Greek to Miami
The intersection of 71st Street and Rue Vendome in Miami Beach is what many would call a "cursed location" for restaurants. The list of victims includes a Turkish place, a Russian place, and most recently Ouzo's, a Greek/Med place that has since moved to South Beach. If this were a rodeo, Ouzo's would win by dint of having stayed on the bronco the longest (five years) — which bodes well for Ariston Restaurant, the latest occupant of this so-called jinxed locale. It, too, serves Greek food. Or, as the sign over the entrance reads, "Greek European Cuisine."
The Old World influence can be gleaned right away via a basket of thick-cut, black-crusted slices of olive-studded bread rather than pita. The bread would have been preferable fresh instead of lightly toasted, but it stood up well to a slathering of black olive tapenade tinted with lemon juice. The only other Euro-based items are pasta dishes such as pappardelle with quail ragout, chanterelles, and truffle oil; and spaghetti Bolognese. (Personal rule of thumb: Never eat spanakopita in Italy; stay away from Bolognese sauce in Greece.) American menu contributions are caesar salad, New York strip steak, and Colorado lamb chops.
Dip enthusiasts, of which I am not ashamed to admit I am one (well, maybe slightly ashamed), will enjoy the traditional array of tarama fish roe, hummus, tzatziki, and smoked eggplant spreads ($5.95 to $7.50). Each came fresh, smoothly balanced — meaning the bully garlic bulb doesn't push aside slender lemon and olive oil notes — and served with toasted pita chips (unavoidable after all). You can get the quartet together on one platter, with some olives thrown in, for $12.95.
Three other platters can likewise kick-start your meal, though to varying degrees of success. Best was a collection of warm meze: dry but tasty little meatballs; slices of assertively grilled sausage; pale golden triangles of phyllo loaded with creamy Greek feta cheese; charred red peppers; a bowl of large, luscious lima beans in herbed tomato broth; and "pie of the day," which elicited the promise of creativity but was a routine spinach-and-feta spanakopita. Cold meze provided another crowd-pleasing medley of marinated olives, white beans, and red peppers, with Greek feta spread and rice-filled grape leaves. The "grilled veggie" plate presented a prosaic pastiche of peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms, zucchini and eggplant.
A list of "traditional Greek" starters encompasses cheese saganaki, fried smelts or calamari, char-grilled octopus, and a plate of Kalamata olives paired with "imported Greek cheeses" (haloumi from Cyprus, kasseri, feta, and vlahotyri, made from sheep's milk). Avgolemono soup, with its taut, lemony taste, and Greek salad, with a slab of feta tilted on top like a graduation cap, succeeded in by-the-book fashion. Other soups rotate daily: chickpea Mondays, lentil Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and so forth.
If you haven't yet noticed, Ariston tenders innumerable appetizer options. Consider taking full advantage of these, not only because those we sampled were uniformly commendable, but also on account of main courses being less so. Weighty wedges of roast loin of lamb, for instance, were as dry as the Acropolis on a scorching afternoon — though the pan-roasted quartered potatoes on the side were bursting with moisture and terrific taste. Imported sea bream baked in parchment paper was fresh enough after its long flight from the Mediterranean, but came draped with an insipid toss of cherry tomatoes, carrots, onions, and zucchini (the $28.95 price begs for more). A bowl of basmati rice on the side barely passed muster.
Not all main courses disappointed. Roast baby suckling pig, served Thursdays through Saturdays (never Sunday), brought two hefty hunks of rich, juicy meat in a pool of robust pork jus (the skin, though, was more leathery than crisp). Moussaka impressed as well, its layers of eggplant and ground beef simmered in red sauce and baked with white, custardy béchamel sauce. Most important, it tasted as though it was prepared that day.
Ariston's owners have placed white linens on the tables and made the room a bit sleeker and neater, but a lengthy wooden bar and mural of white domes and blue ocean still dominate the left side of the space, a gracefully curved wraparound wall of picture windows taking up the front and opposite side. Greek music pipes through the speakers in an unobtrusive manner, and waiters work in a similarly quiet, understated way. In fact service was surprisingly sharp, the affable staff displaying a European efficiency in attending to diners' needs. The wine list is extensive, from by-the-glass selections including a Pinot Noir from Brazil and a Savatiano white from Greece, to bottles from New Zealand, Australia, Napa, and Italy, to a magnum of the Greek Axios Worthy Cabernet, to Mythos dessert wine.
Chocolate mousse was another unexpected treat, as rich and creamy as a French kitchen's version, topped with three near-perfect raspberries. Other desserts include baklava, a baked apple, and a delectable walnut cake (karithopita) moistened with honey and highlighted by touches of cinnamon and allspice (for what it's worth, this was also the best dessert at the old Ouzo's). Greek coffee was its traditional sweet, tiny self, and while foam made a cappuccino appear more substantial, the amount of coffee was similarly minuscule, especially for $3.50 per cup. You might be better off seeking your postdinner joe elsewhere.
As for the curse? Almost every such locale eventually houses success. The cure, it seems, is a restaurant that pleases its patrons. Ariston has started out doing just that.
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