Quietly Classy

Doesn't it seem sometimes that half the restaurants in Miami are yelling at you?

"We've got the wackiest-ass décor on the Beach!"

"Our food is so cutting-edge it doesn't have to taste good!"


Abbey Dining Room

300 21st St, Miami Beach

305-531-0031. Open Sunday through Thursday 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday 7:00 a.m. to midnight.

"Some dipstick movie star threw up in our bathroom!"

The noise is endless. It's enough to make your ears bleed.

Then there's Abbey Dining Room. It doesn't shout or chew on the carpet, doesn't jump up and down demanding your attention, doesn't try to be the wackiest, hippest, most multiculti place in town. And if some nitwit celebrity did hurl in its bathroom -- well, the folks there are too classy to go around bragging about it.

The Abbey just does what it's always done since opening four years ago: turn out tasty, inventive, finely crafted food with a piquant North African touch, served in an elegant, comfortable dining room by a staff both personable and efficient.

For most of those years it was Philippe Baguette heading up the kitchen. Now it's Kira Volz, a twelve-year restaurant vet from Seattle, and if anything, the Abbey's food is even better. Volz has the kind of skill and sensitivity you don't always find in local chefs, whose food by contrast often seems poorly conceived, heavy-handed, and carelessly executed. If I had to quibble, I'd say she's a bit light on the salt. But only if I had to.

Start with shiny black Prince Edward Island mussels in smoked paprika-tomato broth. It's perfect. Perfectly fresh, perfectly cooked mussels, plump and juicy and bursting with briny goodness. Perfect broth -- smoky, haunting, with the beguiling floral tones of tarragon -- that lingers on the palate like a kiss. Perfectly simple. Perfectly delicious.

So too is grilled calamari salad, as unlike vinegar-drenched rubber bands masquerading as edible as South Beach is unlike Pig's Knuckle, Arkansas. Volz's rendition is a study in subtlety. The miniature rings and tentacles are almost molten, barely whispering smoke from the grill. They're tossed with tiny cubes of red and yellow pepper and preserved lemon, fat chickpeas, and tangy green olives, all napped with a mild cumin-infused dressing and crowned by frothy microgreens. Beautiful.

Even a typically hearty tagine -- the classic Moroccan stew named, like paella, for its cooking vessel -- is prepared with uncommon grace and delicacy. Presented for two with vegetables or with chicken or lamb, it arrives at the table in a colorful ceramic tagine, whose top is whisked off to unleash a cloud of aromatic steam. The stew, in this case chicken, is crisscrossed by ribbons of pastel cilantro cream; a dome of couscous sits in the center. The salt shaker is a necessity here, but a shower of grains brings out the sauce's depth and complexity. It's full of good things to eat too: tender Bell & Evans chicken, chickpeas, pumpkin, dried fruit. A lot of food, but it weighs lightly.

House-made baklava is more of the same -- airy, elegant, refined -- not the honey-drenched pastry brick you were expecting but leaves of phyllo golden like aged parchment, wrapped around a filling of crunchy walnuts, pistachios, and almonds. It comes with bracing cinnamon ice cream, a drizzle of honey, poached apricots, and candied orange slice. The amount of work that went into this one plate is impressive, though no more so than the rest of the meal, the service, the stylish yet cozy setting.

Now that's something to shout about.


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