Image Isn't Everything

In the June issue of Vogue, food writer Jeffrey Steingarten, fed up with snooty maitre d's and perpetual busy signals, decides to "not make one reservation for the entire week. I will just show up." So he does, and has some moderate success at good New York City eateries, winding up well-fed without being too footsore. But then, the rub. He waits two hours for a meal at a rundown sushi bar because he can't believe the food is so tasty that people will wait in line, without drinks in hand or some sort of appetizer, for that long. Finally he's seated, only to consume "the worst Japanese food I have eaten all year: giant, ragged, floppy pieces of less-than-pristine fish." And he's surprised.

Hullo. I'm not shocked that Steingarten fell victim to the oldest con in the restaurant book: The longer the line, the more it must be worth the wait. Hungry diners milling out front, for whatever reason, are transformed into drooling idiots with limited vocabularies: Must be good. Gotta eat here. Yum yum.

But then the folks in Miami could have saved Steingarten the heartache -- and stomachache -- of his little experiment. After all, most of us have braved the hourslong wait at Joe's Stone Crabs for specimens that are, well, edible. And nearly all of us have been taken, or will be taken in the near future, by Mark Soyka's, no-reservations eateries: the two News Cafes, Van Dyke Cafe, and now, Soyka.

Oh, I know, I know. Mark Soyka is like Gloria Estefan in this town, the stuff of myth and legend. In short he can do no wrong. So I'll give him the props he deserves: He's got quite the eye for real estate. In the late Eighties he opened the first outdoor cafe, the News, on Ocean Drive, prompting others to follow and revitalize the area. He followed suit with the Van Dyke, just when Lincoln Road was starting to attract the attention of developers, and he squeaked into the Grove with the second News Cafe only a little while before that area saw its renaissance with the Streets of Mayfair.

Now, with Soyka, located on Biscayne Boulevard in a crappy neighborhood (that borders the gated community of Bay Point and soon-to-be-gated Morningside), he's being credited with turning around the decaying urban sprawl of Miami central.

I admit this section of Biscayne could use such a place. The market's there: Lots of former South Beach residents have shacked up in the crumbling Design District, and communities such as Edgewater and Belle Meade have long been trying to entice respectable business owners into the vicinity. They're willing to support Soyka. I've eaten three meals at Soyka, and at least twice I've had conversations with diners who I recognized from the visit before. In other words regulars already abound.

And I just love what he's done with the space. The freestanding restaurant, just a little too hard to get to from Biscayne Boulevard (you have to take a turn on to a secondary road), maintains an industrial feel with distressed cement walls, iron embellishments, and exposed-beam ceilings. Large storefront windows let in light, and an open performance kitchen in the back lends length to the space. In front a bar area is softened with overstuffed, slipcovered chairs in shades of sage green that look as if they came straight from Details. The eatery even has a parking lot attached. (I gotta ask: What's up with having a valet service when there are plenty of spaces to go around? Seems a little pretentious.)

But to put it bluntly, in return for our citywide adoration, Soyka gives us a dining experience that I'll kindly call mediocre. The wine list is varied and interesting, but the house white tastes watered-down. Ice tinkles in poorly mixed martinis. The air conditioner is in need of repair. And though the restaurant has now been open a couple of months, food is still being delivered to the wrong tables, or simply not delivered at all.

On one evening, for example, our main courses were served before our appetizers. The waiter, albeit very polite, caught the error before the entrees could be distributed. We watched them go back to the kitchen, no doubt to sit under the heat lamps. Then the appetizers, which had been lingering under the bulbs, were brought out. Needless to say, what should have been hot was cold, and vice versa. For both courses.

Mechanics, however, is not the only problem that Soyka faces. The bistro menu, executed by chef Gabrielle Hakman, is more ambitious than the News or Van Dyke restaurants, and I admire the upscale fit of fare to atmosphere. Unfortunately not every item works as written. A crisp calamari starter with two dipping sauces (an aioli and a marinara) is not billed as spicy but was; a shrimp po'boy with chipotle mayo is described as spicy but wasn't. Nor, come to think of it, was the latter much of a po'boy, because it was served on a baguette, and the shrimp weren't battered and fried. The blackened shrimp, though, were fresh and tightly curled, flavorful and crisp-edged without being overcooked.

Other difficulties come during preparation. The sauteed wild mushrooms that topped a polenta appetizer were so oversalted they could have been plucked straight out of the bay. A main course of linguine with spicy Italian sausage and broccoli rabe was brown with age, the pasta dried up into wrinkles and the sausage greasy. The sesame-seared salmon entree, cloaked by a sweet soy sauce, was unpleasantly fishy, and a creamy spinach, onion, and Parmesan cheese pizza tasted as sour as milk in a bachelor's refrigerator. Even a simple roast beef sandwich failed, with the sliced meat also beginning to turn, and without the slightest hint of rareness.

To be fair not every dish was a flat-out disaster. It's hard enough to find calves' liver on a menu anywhere, and even more difficult to discover a better recipe than the one here: caramelized onions, golden raisins, and a balsamic reduction. Of the two sweet 'n' tangy fillets presented, though, one was stringy and tough. I also found the marinated skirt steak, a huge flat piece of medium-rare meat, wonderfully tender; the only flaws here were a too-oily chimichurri sauce and stale French fries that had been dipped into the deep fryer one too many times.

Perhaps the best way to enjoy a meal here is to take a cue from the diners at the News and Van Dyke cafes, many of whom order egg dishes, salads, and cheese plates. A Cobb salad with egg, avocado, tomato, spinach, Gorgonzola, and grilled chicken was faultless, all the ingredients fresh and complementary. For a less-hearty meal, the starter of Brie and country pate with green peppercorns, served with cornichons, marinated niçoise olives, and slices of baguette, fills you up nicely and with uncompromised panache.

At the end of one dinner, our server compensated for mistakes by supplying us with a slice of moist banana layer cake, which had been made on the premises. I don't know if it was good enough to so readily forgive the restaurant for its faults, however, and I'm certainly not about to wait in line for a table. The place, judging by its decor, ambition, and community support, certainly has potential. But so far Steingarten's flabby sushi's got nothing on Soyka.

5556 Biscayne Blvd; 305-759-3117. Lunch and dinner daily from 11:00 a.m. till 11:00 p.m.

Crispy calamari $8.00
Spinach pizza $8.75
Cobb salad $10.00
Calves liver $14.00
Skirt steak $16.00


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