Chef Pedro Duarte sharpens up his pan-Asian Peruvian cuisine
Jonathan Postal

The Grass Menagerie

I have spoken with residents of the Miami Design District and can report that they are not high on Grass, the new restaurant/lounge on NE 40th Street. "We're just starting to develop a nice, easygoing neighborhood vibe here," said one disgruntled homeowner. "The last thing we need is this pretentious South Beach crap coming in."

What really got his goat was the velvet rope, once used as a crowd-control vehicle in concert halls and movie theaters, nowadays also as an exclusionary device at trendy clubs with inflated self-esteem. Other neighbors objected to the loud menagerie of haves, sorta haves, and wanna haves who, come late evening hours, attempt to negotiate their way past that velvet. But in fact, the rope doesn't tie up those with dinner reservations; it just doubles the entry process -- you have to give your name outside, then repeat it to a hostess indoors. The larger problem, at least from the perspective of a restaurant-goer, is that the clientele and ambiance are far more compelling than the cuisine.

The main section of the 120-seat open-air dining room is covered in thatched tiki-style roof, with black floor and low-lying black tables greened by mohawks of grass sprouting across the center of each. Running alongside the central tiki are a few smaller chickee huts housing one table apiece; still other tables are set up beyond the huts and under the open sky. Altogether a romantic, minimally dressed space of organic earth tones, graceful bamboo trees, and softly glowing candles, lanterns, and torches; eclectic background music floats upon the evening's balmy breezes.

The atmosphere boots up after dinner with local celebrity DJs such as Pierre Zonzon spinning the music between Buddha Bar and dancier, but not deafening decibels. I'd like to tell you more about this aspect of Grass, but I don't stay up that late. Plus I was afraid they'd reject me at the velvet rope. I did, however, take a glance at the liquor menu that comes with dinner -- bottles of Absolut vodka and Jack Daniel's at $200 and $190 apiece, and lots of other liquors for parties of partiers. The smart selection of wines is pricey too, and martinis come in the obligatory rainbow of flavors.

The cuisine of chef Pedro Duarte boasts quite a few flavors as well, most deriving from the Pacific Rim and Peru. The latter influence is recognizable in an array of ceviches. The "Merida" version, named for the Yucatecan city, was more composed than usual, the components cleanly set apart from one another. The three anemic mussels; two medium-sized shrimp; two plump, impeccably cooked scallops; and numerous nibblets of corvina, along with bits of red onion and red pepper, were marinated in a pleasingly punchy, cumin-spiked mix of coconut milk, lime juice, and cilantro. Tortilla chips, rising from the bowl like full-blown sails, are for scooping up the seafood -- which is indeed how they serve it in Merida.

Those tempted by fried items should lean toward the starter of popcorn shrimp, and away from Vietnamese pork "nems." The former featured crisply fried crustaceans, considerably larger than popcorn kernels, and a sweet, piquant, altogether seductive kim chee rémoulade. As for them nems, neither the menu nor our waiter correctly described the dish, which to our surprise turned out to be a trio of slightly greasy egg rolls filled with highly seasoned ground pork of the sort usually found in potstickers. A thankfully thin, vinegary version of Day-Glo orange sweet and sour sauce accompanied the one-note rolls.

Better off sticking with potstickers themselves, like gyoza filled with duck confit, or fiery lamb dumplings with a coriander, mint, and peanut pesto. Best off starting with a bowl of lemon grass coconut pumpkin soup, the three ingredients, with whispers of cinnamon and star anise, so perfectly balanced as to create a savory flavor deliciously oblivious to the individual elements.

An entrée of Thai seafood fricassee brought the ceviche cast back for an uncalled-for encore, this time in a medium-hot red curry and coconut sauce spiced according to prestated preference. A scoop of jasmine rice centered the pleasant dish, but one would have hoped for a more scintillating selection of fish, as well as more appealing vegetables than carrots and zucchini.

A medley of Oriental-style ratatouille with pineapple and chewy sweet potato gnocchi aroused more interest as the accompaniment to a hefty rectangular wedge of corvina, but the mix was too mushy, a honey citrus sauce too sweet. The white flesh of the lean, pristine corvina, also known as "weakfish" (because the weak tissue around the mouth tears easily when hooked), is imbued with mild, meaty qualities similar to Chilean sea bass. Dusted with Japanese togarashi pepper and pan-roasted golden brown, the fish was tasty enough to shine without sugar.

Chimichurri sauce is as omnipresent atop steaks in Miami as cows are atop the pampas of Argentina, but all too often it devolves into an oil-and-garlic-drenched slurry of whatever herbs are lying around the kitchen. The chimichurri at Grass doesn't stray far from the basics (just booted up a bit with basil), and offers such a fresh, pungent punch that when you taste it you wonder why anyone would ever consider using anything else on their meat. The meat in this case was a plump, juicy skirt steak that was flavorful on its own from a marination in tamari, ginger, and the spicy Peruvian ají panca pepper. A side of braised bok choy was buttery and bright, a pile of fried root chips, in my mind, merely potato chips with a pedigree.

Ginger chocolate truffle on a "cloud" of lemon grass sticky rice is a creative departure from the pitter-patter of this town's repetitious desserts. The truffle, which resembled a small triangle of brownie, and the aptly named sticky rice each provided a sweet shout of flavor, but in tandem they made more noise than sense. The rice contained shards of either hardened lemon grass or cinnamon, which led me to bemoan my never inviting a dentist or lawyer to these affairs.

Other desserts featured more fetching tropicalizations of standards, like creamy-smooth coconut crème brûlée paired with Grand Marnier-soaked lychees, and caramelized banana fostered with a crispy tuile and scoop of chocolate hazelnut gelato. Gelati and sorbets include flavors like dark chocolate, ginger, and "forest berries."

Well, it's said that sometimes you can't see the forest berries for the trees. As a restaurant Grass is patchy in spots, but it does sort of grow on you.


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