Juan and Vani Maza are an ambitious and determined couple. They met at Johnson & Wales, worked awhile in Michy's kitchen, and in 2007 decided to open their own restaurant in South Miami — Alta Cocina, a neighborhood joint that dished modern global cuisine. Perhaps the pair jumped from the frying pans of cookery into the fires of ownership too soon, or maybe Cocina folded last year due to other concerns. Point is, the Mazas dusted themselves off and, this past February, tried again in the same area. This time, instead of taking chances, they carefully scrutinized menus of successful nearby competitors — most obviously Town Kitchen & Bar. Ownership of the latter was none too pleased, but the two sides have since made nice.
So while 72nd Bar & Grill doesn't reinvent the idea of a bar and grill — or the notion of a contemporary South Miami bar and grill serving steaks; burgers; brick-oven pizzas; steamed mussels; scallops topped with short ribs; calamari with sweet chili sauce; half roast chicken; à la carte cheeses with olives; cobb, caesar, and iceberg wedge salads; Asian chicken salad with pecans; and fancy cocktails (all from Town's menu) — folks seem to like it and regularly crowd the 70-seater.
Part of the appeal is the warm, stylishly industrial décor, which is definitely not modeled after the traditional "barangrill" Joni Mitchell sings of (where "waitresses all wearing black diamond earrings" talk about "Singapore slings"). A dozen clear plastic seats are arranged along the bar up front, and the rest of the minimally decorated room is awash in earth tones and lighting that ranges, during the same meal, from slightly dim to so dark that diners' faces flash with colors reflected from flat-screen TV sets over the bar. Outdoor tables provide real-life hues in views of bustling Sunset Drive.
As already suggested, this menu trots out more crowd pleasers than the Moulin Rouge. This is a good thing, but would be better still if the kitchen trotted out superior versions. Let's begin with what 72nd does best: fat, beefy burgers piled high with signature accompaniments and plunked onto fresh, shiny brioche buns. We had "the juancho," with long, crisp slices of bacon; melted cheddar; a fried egg; and cilantro mayo. Delicious. Also offered are burgers made from turkey, lamb, or Kobe beef — the last topped with bacon, caramelized onions, and Gorgonzola dolce. Gorgonzola on Kobe makes as much sense as Marshmallow Fluff on truffles.
A thick wedge of grilled yellowfin tuna likewise comes on a brioche bun and tasted fantastic with kim chee coleslaw and sweet Asian glaze. Surprisingly for a bar and grill, this is the only grilled fish on the menu. The other seafood selections are seared versions of tuna, salmon, and sea bass.
Burgers and sandwiches are accompanied by choice of fries, sweet potato fries, or slaw. Go with either spud, each served crisply fried and bundled high upon the plate; our smidgen of slaw was drowned in too much mayonnaise.
From the grill, there's a "cast iron seared" half-chicken that came roasted. Setting aside conflicting terminology, the bird was listless and dry, as if roasted — or whatever — earlier in the day. The remaining quartet of grillables are filet mignon, rack of Australian lamb (half or full), New York strip, and a long, narrow strip of eight-ounce skirt steak that was cooked to proper medium-rare but possessed a taste too heavily saturated in a red wine marinade. Sweet barbecue sauce wasn't bad, but it didn't help.
72nd proffers unique menu categories including pastas, vegetarian entrées, and raw bar items such as tuna crudo, salmon tartare, and a Peruvian ceviche — shrimp, scallops, octopus, sea bass, a thick slice of sweet potato, red onion, and plump white choclo corn kernels in cilantro-heightened orange/citrus juice. Octopus with kalamata sauce, also part of the raw bar list, arrived in the form of small, tender disks under a salty, one-dimensional purple emulsion of puréed olives and olive oil.
Main courses are served sans accompaniments. Side dishes include broccoli rabe with preserved lemon; sautéed spinach; a captivating corn/fregola combo; a far less captivating (bland) mac and cheese; grilled asparagus; and sweet potato purée. That's enough for a noncarnivore, but there are also five separate veggie dishes: tofu salad, portobello burger, tofu cheesesteak, goat cheese quesadilla, and tofu with vegetables simmered in creamy curry-coconut broth.
Cobb salad is tossed rather than cobbled together in the customary fashion of lining garnishes in neat rows atop the greens. It saves diners the work of mixing things up, but parsimonious portions of bacon and avocado were diced into tiny pieces and got lost among the lettuce, cherry tomatoes, egg-white crescents, ranch dressing, and hefty clumps of Gorgonzola. That said, it was still a flavorful salad.
Not so a "NY cheese" pizza, which arrived looking very much like that city's trademark pie — tomato sauce topped by orange-tinted cheese. The crust was soft and handsomely charred, but the sauce or cheese had a metallic aftertaste. We sampled the same pizza on a return visit, when the funny flavor was present in a milder manner.
Pastas here tend to have one too many ingredients per dish. For instance, fettuccine carbonara not only comes adorned with bacon, snow peas (in place of traditional peas), and a creamy egg-and-cheese-based sauce, but also contains sun-dried tomatoes and Brie. Another fettuccine dish was supposed to possess shrimp, "wild mushroom truffle ragout," and "cilantro mayo sauce." Translation: six crustaceans capped with cilantro mayo atop dry pasta barely moistened by white mushrooms marinated in olive oil of perhaps questionable repute.
Bar offerings pour over a wide swath of creative cocktails, import and domestic craft beers, and a moderate assemblage of modestly marked-up wine. What about Junior and Little Missy? There are creative milkshakes such as the "smore," with vanilla ice cream, graham crackers, and toasted marshmallow.
A small white plate containing three thin, pale croutons and a dish of paprika-flecked chickpea spread was brought to each table before dinner (on a different visit, we lucked out with an assortment of warm rolls). The flimsy toast vanished quickly; the plate remained on the petite, crowded table even as we exited the restaurant. This service staff is not big on picking up such details, or just about any details, for that matter. On both visits, our entrées arrived while we were still working on starters. Menu knowledge was lacking too: "Crème anglaise" was described to us as an "ice cream reduction sauce." There were various other missteps by the friendly servers, who are merely victims of poor training.
The crème anglaise served as dip for cleanly fried banana beignets. Another dessert, "chocolate cake," was described without any words such as molten, lava, flourless, or soufflé. Could it really be actual cake? Of course not. It was just that common disk of soft, warm, oozy-centered, eminently microwavable faux soufflé (or any name you want to call it). At least it proved to be a dark, chocolate-dense version, abetted by a side of vanilla ice cream and lacing of chocolate syrup.
Prices are decent enough to diminish some of the disappointments: Salads, ceviches, pizzas, burgers, and hot appetizers $7 to $14; entrées (except the full rack of lamb) $17 to $30; most grill items under $25; desserts $8.
Go to 72nd Bar & Grill with friends; order burgers, sandwiches, salads, and fries; quaff a few beers; and you're likely to have a fine time. I wouldn't suggest paying much attention to the rest of the menu until the chef and kitchen staff do.
View our 72nd Bar & Grill slide show.