On the bum-ridden downtown Miami street corner where Micah Edelstein's Nemesis Urban Bistro once stood, French-Persian owner David Foulquier strives to deliver some continental European and Middle Eastern comfort.
Hand-cut, thrice-fried French fries are the skinny, crisp variety that Shake Shack wanted to sell but couldn't figure out.
The 25-year-old is a first-time restaurateur who grew up on Manhattan's Upper East Side. His family often hosted large dinner parties and mingled with French culinary icon Daniel Boulud. He attended the prestigious Dalton School and DJed parties in the über-trendy Meatpacking District.
After graduating, he enrolled at the University of Miami before transferring to Florida International University to pursue hospitality at Boulud's urging. Summer internships in kitchens belonging to Boulud and the legendary Jean-Georges Vongerichten were followed by whirlwind travels through Spain and Japan. It all helped develop a palate and kitchen techniques sophisticated beyond his age, he says.
He has given his nickname and inspiration to Fooq's, his month-old restaurant, but Nicole Votano oversees the kitchen detail. The 33-year-old grew up in London and San Francisco. She trained at New York City's French Culinary Institute before toiling at Bradley Ogden's One Market Restaurant in San Francisco. Prior to Fooq's, she worked for Michelle Bernstein's catering outfit and Crumb on Parchment after stints at the Four Seasons and the Biltmore. Most of her career has been spent in French kitchens. Here, she adds the homestyle Italian classics learned under her father's watchful, unforgiving eye.
Fooq's is a cozy place. The pair works together near a homey entryway that includes a wooden bench stacked with throw pillows and a cookbook-covered coffee table. They often emerge from the kitchen to bus and serve tables. Foulquier sports a canvas apron and darts around the compact 36-seater, nervously inquiring about guests' meals. Charcoal-painted air-conditioning ducts snake alongside Edison light bulbs suspended from long chains.
Foulquier has warmed up a dining room once covered by distorted red lettering on whitewashed walls. It's now filled with walnut tables and white bucket chairs held up by wooden dowels. A blue-Cuban-tile bar provides seats for a view of the kitchen that's partially obscured by a copper awning.
The place evokes a strong feeling of home even though its hearth is borne of disjointed experiences and backgrounds. Somehow, thoughtfully sourced provisions are wrapped into comforting but also refined dishes.
The Persian pomegranate chicken might not be something you've eaten before, but somehow you know it well. Braised Murray's chicken thighs are part of a rich, fragrant fesenjan. The Persian winter stew is flavored by sweet pomegranate, near-cloying molasses, and walnuts tempered by a hefty infusion of cardamom, turmeric, marjoram, and cinnamon. An accompanying puck of crisped basmati rice, which Foulquier says is called tadig, gives some crunch to the velvety ribbons of thigh meat.
Three meatballs made with brisket and Berkshire pork evoke familiar emotions. The ping-pong-size spheres give way to a knife like a slice of buttery pound cake ("People use too much meat," Votano says). A tangy tomato sauce, the quick kind with fat handfuls of onion and garlic, floods in to sweeten and spice each bite.
The same combination is twisted up in a cone of bucatini all'amatriciana. The pasta takes on a good dose of seasoning thanks to salty water. The chewy, narrow tubes split into pieces with each bite. The sauce is made with a heavy helping of red chili flakes that sets a hot tingling in your throat creeping toward your lips. Votano uses smoked bacon, whose woody aroma permeates much of the dish. Bacon enthusiasts will adore it; those who've had versions built on the cured pork cheek guanciale or a more gently smoked pancetta will find it overpowering.
There's also a strong focus on local produce, which bumps the price of each plate up a dollar or two. Thankfully, a complimentary starter of Zak the Baker's toasted whole-wheat sourdough is dressed with a dollop of smoked ricotta that is closer in texture and salt to farmer's cheese. It's bolstered by some lemony olive oil and a smattering of ever-changing vegetables that on one evening included watermelon radishes and wispy pea tendrils.
The burger here is advertised for $16, but when the bill comes, it's $18. Were the patty not made of short rib, brisket, and skirt steak so juicy its savory drippings soak the toasty brioche, the price would be a problem. The meat is topped with a stretchy, nutty layer of melted Jarlsberg cheese and a tangy "special sauce" made with sriracha, onion, and pickles. Accompanying hand-cut, thrice-fried French fries are the skinny, crisp variety that Shake Shack wanted to sell but couldn't figure out.
A hefty cauliflower steak from Swank Farms doesn't pack the punch that most other dishes here land with ease. The menu lists it as caramelized, and the off-white florets are crisped — but some of the stems are tough. The bed of toasted quinoa could use a hint of acidic vinaigrette or fatty sauce to wake up the plate. Again, trendy dishes are trumped by those with personality.
Before opening Fooq's, Votano and Foulquier traveled to Los Angeles and visited a Persian market for floral ice cream. The result is a dainty, flowery teacup filled with whimsical saffron-and-rosewater gelato made by midtown's Latteria Italiana. The rich, nutty sesame paste halvah is shredded on top. Crushed pistachios and pomegranate molasses provide an addictive salty-sweet contrast that's accented by sticky strips of medjool dates.
Sure, there's also a dark-chocolate olive-oil crémeux and a croissant bread pudding, but what's the point? Versions of those two are available throughout the city. As years pass, Miami restaurants continue deploying ever-expanding technical skills on better products. Yet the favorite spots have been those where plates tell a story. Fooq's is one of them.