If I were to open a restaurant, I'd invite everyone I know to come and eat for free the first few weeks -- their parents and their friends, too -- just to ensure a full house. Maybe such a scheme would help stanch the relentless parade of restaurants that come and go on South Beach. I can't count the number of establishments that have succumbed to the fate of no customers. After months, sometimes just weeks, of idle waiters standing around refolding napkins, shuffling chairs, and chatting about their weekend plans, the places shut their doors.
Take for example, Divina, the upscale Mexican eatery on 23rd Street and Collins Avenue. Even though critics raved about the food, its ambiance bordered on perfection, the service was great, and the prices reasonable, it went under this past September, less than nine months after its debut. Then just before Christmas two of its owners, partners Sonia Lyn and Sam Hakman (who also run the Miami Beach restaurant Oasis), reopened the spot as Chow, billing the new place's cuisine as "Asian-Tropical."
The interior, so elegant in its Divina days, has been changed only slightly. The wide kitchen along the back wall is still in view of an open, airy dining room whose walls are rag-painted in a rich terra-cotta color. Divina's Mexican paintings and ceramic pots have given way to pretty ginger palms and kites adorned with Chinese characters. And the tables, enough to accommodate about 75 people, are now dressed with pink, blue, or green vinyl tablecloths with a candle at the center. Large picture windows framed with bamboo shades look out on to 23rd Street.
Two girlfriends and I stopped in on a recent Saturday evening at about nine o'clock to share a few appetizers and some wine. We chose a bottle of pinot grigio from the skimpy list, which offers only five whites (three of them chardonnays), two reds, and a sparkling wine. Overpriced at $34, the pinot grigio was nonetheless light and lemony, a good complement to the spicy fare. Also on the menu are several sake cocktails and two types of beer: one from Thailand and the other from China. Although the three of us made up fully half the patrons in the restaurant, our waiter was conspicuously absent during much of the meal, leaving us to negotiate the menu on our own.
It consisted of ten abbreviated descriptions of "cool and warm starts," the same number of entrees, and a half-dozen vegetable side dishes. Ingredients are drawn from a global palette that includes elements of Asia and the Caribbean -- garlic, ginger, chili, lime, soy, pineapple, curry, coconut, guava, plantain, banana, and sweet potato -- as well as some unexpected items such as hemp and truffles. It should be no surprise that an Asian influence dominates the menu when you consider chef Deborah Stanton's experience, which includes stints at two Asia-centric New York City restaurants: Vong, a Thai-French standout, and the Japanese bistro Mika, where she worked as executive chef.
Of the five appetizers we tried, grilled stuffed grape leaves with warm lentil salad was the best: Tender grape leaves wrapped around a rice and herb mixture contrasted nicely with the slight crunch of al dente lentils that had been spiked with pepper. Another starter, crisp shrimp with sweet-potato cakes, was alluringly complex, especially when dipped in the soy and ginger-lime sauce that accompanied it. Simpler and very tasty was a side order of spinach and shiitake mushrooms. On the other hand, the "steamed mochi," warm, sticky coconut rice and curried vegetables wrapped in banana leaves, was chalky and undistinguished. We were later told by our waiter that the banana wrappers are meant to be eaten, but I wouldn't recommend doing so. My husband and I tried them on a subsequent visit and found them to be as tough as wallpaper.
Since that first promising visit, whenever I have passed by Chow I've checked to see if others have discovered the place, and each time I've found it nearly deserted. One time I even peered in the window to be sure I wasn't missing a crowd at tables in the back. Bad move! Three waiters noticed me and tried to beckon me in, literally jumping up and down and waving their arms.
A few weeks after my first meal there, I returned, this time for dinner with my husband and one of his colleagues. Business was improving, it seemed, with about a dozen other diners in the restaurant. We were eager to try more of the exotic appetizers, especially organic baby lettuce with a hemp miso vinaigrette. The greens, a selection of red and green leaves, were a bit tired, though the dressing woke them up a bit. The thick, grayish dressing had a slight peppery zing and an almost earthy depth. (I regret to say we felt no narcotic effect from the hemp, but we did seem to give in to a sudden fit of the munchies, ordering way too much food once our elusive waiter reappeared.)
