Coral Way's Neme Gastro Bar seems to be having an identity crisis. It's trying to be a live music space, a neighborhood bar, and an ambitious restaurant all at once.
Enter the venue that opened in the waning days of 2015, and the first thing you notice is an impressive collection of whiskey. Above it are dueling flat-screen televisions and rows of neon-lit shelves that look like they were torn from the bar of an aging business hotel. Two guys noodling on a keyboard and bongos sit across the room on a low-slung stage. They sound as if they were introducing a poetry slam.
Then your server appears, bearing a garlicky parsnip purée ringing a fat fillet of beautifully crisped red snapper. An elegant salad of shaved vegetables ruffled with celery leaves adds a tannic counterweight to the plate. Next comes a churrasco in the form of an ultra-tender and flavorful Wagyu flap steak. The kimchee has been spiked with chimichurri. A black bean miso sauce adds more umami with the right amount of salt. Tender pickled shiitake mushrooms are tart enough to power up each bite.
And though it doesn't look like it, the bar is more than a just a place for a quick one on the way home. Here, sprigs of rosemary combine with vodka, guava, and lime juice to create a biting, savory reanimation of the mojito. Jammy tamarind pulp, Angostura bitters, and more lime mix with egg whites and gin to concoct a kind of tropical-hued gin fizz that isn't overly sweet.
There's no good reason for such diverging elements to come together under the same wooden rafters. Yet somehow at Neme, pronounced neh-may and named for owner Nemesio Gonzalez, the combination of dim lights, good drinks, and Coral Way's natural charm have created just the spot the banyan-lined thoroughfare needed. Throw in the cooking of 28-year-old chef Aleric Constantin, and it gets even better.
The sometimes-bespectacled, increasingly tattooed cook seems to be a barrel of ambition that can't sit still. In a few short years, he's worked briefly at Michael's Genuine, Eating House, and the Vagabond. He pushed the pedal-powered ice-cream cart Sear'n Gears, hawking gourmet treats during Critical Mass bike rides. He was even arrested before a ride in the summer of 2013 for "selling basil ice cream" without a city or county vending permit. Two misdemeanor charges were eventually dropped. He's hosted a small slate of pop-ups proffering everything from tacos to razor clams with chorizo oil and coconut espuma.
But plans for his own place, to be called Decorated Slang, never panned out. Most recently, he ran the kitchen at Brickell's La Divina Gastro Club before departing around the time of its opening.
Neme could be the place where this young cook will straighten out all of those loose ends and begin braiding them together. Constantin's constantly changing, 15-item menu is full of fun takes on cult favorites such as chicken 'n' waffles and nods to Miami's culinary diversity. The former is founded on a sweet plantain waffle with a starchy nuttiness nearly replicating malt. Pickles and grape jelly give each bite an eye-popping sour-sweet contrast, but the chicken's breading could use a heftier infusion peanut to fill out the peanut butter and jelly promise of this dish.
Vegan chicharrones aren't quite as good as the real thing. But the curly puffed rice ruffles dusted with a spicy coffee rub and cilantro have all the makings of a fine drinking companion. Nicaraguan fritangas finally get some love between the layers of Constantin's towering hamburguesa. It's the kind of thing you unhinge your jaw for and still end up getting food on your face. A juicy patty, made with chuck, brisket, and oxtail trimmings, is topped with a salty slab of queso frito and a gooey, melted slice of American cheese. Dabs of lemony gremolata and mustard help pare back the richness. Then it comes roaring back in the oxtail-fat-infused ketchup that comes alongside a pile of house-cut fries. It's the best condiment Miami has seen since La Sandwicherie began whipping up its creamy, tangy vinaigrette.
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At the same time, tostones con avocado — crisped plantain cups filled with lime-dashed avocado mash — don't seem to get the special touch that most dishes enjoy. Instead, opt for Constantin's take on deviled eggs. Six beautifully jiggly whites come filled with a velvety, yolky mousse with chicken liver pâté and caramelized onion. It's like some genius spiked it with a dollop of that onion dip you spent the last four Super Bowl parties circling. The accompanying shot of hot broth dashed with soy and fish sauces and a gently poached egg white could stand as its own dish. It's also a smart element that blocks diners from wondering whether they needed to try another deviled egg iteration. Instead, it showcases the egg's infinite possibilities.
Small touches like that one are hints that Neme is more than just a neighborhood bar. It's also evident in the pricing, which for some dishes hovers around $30. But that's just what makes it all work. If you want to drop some coin, Constantin has the tweezers and the inspiration. If you want to simply sidle up to the bar for a quiet beer, that's just fine too.
Neme Gastro Bar 1252 Coral Way, Miami; 305-345-9868; nemegastrobar.com. Bar daily 4 p.m. until late; dinner daily 7 p.m. until late.
Vegan chicharrones $3
Evil eggs $10
Tostones con avocado $10
Tataki havanero $18
PB&J fried chicken $18
Zachary Fagenson became the New Times Broward-Palm Beach restaurant critic in 2012 before taking up the post for Miami in 2014. He also works as a correspondent for Reuters.
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