The quiet block of 20th Street between Purdy and West Avenues in South Beach has given aspiring restaurateurs nothing but headaches: Bartolome Restaurant (too pricy for what it served), Picnic (poor brunch-for-dinner concept with worse execution), Sea Rock, and Shiso Sushi have all died here.
The Asian gastro-pub Pubbelly arrived in October. On a recent early Thursday evening, folks gathered beneath its loft ceilings, leaned against the exposed brick walls, and waited for one of the three-dozen seats or dozen bar stools to open up. How did young, first-time owners Jose Mendin, Sergio Navarro, and Andreas Schreiner overcome the obstacles others faced? By offering fresh, creative, flavor-packed cuisine in a cozy urban-tavern setting, with attentive service, and — oh hell, forget all that for now. The main reason these guys are succeeding is because they offer the one thing those failed ventures did not: value.
Of course, it also helps that Pubbelly embraces four currently popular dining trends: Asian food, small plates, gastro-pubs, and pork belly. Starting with the last: The seven-by-ten-inch menu, printed daily, encompasses 30-plus items. Half a dozen contain belly meat from the pig. On the low end, the $6 McBelly packs a lot of flavor into a small bun via pickles, shaved onions, and kim chee barbecue sauce atop slabs of fatty pork. It's just one of a dozen "small plates" that anchor the bill of fare. Pork belly with butterscotch, kabocha pumpkin, bok choy, and corn powder is another.
Pork belly bulges from homemade dumplings as well, one of two or three proffered nightly. We didn't try these, but were mighty impressed by duck and pumpkin-plumped dumplings — four delicate rounds of melt-in-your-mouth pasta (really more like ravioli). The main ingredients were brightened with orange, crushed almonds, and browned butter accented with soy. A trio of similarly round, ravioli-like beef cheek and black truffle dumplings garnished with shiitake mushrooms and pooled in luscious balsamic-infused potato purée, likewise wowed.
Belly beckons again atop the "noodles & rice" category, which includes two of the former and one of the latter. The Pubbelly ramen bowl seems to be a house signature, and deservedly so. The broth, a soothing balance of lemon grass, miso and cilantro, is bolstered by bean sprouts, ramen noodles (that tasted similar to the instant, packaged type), planks of moistly poached pork belly, and a runny poached egg. The other noodle mainstay during our visits featured yaki udon with wild mushrooms, huitlacoche, and crisp onions. Each is a meal-in-itself for one person, and eminently shareable for two. Bread isn't complimentary, but $2 delivers slices of baguette or ciabatta toasted with garlic or olive oil, or smeared with tomato (pan con tomate). Three bucks will bring goat butter on top, or a larger serving of plain baguette that was better than the pale, chew-less ciabatta.
Pork belly mofongo with shoyu broth is a nod to the three proprietors' beloved Puerto Rico: Jose and Andreas were born and raised on the island, as was Sergio's wife. Jose and Sergio now work in Pubbelly's kitchen, having previously travelled the fine-dining trail together from La Broche to Nobu to Sushi Samba to Mercadito (apparently the road went downhill).
On one occasion I dined with a vegetarian who has an aversion to spicy foods. We were dismayed to find few options. The five vegetables listed that night ($5 to $8) were celery root with kim chee remoulade; kimchee and tomato clay pot; spicy potatoes; mofongo with pork belly; and beets with bacon. I ordered the last and my guest picked around the bacon, of which there was very little. The baby beets were sweet, the plate swiped with a smear of ricotta purée flecked with shiso, but it proved to be one of the more lackluster dishes. No cooked greens or leaf-based salads were on the menu. Granted, many vegetarians are able to indulge in kim chee, but it makes sense for a place like this to proffer a few vegetable dishes unburdened by meat or heat.
My companion shied away from shishito peppers, but on a return venture I sampled the mild, tapered, lightly fried rendition sprinkled with Maldon salt and minced pistachios and spread with nasu miso paste (at least the bottom layer was). In fact, after we'd eaten a third of the portion (which was delicious with just salt and nuts) we thought the miso — the addition of which enhances the peppers with a distinctive taste — had been omitted.
Noncarnivores have seafood selections aplenty, starting with a daily roundup of three or four raw bar items. These might include Nasquali Bay oysters from Washington ($2.50 each), Florida stone crab claws ($5 each), or translucent slices of Japanese amberjack laced with lemon and served alongside beets ($14). Salt and pepper squid and rillettes of fresh and smoked salmon were available as small plates, and one of three large plates is likewise culled from the sea — might be a whole fried snapper with lemongrass aioli, or a zarzuela of mixed seafood in coconut broth.
Other entrées, which are generous enough for two to share, are steak frites with roasted shiitakes, shiso bernaise, and a cucumber/tomato salad; and shortrib with creamed spinach, peanuts, Guinness, and dry shiitake jus. The main plates cost around $27 to $29. That's getting expensive for a place like this.
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More small plate delights: fried chicken thighs piquant with kim chee served with bibb lettuce leaves for handling, and mustard miso for dipping; and four really moist meatballs made from pork, pork belly, and beef with threadlike somen noodles serving as "spaghetti," tomato sauce sassed with lemongrass, and a sprinkling of chopped peanuts replacing Parmesan.
Charcuterie can likewise jump-start a meal, or serve as one by itself. Jamón serrano from Segovia, Spain; country ham from Kuttawa, Kentucky; and speck from Tyrol, Italy, are shaved thin and presented individually ($8 to $10) or as a trio ($26).
A gastro-pub is basically a chef-driven tavern that, if living up to the name, highlights an eclectic mix of fare that pairs well with an equally eclectic brew of beers and wines. Pubbelly fits that bill like pigs in a blanket: The food here can be wildly imaginative, as in the aforementioned duck and pumpkin dumplings, or pork belly with butterscotch and corn powder. And more than a dozen bottled beers include: Delirium Tremens (a strong Belgian ale), Morimoto Soba Ale, Clipper City Peg Leg Stout, and Pabst Blue Ribbon, the most affordable at $4.50. Fourteen-ounce draughts of Helles Lager and Hoptical Illusion go for $7. The only real surprise among the two-dozen boutique red and white wines from around the globe ($30 to $79) is that none is from America. A rotating list of sake sells for $28 to $44 per bottle. A few premium bottles are more expensive. Waiters can help with selections, as they are fairly knowledgeable about the food and beverage. Overall, service is personable and attentive.
Soft-serve ice cream is prepared on premise, and serves as the base for a couple of desserts — including one dandy topped with diced brownies and a pinch of bacon bits that adds a slight contrasting bite of salt. Like so much of the preceding food, it was fresh, homespun, tasty, and a legit value at $6. Pubbelly has figured out the secret to success.