It's only a block west of Brickell Avenue's glitzy skyscrapers, but the strip of old-fashioned storefronts that houses Indochine has, historically, managed to maintain a rather raffish, river-pirate air; it feels as if you've tumbled through time into a pioneer-era den of debauchery. And in a way, you have. For nearly a century the little enclave has been home to Tobacco Road, holder of Miami's oldest liquor license. Since 1982 the Road has been a beloved live-music venue, but previously it was a speakeasy (reputed to be the favored hangout of Al Capone), and even had its license revoked for a time during World War II for "lewd, wanton, and lascivious" behavior.
When the River Oyster Bar opened a couple of years ago, on the block's corner, the strip's ambiance changed a bit. No longer does it seem like a secret string of dives frequented by disreputables; it's more like a secret string of dives frequented by yuppies. Actually that's not entirely accurate. The oyster bar's décor is far too sleek, spacious, and stylishly open to feel secretive, and the packed house on a recent Friday night made it clear the place is hardly an insider find anymore. But the spillover crowd hadn't yet seemed to find Indochine, right next door, where four of a mere eleven tables sat empty -- despite a modest art opening offering free champagne.
This much smaller space has been home, in recent years, to a string of hard-luck eateries. One was a joint that served okay but not great barbecue. Another incarnation served okay but not great Italian food, plus sushi (a clash of nations as ill-conceived as any U.S. foreign policy initiative). Now the fare is pan-Asian, which translates here not as fusion food (that is, a creatively combined mélange of influences from many Asian nations) but as a mix of Thai, Vietnamese, and Japanese sushi standards: pad thai, pho, California rolls.
638 S Miami Ave, Miami
305-379-1525. Open Monday through Friday 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m., Saturday 6:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m.
Although the combination of foods from three Asian nations is by no means as unsettling as dealing with fettuccine Alfredo and sushi in the same meal, the cuisine of some countries, as often happens in pan-everything places, suffered at Indochine. Tom kha gai ($3.95), Thailand's famed creamy chicken and galangal soup, had plenty of chicken (albeit dry and unappealingly large chunks rather than delicate, moist slices) but little of galangal's peppery ginger kick -- odd for a dish whose name means "boiled galangal." There was also insufficient sour citrus finish, and no cilantro. In fact the one-dimensionally dominant taste was salt, from an obvious overdose of fish sauce.
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Crispy basil duck ($16.95) was better. Whereas many Thai eateries translate "crispy" as "thoroughly petrified," Indochine's slices were thick and juicy, with crunch confined to the skin. But the sauce, described as thin soy, again lacked the subtly complex balance of flavors typifying Thai food. The cloyingly sweet broth was otherwise bland. Accompanying rice was mush.
Japan's offerings were virtually all sushi, mostly makis. The fish tasted fresh, especially some very silky light pink tuna. None of the rolls offered, however, was the slightest bit different from what's found in every sushi spot in South Florida. An appetizer of harumaki (differing from standard sushi only in its wrap of rice paper rather than rice/seaweed) was not bad for a roll that contained crabstick rather than real crab, and an overload of spicy mayo that wasn't spicy. The only other apparent ingredient was a nice mesclun mix; masago and scallions, mentioned on the menu, were not discernible. And $6.95 seemed stiff for three half rolls of such stuff.
As for Vietnam, pho (beef noodle soup) had a base of sufficiently beefy broth and generous accompaniments including the usual bean sprouts and lime plus a few unusual touches: some elegant little dumplings in the soup, and crushed peanuts to sprinkle on top. But price again seemed over the top -- fourteen bucks for a bowl most Vietnamese places serve for around half the price.
Perhaps what you're paying extra for is Indochine's billing as an "Asian Bistro." Some stripes of new paint and new art on the wall do not an upscale bistro make. Nor did an overwhelming odor of disinfectant mixed with a faint residue of old soaked-in booze. That doesn't mean Indochine isn't a fun little neighborhood hangout. It is. But food, while considerably better than that of its predecessors in this space, remains just okay, not great.