Cleo Offers Classy, Affordable Mediterranean Fare in SoBe

At Cleo, the Redbury Hotel's new eatery, Danny Elmaleh proffers a dip called lebaneh. To make it, the soft-spoken chef-partner lets kefir cheese drain for 48 hours and then adds olive oil, lemon juice, and za'atar (his version is a blend of thyme, sesame seeds, and sumac). Finally, he tosses morsels of creamy feta into the mixture.

Then he hands over a paper bag filled with warm laffa, a type of Middle Eastern flatbread.

Combine the two and you get something tangy, intense, and, frankly, exquisite.

The versatile dip sneaks its way into several dishes at Cleo. Take, for example, the spicy cigars, a traditional Moroccan appetizer featuring ground beef rolled in feuilles de brick, a pastry of Tunisian origin. These piquant, delicately fried sticks would get gobbled up even if they weren't resting atop a bowl of lebaneh, but they're even better with it.

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Arriving at Cleo, you might be deterred by the hotel's $25 valet parking fee. Pay it. Or park nearby. You will quickly cozy up to Cleo. Stellar cocktails and mezzes certainly help, while the affordable menu (nothing exceeds $16) and reasonably priced wine list are impressive for South Beach.

Then there's the enticing room replete with photos of starlets portraying Cleopatra. Offsetting the glitz are Middle Eastern elements such as Moroccan rugs, ceramic tagines, and ornate lanterns. Cleo's spacious interior is a study in contrasts. It's one part glamour, one part rustic -- charming yet commanding. There's a lot going on here, and it works.

Tables, meanwhile, are set with butcher-block paper, a colored pencil for doodling, and mismatched antique plates. It's designed to encourage guests to get messy and relax, explains Chef Elmaleh. Indeed, unlike many of its upscale SoBe neighbors, including sister restaurants Katsuya and the Bazaar, Cleo is a fun, accessible place diners can frequent weekly.

Such was the goal when the first Cleo opened in Hollywood, California, four years ago amid a smattering of restaurants that valued trendiness over taste. Its critical and commercial success led the owners to take their contemporary Middle Eastern concept to Las Vegas and, shortly thereafter, Miami.

Items unique to the 305 include potato latkes, ceviche, and Wagyu tongue kebabs. The vast menu is arduous to navigate; thankfully, the waiters, some of whom are transplants from the original location, are equipped to handle the task.

And here's another aspect that sets Cleo apart: The pace is fast -- very fast.

"If you've ever been to a meal with this kind of food, the goal is to fill up the table," Elmaleh explains. "Customers don't want to see the tablecloth." So in the name of sharing and experiencing myriad flavors at once, items emerge from the open kitchen at an astounding speed.

If you don't linger, you can complete your meal in an hour. But you might miss the part of the evening when waiters shatter plates and shout "Opa!" It's a Greek thing, and there's no predicting when it will go down.

The resto's signature dish is the Brussels sprouts. The vegetables' leaves are removed one by one, fried, and then bathed in a vinaigrette of capers, anchovies, chili, parsley, almonds, and red-wine vinegar. Like the homemade laffa, the Brussels sprouts are impossible to put down. There's nothing cutting edge about this dish, but when it's so delicious, who cares?

The same can be said about the falafel. Seven lightly fried spheres are paired with tahini and tabbouleh, a classic Middle Eastern bulgur salad. Well-seasoned and crisp even the following day, the falafel seems like a steal at $9.

At Cleo, the cuisine is for the most part rooted in a tradition Elmaleh knows well. Though his mother is Japanese and he lived in Japan for 18 years, he grew up in Israel and his father is a Moroccan cook. Before Cleo, he helped chef Katsuya Uechi grow his eponymous eatery.

Now Cleo is the 39-year-old's priority, and when Elmaleh isn't in Miami, Arturo Paz is the main toque. Paz has worked at hot spots like the now-defunct Baleen in the Grove and the Clevelander in SoBe.

"Whenever we open a different location, we always try to find a local chef talent who really understands the clientele, the vendors, and the workers in the area," Elmaleh says.

For instance, whereas diners in L.A. are reluctant to eat whole fish, in Miami this type of preparation is an easy sell, according to Elmaleh. But if you're looking for a more authentic seafood dish, try the spicy Moroccan fish tagine.

The word "tagine" refers to the ceramic pot and the stew-like dish made in it. On a recent night, the fish was a nice, fresh dorade. Seared only on the skin side, it was left to finish cooking in a tomato-and-saffron sauce and portioned with underwhelming clams. Use the remains of your generous laffa bread, or order extra for $2, to soak up the aromatic liquid. A side of couscous is also a good bet, because the entrée begs for it.

Chicken tagine, on the other hand, comes with saffron rice. Elmaleh doesn't braise his chicken as per tradition, choosing instead to prepare a chicken breast sous vide in a sauce incorporating flavor-enhancing black limes. Once the meat is ready, it's dressed with green olives, almonds, blistered tomatoes, and a mixture of cilantro, chili, and mint. The result is an unfussy yet assertive main with an undeniably tender protein.

Perhaps it's Elmaleh's affection for his heritage and/or Middle Eastern cuisine, but his food tastes like it was rendered with love. Such is uncommon nowadays, especially when a restaurant has more than one location and is trying to win over the cool kids.

Speaking of cool kids: The crowd is decidedly fashion-forward. Women wear the season's "it" heels and bags, while men sport intricate coifs. In the dimly lit space, locals and tourists are difficult to distinguish, though a chap nearby ordered with the prowess of a regular. Maybe he's from L.A.

The pastry program consists of what Elmaleh calls straightforward, chef-made desserts. To get the sticky toffee pudding just right, medjool dates -- a Moroccan favorite -- are soaked and blended to achieve a batter. When the cake is still piping-hot, it's drenched in a butterscotch caramel sauce so it turns into a soft caramel treat. If that's too sweet, try the molten chocolate cake, but it's unsurprising.

Or if desserts aren't your thing, dig back into the menu for another round of tuna tartare laced with oranges and harissa, or the merguez -- spicy lamb and beef sausage.

Style and substance rule harmoniously at Cleo, and the restaurant's energetic atmosphere makes for a lively night. Elmaleh's Middle Eastern fare is also a welcome addition to a city with more tapas then mezzes, and to a SoBe lacking quality affordable eats. Would the almighty Egyptian queen raise her glass in approval? Heck, she'd be the first one shouting, "Opa!"

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1776 Collins Ave., Miami Beach;

305-534-2536; Dinner daily beginning at 6 p.m.

Lebaneh with feta $7

Spicy cigars $7

Brussels sprouts $10

Falafel with tahini and tabbouleh $9

Spicy Moroccan fish tagine $15

Chicken tagine $16

Sticky toffee pudding $7

Tuna tartare $13

Merguez sausage $7

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Valeria Nekhim was born in the Ukraine and raised in Montreal. She has lived in Manhattan and Miami. Her favorite part of food writing is learning the stories of chefs and restaurateurs.