up again in a few weeks).
Fried green tomatoes — a trio of slices crisply and cleanly crusted in cornmeal with drizzles of basil-cayenne ranch dressing — will start you off just right. Also satisfying was organic spinach, whose leaves were flecked with dried cherries and mushrooms in a warm bacon vinaigrette, which would have been better with bits of bacon and more of a vinegar presence.
We sampled a Q Tasty Plate trio comprising two Kansas City baby-back ribs; two center-cut pork spare ribs; and a half-chicken, all potently smoked in a 6,000-pound, custom-built Bewley barbecue pit. The ribs were meaty, juicy, and assertively rubbed with dry spices. Some patrons might be put off by the firm nature of the meat — more similar to Chinese spare ribs than fall-off-the-bone soft — but I liked the freshness and appreciated the texture: tender but not mushy. The chicken was especially noteworthy — smoky mahogany-hued skin protecting a moist, flavorful, prebrined bird. This is a great plate of food for $18. Alongside the plate come squirt bottles filled with barbecue sauces that include a molasses-sweetened, tomato-based sauce; a grainy mustard/malt vinegar mix; and a mildly piquant "Miami Heat" with guava and habañero.
Texas-style brisket was likewise braised without losing bite; the half-pound mound of neatly sliced meat arrived draped over mashed potatoes and was boosted by bourbon-spiked demi-glace. And we went "whole hog" with a main course of North Carolina pulled pork over a raft of Texas toast, with pit beans and coleslaw on the side. The slow-cooked meat possessed a vivid vinegar tang and a bit of heat.
As at Fin, details were missed. Those pit beans were delectably campfire-flavored — smoky, not too sweet — but needed more time on the stove. The slaw was standard at best. Dry, crumbly corn bread that precedes each dinner tasted as though made the day before.
Diners looking for less than a large platter of food can opt for burgers, a pulled pork or brisket sandwich, or a beef, pork, or brisket slider. The burger was a beaut: nine ounces of Brandt natural ground beef on a homemade onion-potato bun.
There are just a few wines offered, but barbecue begs for beer, and Q queues up drafts such as Pabst Blue Ribbon, Shiner Bock from Texas (you don't see that in these parts very often), and about 15 bottled brews and microbrews.
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All-American desserts are apple crumble, brownie, chocolate pudding, and a blueberry buckle of densely buttery pound cake capped with the namesake fruit.
Chefs Brian Bell and Ervin Bryant orchestrate the two restaurants via the same center kitchen; Bell hails from Texas, and Bryant has been with Jonathan for 11 years. We're grateful Eismann resisted chef-ing up the barbecue via fussy mango glazes or lemongrass infusions, yet at the same time, we wouldn't mind seeing him produce the sort of coleslaw that Shorty's never could.
That said, Q American Barbeque's fare is fresh, brimming with authentic flavors, and priced at family-friendly levels (all starters under $10, entrées under $25, desserts just $6). Each of Eismann's latest ventures succeeds at what it tries to be. If you're looking for bar scene and barbecue, Q is for you. Those who prefer a romantic Nantucket interlude: Fin.
View our Fin and Q American Barbeque slide show.