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Cleo Offers Classy, Affordable Mediterranean Fare in SoBe

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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.

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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.