Although he was friendly, our waiter was neither proficient nor observant. We ordered a glass of wine and some sodas but ended up with only the sodas. After I reminded him to bring my glass of chardonnay, he disappeared again with apologies but without refilling our water glasses. After one sip of the sharp and oaky wine I tried to get his attention to exchange it for a bottle of Singha beer. By the time he returned he was so intent on telling us about the day's specials that he neglected to take away my wine when he left with our orders. We didn't see him again until about ten minutes later, when he brought our first few dishes and, finally, my beer.
A special appetizer, tiny seafood dumplings stuffed with a mellow mixture of shrimp and fish and served over an array of shredded Chinese cabbage and carrots, was a perfect teaser. The calamari ringlets that made up a second starter were fried to a golden hue and served with a cool, clear citrusy dipping sauce. Each piece of the fresh and tender squid was cut to about the size of a pecan and sprinkled with an aromatic seasoning reminiscent of Chinese five-spice powder: usually some combination of anise, licorice, cinnamon, clove, ginger, and nutmeg. Also superb was the Szechuan tuna tartare starter, which had a perceptible tinge of heat but no burn. Diced blood-red sashimi and same-sized cubes of cucumber were formed into a tidy disc the diameter of an Oreo cookie and garnished with stalks of peppery watercress.
By the time we were ready for our main courses we were almost full. We were also thirsty. Our water glasses remained empty for much of the night, and until the owner came over to check on us, so did my beer glass. Considering how few people were in the restaurant, our waiter might have been more attentive.
When my "Thai'd Chicken Pizza" arrived I thought there had been a mistake. Had I read the menu more carefully (it described the pizza as "sliced and wrapped") I wouldn't have ordered the dish. As it was I'm glad that I did. Sitting upright on the plate were three wide cylinders of pita-looking crust that had been gently charred and then stuffed with tender chunks of roasted white-meat chicken, scallions, and chilies melded with a mild peanut sauce and mozzarella cheese. It satisfied my craving for a gooey indulgence, but was neither greasy nor heavy.
I'd praise the wok paella, too, if not for one serious flaw. Like most of the dishes at Chow, the large portion was stunningly composed; however, nearly every bite contained bits of broken mussel shell. Spread in a voluptuous mound on a shiny black platter was a mosaic of seafood and vegetables with ruddy grains of rice. Baby shrimps, iridescent purple-black mussels, chunks of white-flesh fish, shreds of bright-green spinach, slivers of carrot, scallions, Chinese broccoli, niblets of corn, pinkish sausage rounds, earthy slices of shiitake mushrooms, and the rice were seasoned with a restrained dose of curry and hints of cilantro. The quality and variety of the ingredients combined for an explosion of flavors in each mouthful. A more vigilant sous chef might have saved us from the sharp and dangerous objects we also found there.
Any reasonable person would assume that the fish of the day is always the freshest, and at most places it is. But on this night the grouper special had a rubbery consistency, suggesting that it had been frozen or salvaged from an earlier catch. Large chunks of the flavorless fillet were assembled atop a bowl of curried vermicelli noodles. If not for these delicate threads studded with snow peas, slender ribbons of carrot, toasted sesame, broccoli, ginger, and curry, we would have returned the dish. Instead we pushed the fish aside and enjoyed the noodles.
Desserts sounded so good we had to try them. Stuffed bananas, recommended by our waiter and served in a towering martini glass, were not stuffed but rather surrounded with bittersweet chocolate ganache and vanilla ice cream. The Grand Marnier-dosed bananas were a bit too soggy: tasty, but hardly worth the calories. Asian plum phyllo rolls are served with the same delicious ice cream (supplied by local purveyor the Frieze), but the baklavalike triangles of pastry simply didn't make the grade. The moist and floury dough tasted as if it hadn't been baked long enough, and inside, instead of plums, we found cubes of fresh papaya.
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Despite its drawbacks, Chow warrants a return trip. Most of the small plates, hot and cold, are imaginative, light, and healthful. The entrees, wine list, and service, however, still need some tweaking. Plans are in the works to open an outdoor courtyard for additional seating.
210 23rd St, Miami Beach; 305-604-1468. Open daily from 11:00 a.m. till 11:00 p.m.
Organic baby greens $6
Fried calamari $7
Wok paella $13
Thai'd chicken pizza $11
Stuffed bananas $5.