At Lettuce & Tomato, a hill of sprouts tops a seared cut of corvina. A mélange of quinoa blended with warm slow-cooked mushrooms, piquillo peppers, and red onion lies below, dazzled with a homemade citrus sauce boasting a sweet and sour tang.
"I like to see something green and fresh on each dish," chef/owner Roy Starobinsky says in a thick Argentine accent. "It gives it more volume and more color."
Nearly every dish at this North Miami Beach gastrobar is finished with a pillowy bed of microgreens. Underneath, a delicately crafted juxtaposition of Latin and Asian flavors waits to be savored.
The restaurant is tucked away in a grungy strip mall on West Dixie Highway at NE 170th Street. Across the street from a railroad track and a few doors down from a coin laundry, it's one of North Miami Beach's only chef-driven locales.
Starobinsky, a short, brown-haired, enthusiastic entrepreneur, was born and raised in Buenos Aires. Now 32 years old, he came to America with his parents when he was 18, leaving behind friends and a longtime girlfriend. As his native country's economic and political stability worsened, his parents gave him no choice.
"I cried, screamed, and begged my family to let me stay," Starobinsky remembers. "I wanted nothing to do with Miami... It was a weird age to leave for good. It wasn't so much about America as about not wanting to leave forever. It's not like leaving for college and then coming back. It was all over, and I was gone."
Once in Miami, he found solace in cooking, something he had watched his mother and grandmother do for years. It made him feel more at home, he says. At age 18, his first dish was one of his grandmother's specialties: latkes — crisp potato cakes — made with shredded potato, flour, a few eggs, and love. It's still one of his favorite things to eat. He would make them for his family as an appetizer before a meal of chicken and roasted potatoes.
"Food has always been a big part of my life, especially growing up with a Jewish mom," he explains. "My family and I made sure to have dinner together every night, and slowly I started picking up cooking."
Soon he began bussing tables at Santa Fe News & Espresso in the Bal Harbour Shops.
About eight years later, Starobinsky became the manager at Epicure Market in Sunny Isles Beach. He had been there two years when his father, a businessman, died. "It made me want to work harder," he says. " It showed me that I needed more of an education to make my dream of owning a restaurant possible."
Starobinsky enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu in Miramar. After attending morning classes, he worked 13-hour days at Epicure. With his savings and the help of a longtime friend, Starobinsky had enough money for Lettuce & Tomato, which opened a block away on West Dixie Highway about a year ago. "I'm still paying for everything, though," he says. "I was grateful to have enough money to get on my feet, but the bills haven't stopped."
That's why Starobinsky chose to open in a lesser-known area. "Biscayne is ten times the rent," he adds. "That's why I am on West Dixie Highway instead. It's still close to the major road, but a lot cheaper. It will help me bring good food to people at an affordable price and still make a dime."
The name — Lettuce & Tomato — might sound like a tired midday salad, but the restaurant is anything but that. The interior is uncomplicated and hip, boasting an industrial yet warm atmosphere with metal accessories and Mason-jar drinking glasses.
Like the restaurant's design, many of Starobinsky's ingredients are simple. Together, they create a complex hodgepodge of flavors and textures. Diners receive Latin American staples and plates with Asian, American, and French influences.
It's a mixture of the food he likes and the food he wants patrons to like, he explains, drawing inspiration from his childhood, his travels, and his newfound love for America. "We're not going to give you traditional," he says. "We want to open people's minds to different foods."
Order a large bowl of hand-cut garlic French fries, sofrito, serrano ham, three fried eggs, and a pinch of sprouts. Then watch Starobinsky mix it tableside because, he says, it tastes better that way. Dubbed "huevos rotos" — broken eggs — it's one of five egg-centric plates on the menu, joined by a foie gras eggs Benedict and braised lamb poutine.
Mantou, known as Asian-inspired steamed buns, comes stuffed with thick cuts of meat, such as short rib or pork belly, and drizzled with a homemade ají aioli sauce. Forgo meat for a crunchy asparagus variety crowned with a scoop of guacamole. Buns, which are one of Starobinsky's bestselling plates, also happen to be one of his favorite meals too. But the trouble is they make a mess. Expect a chunk of the meal to slide down your chest and onto the floor.
A plump bed of romaine, cherry tomatoes, sesame seeds, and thick cuts of watermelon is served with slices of seared ahi tuna. It's sprinkled with an Asian vinaigrette and gushes with flavor. But the proportion of leafy greens to substantive ingredients, such as tuna and watermelon, is slightly off-balance.
All of these plates cost less than $15 each. And everything is made from scratch, from the ají amarillo purée beneath a rack of St. Louis-style pork ribs to mint lemonade poured into a Mason-jar glass. Fish and poultry are bought from local suppliers. "People spend so much money going out to eat," he says. "It's time to bring people normal prices so they don't have to wait for the weekend to go out and have a nice meal."
Presentation is solid. Each plate is carefully designed and delivered to the table when ready. It's perfect for guests who want to share. If that's not your preference, this place isn't for you.
Though Starobinsky believes topnotch dining experiences should be the norm, you wouldn't know from the bulk of his prices. He tries to be as reasonable as possible, he explains.
"Three days a week, I wake up at 5 in the morning and go to different vendors," he says. "I pay the same money everyone else pays. I just try to charge less."
Instead of asking for upward of $25 for an entrée, Starobinsky keeps everything around the same price: $15.
What he wants most is for Lettuce & Tomato to be accessible. But despite his best efforts, the restaurant is still expensive compared to neighboring eateries.
Starobinsky is the Bernie Sanders of Miami's dining scene: He preaches but inefficiently practices a concept he calls "dining equality." He wants to lead North Miami-Dade's food revolution by feeding locals high-quality and fashionable fare commonly found in restaurants in Miami Beach or Brickell. For now, though, the prices aren't as powerful as Starobinsky's enthusiasm.
He is, however, further along than most Miami locales in regards to balancing quality against exorbitant pricing. "My family had our favorite spots," he says, "and we would always reserve a day of the week to run to these places. I want Lettuce & Tomato to be that."
This past summer, Starobinsky moved his six-table, one-man operation to a larger and more accessible space next door in the same secluded strip mall.
He prefers this location, he says, because it feels more like a home than a business. But no matter the night, it's difficult to dine here without a reservation. "I hired another chef, and I've been focused on building a team," he says. "This space is allowing me to grow. We're a little bit hidden, but if the food is consistent, people will come."
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Starobinsky knows it's just the beginning. "When every person knows that Lettuce & Tomato is a place for high-quality food at a fair price, then I'll feel emotional," he adds. "And when I return all the money I owe to have gotten this all started... then I'll be very emotional."
Lettuce & Tomato
17070 W. Dixie Hwy., North Miami Beach; 305-760-2260; lettuce-tomato.com. Lunch Monday through Saturday noon to 4 p.m.; dinner Tuesday through Saturday 6 to 10 p.m.
Potato and eggplant gratin $11
Salmon burger $13
Seared ahi tuna salad $13
Truffle tuna bites $13
Seared New York steak toast $13
Crispy skin salmon $15
Seared corvina $19
Half rack of lamb $18