The Dining Room in SoBe is a dandy
A restaurant needn't be complicated. To start one, you need a kitchen area and a space with tables and chairs. Basic personnel requirements: chef and waiter. That's it. Of course, opening a really good restaurant requires a bit more: The chef and waiter need to be really good. Voilà!
If this seems too simplistic, allow us to present the Dining Room. A dimly lit chandelier and some table candles illuminate this intimate Washington Avenue venue; a large mirror and family-style photos of the owners serve as décor. Twenty-four seats surrounding linen-draped tables and a petite cooking station occupy the rest of the tiny arena (with about two dozen more seats outdoors). One gets the sense that expensive design and architecture firms were not consulted.
Granted, there is a stereo system with speakers through which the likes of Neil Diamond, Cat Stevens, Lulu, and Barry White might sound. But the Dining Room is also notable for what it doesn't have: a hostess stand replete with a Stepford-style hostess; TV screens flashing inane images; a self-important manager aimlessly roaming the room. In other words: There is no bullshit here.
This operation, though, requires more than one chef and waiter. Chef de cuisine Christian Alvarez sometimes works alongside executive chef Horacio Rivadero, but mostly Alvarez mans the kitchen alone — Rivadero is also executive chef at OLA. He would never get away with this if the proprietors of the two establishments weren't the same, but Brian Lieberman indeed operates both South Beach spots (he partners with sibling Zack at the Dining Room).
A line cook and prep cook also toil behind the scenes, and there are usually a couple of servers and a busser or two on the floor. These extra workers are necessary because the restaurant has been putting out some truly delicious fare; ergo a lot of folks are eager to dine here.
The palate gets teased from the start via slices of baguette served with soft white-truffle-perfumed butter and a plate of pickled vegetables — cucumbers on one visit, carrots and parsnips on another. Appetizers are divvied into "Little Plates" and "Starters." The former category features red snapper tiradito and cobia ceviche. Sister OLA has long been known for its refreshing citrus-macerated fish dishes, and this strength has evidently been passed to the Dining Room. Meaty slices of firm, mild-tasting cobia are jazzed in a yuzu-and-lime marinade with red onions, cilantro, piquant bits of aji limo pepper, nubs of grapefruit, and a quenelle of pink grapefruit sorbet. Snapper tiradito is cut with lime and orange juices, mango, basil, and aji amarillo. These dishes were seemingly created for Miami in July.
Rivadero and Alvarez's knack for adding sharp flavors that puncture the routine nature of dishes extends to soups, salads, and entrées. Celery sprouts, a small dice of green apple, and a splash of vanilla heighten a vegetarian butternut squash soup in stunning fashion. A salad of arugula and duck confit bores through the stale, old French standard by way of sweet grilled apricots, fresh baby lima beans, minced radish, and a kumquat vinaigrette vibrant with the tart peel of the fruit. Grilled nubs of calamari, served atop watercress, are spicily spiked with chili, citrus, cilantro, and kalamata olive purée.
A starter portion of four skinny lamb chops with romesco (red pepper and almond) sauce doesn't exhibit much in the way of sparkling contrasts. It's not bad, but there are better ways to begin.
Restaurant entrées are traditionally more subdued than starters, as if taste buds were incapable of being vigorously stimulated for two courses in a row. Not so here. A pristine, pan-seared square of halibut, gorgeously bronzed atop roasted cherry tomatoes, whirls with a carousel of bright notes encircling it: charred leaves of Brussels sprouts, an ethereal parsnip purée, and minced trumpet mushrooms in a bit of truffle butter.
A hunk of slow-braised pork shoulder (AKA Boston butt) is no less scintillating. After cooking for about seven hours, the sumptuous meat arrives armed with sharp multicolored grain mustard, a meltingly luscious white-bean purée, and pickled radish slices. Half of a crisply pan-roasted organic chicken — moist and assertively seasoned — is paired with more traditional plate mates of fingerling potatoes and morel mushrooms in a potent and sticky chicken demi-glace. This is the sort of dish you hope to receive at a top Parisian bistro.
Other main plates encompass branzino, filet mignon, New York strip, and hazelnut-crusted rack of lamb. Prices range from $21 to $33, which is fair for the quality and generous portions. And though entrées are plated with vegetables and/or starches, à la carte sides are offered for $6 apiece. Among them we liked the light, smooth mashed potatoes imbued with smoky flavor. A side of shredded Brussels sprouts threaded with cashews also would have been a winner if it weren't oversalted.
An abbreviated wine list is affordably priced (plenty of choices from $35 to $45), with glasses going for $7 to $12. The corkage fee is $15 in case you wish to drink your own bottle, although it might be a better idea to bring your own glass — the ones here were spotted with dust from linens used to dry them. The three beers on hand are Heineken, Corona, and Amstel Light ($4.50 each).
A small "Patagonia" dessert brings fresh, soft swirls of browned Italian meringue encasing layers of pistachio cake and dulce de leche ice cream; blackberries, blueberries, and dabs of passion fruit sauce dot the plate. Choose that over a trio of teeny key lime tartlets — too small and stiff to bring any real satisfaction.
Service is smooth, knowledgeable, and so personable you might think you're in the dining room of a friend's house. It begins with an amiable greeting at the door and carries through with caring attitudes from the waiters. Sometimes you might have to wait longer than you'd prefer for the next course, but that occurs in the homes of friends too. You let it slide. Because the chef is really good. And the waiter is really good. And therefore dinner at the Dining Room is really good. It is that simple.
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