Buns & Buns: Balance Could Lift Heavy, Rich Dishes

Buns & Buns established its affinity for the misogynistic era of the 1950s early last summer when it released a minute-long teaser video that opened with dozens of women's tanned, oiled backsides sunbathing on an unidentified beach.

"Incontestably, we all like our buns hot and steamy," it said before cutting to beach scenes set to modern surf rock.

See also: Buns & Buns: Value-Priced Fresh Bread and Grilled Meats

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The six-month-old South Miami restaurant aims to return bread to the prominence it once enjoyed at the dinner table. In trying to revive the humble dinner roll, this fast-casual restaurant's single-page menu doesn't include Salisbury steak served by a rouge-lipped housewife in a knee-length dress. Instead, every dish comes with a bun or roll inspired by the world's greatest culinary cultures. There are steamed buns in a nod to China, naan in honor of India and the Middle East, and brioche in a salute to the French.

"We want to bring bread back into the picture, because lately it's been an afterthought," explains Buns & Buns chef Reuven Sugarman. "Every culture has its bread. Humanity started with bread."

A pair of fluffy steamed buns, similar to a soft-crusted hamburger roll, accompanies a quinoa salad flecked with roasted corn and cilantro. It's topped with three sweet-sour grapefruit segments and served alongside a helping of bland torn crabmeat. Stuff the clamshell buns with the mixture and make a sandwich if you like. Rip the bun and eat it alongside bites of the salad, or ignore it. The choice is yours.

Owner Alexandre Zibi, along with Sugarman, who was most recently executive chef at Richard Sandoval's Toro Toro at the InterContinental Miami, spent three weeks early last year traveling the world in search of inspiration, recipes, and techniques. Stopping in London, Istanbul, Bangkok, and Hong Kong, they wandered through markets, ate at pita stands in the Grand Bazaar, and visited pad thai stalls in rat-infested back alleys.

When the place opened across the street from the teen-infested mall Shops at Sunset Place in early January, all of that somehow translated into a restaurant that strives to be hip. Exposed gray brick walls flank an open, U-shaped stainless-steel kitchen. The wood-burning oven's orange-red licks of flame are easily visible from the dining room. Gray wood tables surrounded by black Brentwood chairs are painted with large white numbers to help the teenage staff members, enamored of their iPhones, remember who is where.

The cherry on top is the standard-issue hipster logo featuring a bowler hat, handlebar mustache, and monocle.

The decor matches the menu, which spins the gastropub trifecta of bacon, beer, and gourmet-sounding fried things into a more worldly twist. There's Tampa-based Cigar City's iconic Jai-Alai India Pale Ale along with easy-drinking wheat beers from local heroes Funky Buddha and Wynwood Brewing Company.

On the food front, spinach poofs -- five plum-size balls of essentially fried creamed spinach -- are topped with shaved manchego cheese and rest on a smear of rich, nutty tahini. Like most of Buns & Buns' offerings, it's a fat-on-fat dish that's decadent but screams for acid or anything fresh and snappy to cut the heaviness.

That same addictive, over-the-top fattiness appears in a fist-size cube of fork-tender brisket that's roasted and then braised in red wine for at least five hours. It's doused in a syrupy, red-wine demi-glace that's sumptuous but misses the fruity, puckering notes that are the sauce's best features. It's crowned with a poached egg, whose unctuous yolk mingles with the already overly rich sauce. A smattering of fried shallots provides desperately needed crunch. The fluffy brioche stands out among the breads as the only one to offer a nice contrast of nutty, browned crust and delicate interior.

Three meaty lamb ribs are fall-off-the-bone tender, making for a delicious bite thanks to the lamb's gentle gaminess and a sweet tamarind glaze that carries a caramel crunch after spending a few minutes on a robata grill. Roasted golden beets are perfectly cooked, meaty yet still fork-tender, and boast raw earthiness balanced by sweetness. A chewy cheese naan substituted for steam buns had fontina cheese and aged cheddar that gave it a pleasant sour note. But again, there was no opposing texture. A tandoor, the clay vessel in which Indian and Middle Eastern flatbreads are traditionally baked, might be an expensive, outlandish investment, but it would be worthwhile.

Torreja, Cuban-style French toast, continues the textureless theme during dessert. Crustless rectangles of bread are soaked in an egg custard similar to uncooked flan, griddled, and then served with a cloying maple glaze. A few more minutes on the grill to allow the bread to develop a bit more char would have made it the perfect end to a meal.

Buns & Buns' dedication is obvious. Lengthy, costly travels and several significant menu changes in the eatery's first months show the team wants to offer a fair-priced menu with a world of flavors created through bold combinations of homemade ingredients.

However, closer attention must be paid to execution and balance. Without them, all of those good intentions end up in another excessively rich meal that leaves diners unpleasantly stuffed by night's end.

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