Okay, I thought: I'm definitely not a, b, or c. Also it's a restaurant-lounge, which is, in my opinion as a diner who has chipped teeth in the past two years from compulsively chewing in rhythm to deafening club music, an idea whose time had come and should've immediately gone. But if the joint was all that jumping, I figured, I should at least check out a menu. And the one I found online was surprisingly interesting, especially a so-perfectly Miami nouvelle ceviche selection; the lobster, shiso, avocado, and pickled eggplant number sounded reason enough alone for a visit. So after establishing that Barcode opened at 8:00 p.m., I made an 8:30 reservation, realizing that I'd miss the major lines of glamorous patrons but hoping that I could save what little I have left of my eardrums.
Arriving at 8:45, my dining partner and I found the place locked up tight as a safe deposit vault, and no one responded to our pounding on the door. Naturally we went around back, figuring it was one of those cool alley-entrance places. Nope. After ten minutes of kicking back doors, we came back around front and found -- yup, the standard South Beach velvet rope. Though there was a much-nicer-than-normal bouncer in back of the rope, the embarrassing start made me grateful it wasn't a business dinner; clients would not have been impressed.
Inside, the room feels more the upscale lounge it used to be (the space was Liquid in its mid-1990s heyday) than eatery. There are some dark wood dining tables with brown leather banquettes, but Barcode looks like a SoHo loft club with its sky-high ceiling, exposed brick walls, huge polished onyx bar -- and mirrors everywhere to reflect all those famous and notorious diners. Who maybe were hiding. From our arrival to when we left at about 11:30, exactly two other couples dined. On a return visit, I was the only diner.
Possible explanations: The music was quite loud even at early hours (though the staff did turn it down just a hair upon request, and the R&B/disco style was easier to chew to than electronica), and the lighting was largely too mood to see the food -- not good signs when looking to actually eat. The kicker came when we asked for the wine list. To explain what happened, here is my e-mail the following day to the guy who's possibly South Florida's most nationally recognized chef, Norman Van Aken.
"Hi, Norman. Just a reality check: You go to an upscale restaurant. You order dinner. You order wine. There is no wine. None! Not by the glass, not by the bottle -- nada, zilch, zero, save a few bottles of champagne, the most inexpensive of which is $195. The server suggests that instead, since the bartender is swell at mixed drinks, you should order a chocolate martini with your din. Wine, the server says, will probably be available by the weekend -- this being a Tuesday. Is this a serious restaurant?"
I needn't share Van Aken's colorful response; serious diners know the gist. I will mention as a hint that there's a supermarket with a decent wine selection right next door. Several weeks later a request for the wine list brought the same list of appallingly overpriced hard liquor ($220 for a bottled $12 Bacardi light rum, really and truly), though it was possible, that time, to score a glass of so-so pinot grigio for little more than what the whole bottle would cost retail. However, the mojitos we tried in lieu of the choco martinis were absolutely the best I've had anywhere in South Florida, though hardly ideal with food.
Which is too bad, because Barcode's food, by John Villy, deserves a more serious showcase -- though it also deserves a more disciplined approach. That the menu I originally saw online had been roughly cut in half, with all the fabulous ceviches as casualties, probably was not the chef's fault. That one of the remaining six of thirteen appetizers, intriguing-sounding lobster dumpling tempura, was "not available because they're still being made" over an hour after opening, definitely was his fault. Still seared shrimp steak was good enough to make me almost glad that the tempura wasn't ready. Not any sort of steaklike thing at all (menu descriptions are weak here), the dish was just two shell-on shrimp -- but monsters, those currently fashionable items the size of baby lobsters, slightly overcooked but nevertheless tender and very sweet. Citrus butter added tang and richness, and an accompanying salsa of diced mango and tomatillo was a refreshing balance of sweet and tart, soft and crisp. At $26 -- you read that right -- the dish was expensive, but ended up enough for two to split.
Also entrée-sized was a six-layer stacked starter of quality buffalo mozzarella, portabello mushrooms, and tomatoes, accompanied by a veritable mountain of good green salad. The stack is admittedly a common combination, but except for the not-very-ripe tomatoes was much better than usual thanks to deftly made dressing; the scrumptious, aged balsamic vinegar tasted authentic, naturally sweet rather than sugared for a change, and accents of lemon oil and purple basil were precision.
Two other appetizers were less substantial, and therefore far too expensive. Sesame seaweed sprout salad was tastier than that found in Japanese eateries, but its accompanying apricot sauce was so spicy that any fruit taste was obliterated. At $13 for a medium-sized heap of wakame, alfalfa sprouts, cucumber, daikon radish, and sunflower seeds, not cheap. The filling of a Cantonese shrimp spring roll was more interesting than in an average Chinese restaurant -- shiitakes plus ample garlic and ginger along with Chinese cabbage -- but $15 was excessive for a roll containing just two normal-sized shrimp.
An entrée of red snapper piccata was a sizable fish, topped with caper berries (the olivelike fruit, rather than the bud, of the caper bush) and sauced with a bold blend of white wine, garlic, lemon, reduced essence of scallion, and basil. Accompanying were fragrant though not terribly sticky sticky rice and Chinese cabbage.
Of six entrées, two are steaks, so I tried the cheaper New York strip au poivre. The boneless beef cut was cooked perfectly bleu as ordered, the pommes frites were fresh and terrific, and the peppered brandy cream sauce couldn't have been more scrumptious. But $42 for a strip steak?
For dessert, a Tiramisu Napoleon was more of a chocolate-dipped frozen gelato mousse than tiramisu. Its $12 tab was fine, though, since a table of six could've shared the dish; its extreme sweetness made more than a bite or two impossible.
Oh, and a bottle of sparkling water -- not designer stuff, just San Pellegrino -- was $20.