The Miami Underground
A debuted two months ago on the northern fringe of Miami's Design District. It is named for the train line that traverses three boroughs of New York City. The moniker makes sense in light of the original A being located on Manhattan's Upper West Side, but the spare and funky décor reflects the style known throughout the Big Apple as "East Village dive." I mean this in a good way.
The dining room is rectangular, slightly wider but not as long as a subway car; dim lighting makes it look dingier than your average A train. The poured-concrete floor is painted a dark blood red, and gold-stenciled foliage borders the blue walls. On our first visit, garish Pop Art pieces by Evo were on display, but when we returned, they were gone replaced by a few NYC subway maps that looked as if they were hastily taped up (no doubt until the next exhibit pulls into the station). Excepting a few plants, there is nothing in the way of appointments. An alcohol-free bar occupies the left rear of the space; the rest of the room holds ten tables with black Formica tops. I suggest you bring your own seat cushion: Chairs are constructed of thin bamboo slats that produce the sort of torturous discomfort one would think had long ago been banned by the Geneva Convention.
Bring your own ice too. Although it is thoughtful of A to serve drinking water in bottles, the gesture would be more appreciated if said bottles were stored in the fridge rather than on the bartop. Ice cubes would normally solve the problem, but as our waiter put it, in cheery fashion: "Neither of our restaurants use ice cubes. Most people here drink wine."
This is true. Bring your own bottle of vino, and a waiter will pop it open free of charge no corkage fee. That is one of the more alluring aspects of A. Another is that the fare is extremely affordable (no dish exceeds $12), so dinner with wine comes on the cheap. During our initial visit, we were unaware of the BYOB policy, so our server offered us one of numerous half-full bottles that diners evidently have a habit of leaving behind. We demurred, but the gesture was nonetheless gracious. Since then, A has hooked up with nearby Stop Miami wine bar, which scooters bottles over on request.
A is a convivial little spot with a young, bohemian, neighborhood flavor. Young, bohemian, and convivial people in the neighborhood should, therefore, like it though the convivial but neither bohemian nor young probably would not. And by "it" I mean the scene. I do not think many folks would be thrilled by the slo-mo service or the fare, which is tabbed "organic French-Caribbean" but might more accurately be referred to as "fruity meaty vegetarian organic bistro cuisine."
Only one starter features fruit (d'anjou pear baked with Roquefort and honey), but sweetness is difficult to swerve around when choosing an entrée. A ratatouille-tofu crêpe is paired with papaya Provençal; venison sausage is sauced with black currants; lamb sausage comes coddled in coconut cream; jerked duck "confit" is marinated in mango; and smoked chicken breast is pooled in papaya purée. To be fair, they are not all as sweet as they sound. The two lamb merguez sausages, with full gamy flavor, came submerged in a bowl of potato-based broth only mildly redolent of coconut. And there are a couple of thoroughly savory main courses, the best of which was a robust ragout of forest mushrooms, spongy seitan, and white beans very tasty in a hearty cassoulet way, though not a summer item. For all the fruity accents, food here leans toward the heavy. Salads are not offered.
The menu touts "organic and au naturel ingredients." As one of my dinner guests suggested, those eating ground rabbit meat are unlikely to care that their carrots are grown without pesticides, but A should be credited for providing a varied sampling of vegetarian and vegan fare. In addition to the aforementioned baked pear, tofu crêpe, and mushroom ragout, there is a satisfactory vegetable terrine, layered with spinach and red pepper mousse, spicily sauced, and served with cornichons, niçoise olives, capers, and pearl onions on the side.
Sometimes I read a menu description and by the time the dish I ordered arrives, I have forgotten what the specific accompaniments were supposed to be. This occurred when I was presented with the smoked chicken entrée. Thin slices of breast were extremely tender and moist, but a puzzling and somewhat unpleasant taste pervaded the papaya sauce. My wife suggested it was goat's blood, to which I expressed grave doubt. But as her comment registered in my brain, I realized it was goat cheese. And a potent chevre at that, which, at least to my palate, overpowered the sweet and smoky flavors. A molded mound of fluffy, currant-flecked couscous accompanied this and most other main courses.
A bay scallop starter, touted as being broiled "in a rhum and cayenne curry," arrived as a dozen rubbery nubs in a green sea of parsley oil; at least it contained a cayenne kick. "Grilled Hass avocado with spinach mousse in shiitake-sesame vinaigrette" was worse. The reason you do not see grilled avocado on many menus is twofold: One, it is difficult to grill. Two, it does not taste good when warm. A deft chef would dodge the first problem by searing the skin side of each avocado half on a griddle (I don't think there's a grill on premises here). The hot, unseasoned halves of Hass were then heaped with a pasty red pepper mousse marbled with spinach greens, the shiitake-sesame dressing too meek to be of any harm or help. This is the type of heavy-handed concoction that gives vegetarian cooking a bad name.
Other appetizers include a Scottish pheasant pâté baked in a casserole with black truffle oil, brandy, and a Brie cheese crust; and wild boar baked in a casserole with white truffle oil, cognac, and a Camembert cheese crust. Again, not especially appropriate fare for Miami in June.
"Our dessert this evening," the waiter proudly proclaimed, "is French apple tart." (They were out of the usual second choice, mango mousse.) I couldn't bring myself to say, "Gee, nice selection," so I simply ordered the tart. It was a little heavy on the almond paste, but not bad.
The wife-and-husband team of Blue and Marc Solomon owns and runs A, and does so in an egalitarian manner; the place is a co-op of sorts, with workers sharing the profits. Then again, with seating for only twenty, a clientele that leisurely occupies the tables, low prices, and no beer or wine income, there probably won't be huge windfalls arriving anytime soon. But the countercultural couple seems to be sincerely nice and with no higher aim than to provide a joyful environment in which folks can eat, drink, and be merry. Once upon a time, that was what all restaurants were about, but nowadays, especially in Miami, it is an incredibly rare and praiseworthy find. The Solomons work awfully hard too Marc cooking in the kitchen and Blue waiting tables. (On a Saturday evening, the room was packed and she was the only waiter, which sort of explains the slow service.)
Yet good intentions can carry a restaurant only so far: The menu, cuisine, and service need improvement. After all, even artists, poets, musicians, vegetarians, Rastafarians, and disaffected young folks deserve to eat delicious food. And not to sound radical or overly idealistic, but everybody who lives in the subtropics, regardless of race, creed, or income level, should be entitled to ice.
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