Clarke's in SoFi is so deceptively simple looking from the outside, if you don't give it a good long look, you might glance over it as just another Irish pub. That's not to say Irish pubs aren't great. I've spent many evenings downing pints and chowing down on grub -- it's just that I don't think of them when I think of a carefully made sazerac. I now stand corrected.
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It started when I saw a recent Facebook posting by one of Miami's mixologists. Robert Montero sent out an invite for his new "classic Saturdays". Each week, two "classic" cocktails are presented -- and by "classic" Montero really means "rarely served in Miami". When I stopped by, the cocktails presented were the Vieux Carre and the filthy Bombay monkey gland. Though I've had more than a few Vieux Carres in my day, I have never tried a monkey gland. As always, when a good cocktail calls, I'm compelled to answer.
The monkey gland is a gin-based blush-colored drink, made with orange juice and an Pernod rinse, topped with a Filthy cherry. It's the kind of cocktail that you can picture Zelda Fitzgerald getting snockered on. According to legend, Harry McElhone of Harry's New York Bar in Paris invented the drink, naming it after some rather shocking experiments that involved grafting monkey testicles onto human ones as a way to cure impotency (long before Viagra, obviously).
The Vieux Carre, named after New Orleans' French Quarter, is a potent cocktail made of rye, cognac, sweet vermouth, Benedictine, Peychaud's bitters and Angostura bitters. Created in the 1930s at the Monteleone Hotel, one of the few hotels in the world designated as a literary hotel because of the number of famous authors who slept (and drank) there.
After our self-imposed cocktail hour (cocktails are around $10), I decided to order some bar snacks and immediately noticed that these were not the usual pre-made wings and rings. Peppers stuffed with goat cheese ($11.95) were accompanied by field greens and slivered almonds.
House made hummus ($9.95) was thick and flavorful, with a good pita-to-hummus ratio (there's nothing worse than being left with too much dip and not enough bread).
Clarke's owner, Laura Cullen, has restaurants in her blood. "My father owned a restaurant for over 40 years," she tells me. Cullen, a New Yorker, came to Miami to study restaurant hospitality at FIU and stayed. She opened Clarke's seven years ago, wanting to bring the feel of a local New York pub to Miami Beach. "In New York, there are hundreds of places where you can get just a good meal and a great drink. It sounds simple, but that's really difficult to find in Miami Beach, where restaurants are either very expensive or serve very casual food."
"Everything is made from scratch. Take our chicken wings. They're made when you order them -- they're not frozen. So, sometimes people bitch because their food's not out from the kitchen in five minutes. Then they eat them and it's like, Shit. These are the best wings I've had in my life."
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Cullen, a bartender and certified sommelier herself, attracts the best bartenders in Miami. Her secret? "Give them room to be creative. I've got fantastic people here. They win awards. I encourage them to promote themselves and Clarke's through social media and to create theme nights, like Rob's classic Saturdays."
To celebrate Clarke's seventh anniversary, Cullen worked with chef Robert Mignola to create new menu items like cider glazed pork belly sliders and hot and sour short ribs. But, at the end of the day, Cullen achieved what she set out to do -- create a neighborhood spot where you can just get a good meal and a great drink.