Restaurant Reviews

190: Hot and Rising

There are many local restaurants that are enjoyable because they are so typical of what Miami now is and does best: perfectly put-together upscale glamour.

And then there are restaurants that are enjoyable because they are atypical of what Miami now is, but shining examples of what we could be, given our population-from-everywhere (including, I suspect, outer space), kick-off-yer-shoes climate and other natural resources. In other words eating and entertainment spots that are truly international and interracial in both clientele and cuisine, fun-in-the-sun funky, and high in risk-taking, casually kamikaze culinary (and musical) creativity, low in velvet-rope attitude.

Due to, among other factors, real estate prices that do not encourage risk-taking, the latter category of restaurant is virtually an endangered species. But One Ninety is one that's alive and thriving.

Actually One Ninety is so thriving that locals are already worrying about the barely six-month-old joint, located on the bottom floor of a two-family apartment building in Buena Vista East -- a cute and increasingly hip but definitely nonglam, rough-edged residential area just north of the Design District -- becoming overtaken by the Terminally Trendy. On several recent weekend nights, out-of-towners from New York and L.A. have been spotted, and, talk about ruining the neighborhood, even some South Beach scenesters have ventured across the causeway to scope out what all the word-of-mouth buzz is about.

What One Ninety feels like is a counterculture hangout more than a formal restaurant, sort of a new-millennium update of the 1960s legendary Alice's Restaurant, in which Alice has evolved beyond the culinary concept that sour cream improves everything. At One Ninety the chef seems to feel that fresh rosemary improves almost everything, and many dishes I tried also demonstrated overenthusiasm for salt, but the food in general was impressive -- always unusually creative in concept, just not always perfectly executed. Rough edges extended beyond the food. Service on one visit, for instance, was ideal for the place, casual but completely competent, while on another occasion every dish that everyone at my table ordered -- all starters, all entrées, even dessert -- arrived at once. This was certainly a creative interpretation of my request that our server space items as she thought best.

Entertainment's also a mixed bag; the talented son/balsero singer Roberto Povedo plays One Ninety on Saturdays, but so does the ensemble I encountered on one visit, whose ear-wrenching sound would have greatly benefited from even a very inexpensive electronic tuner. Still it seemed charming that a venue would take a chance on such an iffy band; it sure would never happen in the home of perfect plastic electronica across the bay. And some of One Ninety's artistic risk-taking pays off terrifically, like the festive décor in the ladies loo, where the imagination extends even to tiny details like the nails driven through decorative beer caps holding up the mirror over the sink.

Getting down to dinner dishes (in no particular order, since they came in none): Seared foie gras for a mere nine bucks? Impossible but true, and tasty, too. The small bits of buttery rare sautéed duck liver came on slices of brioche, flanked by sweet and tart lady apples and drizzled with port wine concentrate.

Diced salmon tartare was more pedestrian, pretty much the standard preparation found in a zillion Miami restaurants except for two notable factors: less sesame oil overload than usual, and at $6, considerably less cost.

My dining companions all found cod cakes too salty, but they clearly had expected the cakes to be made from fresh fish rather than reconstituted salt cod; if one was expecting brandade, the patties were tasty, and the lemony (though not at all garlicky) aioli was an effective counterpoint. Fresh tuna slices on sunflower sprouts were fresh and properly bleu, but the chili-lime dressing was disappointing, much blander than its name would suggest.

Delicate, almost translucently thin, pasta layers and a simple but effective butter/sage sauce would have made homemade ricotta and walnut agnolotti a winner had the pasta not been overdone to mushiness. Also on the pasta list, risotto with pancetta, shrimp, shallots, and fresh oregano was tasty though somewhat overwhelmed by salt and oregano overdosing; the dish was more like a Spanish rice than a risotto, since the soft-cooked grains were individual, with none of risotto's characteristic creamy texture.

A rather spartan steak frites would have benefited from even a drizzle of classic peppercorn sauce, but came perfectly bleu as ordered, with enough crisp shoestring fries to feed the whole table.

Eccentricity truly pays off in the dessert list. Those who want to play it safe (except with their cholesterol count) can opt for a flourless chocolate cake as heavy as always, but it's worth taking a chance on aged goat cheesecake with pears and red wine, a brilliantly humorous take on the ages-old wine/cheese/fruit pairing. And the chef's version of white chocolate mousse transforms a generally cloying dessert into a dish with character, with the contrasting elements of black pepper and an industrial-strength sweet-tart orange sauce.

Although One Ninety isn't open for lunch, it does do an extended all-afternoon Sunday brunch -- which is unimpeachable. In fact given the tiny tab ($15), the spread is downright unbelievable. Seat yourself at a table (the outdoor ones particularly conducive to conversation, but muted DJ'd jazz and gospel music make indoors easy on the ears during brunchtime, too), and servers will bring you a choice of fresh-squeezed orange or grapefruit juice plus any or all of half-a-dozen menu items: steak and eggs; fluffy pancakes or French toast with strawberries, blueberries, or bananas; eggs Benedict with either traditional ham or perfect barely steamed fresh spinach; huevos rancheros -- sunnyside-up eggs on crisp custom-fried tortillas, with an only slightly spicy but garden-fresh tomato salsa; and a variety of omelets. You can also order a number of sides, the usuals like bacon and home fries as well as welcome oddities like fried green tomatoes and cheese grits.

But you're far from finished. Inside is a help-yourself coffee bar (good full-bodied brew, too), and a groaning buffet table packed with dozens of delectable dishes; nothing I tried was less than wonderful, and some items were even better. Among the many items I couldn't resist sampling were a fabulously smooth, light carrot mousse; a buttery-crusted herbed artichoke/crème fraîche tart; more classic broccoli quiche; two fresh pasta salads; platters of various grilled or sautéed fresh vegetables; a refreshing tomato, onion, and grain salad; a dill-sprinkled fresh beet salad with Roquefort; savory chicken salad; even tastier Southern-fried chicken; ribs that quite understandably disappeared seconds after the platter was put down; and some pastries and desserts that'll make you wish that humans, like cows, had two stomachs: notably a rich crumb cake with fresh berries, a nut tart similar to pecan pie but with a much less sweet filler and many more nuts, and a flan so deliciously creamy that I cannot imagine why I am helping to ruin the establishment that produced it.

Therefore, in conclusion: There are many personally friendly, and purse-friendly, fun little neighborhood restaurant finds in N.Y.C. and L.A. Please patronize them, and leave One Ninety to us locals who've been starved for such sustenance.

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Pamela Robin Brandt