If restaurants had IQs, Gigi would be a genius. Everything about the place is smart, starting with the décor and ambiance: lofty, industrial, urban chic; a contemporary crunch of glass, stainless steel, and concrete; loud acoustics; a boisterous buzz. It bespeaks big city... late night... youth... energy... fun.
Those entering the 75-seater across the street from the Shops at Midtown Miami may note, to their left, flower boxes overflowing with fresh herbs used for cooking (very sage, and I don't mean the plant); to the right is a lengthy counter lined with stools that look into a long, exposed kitchen. The chef chosen to star on this open stage is former Ritz-Carlton toque and Top Chef heartthrob Jeff McInnis, who also happens to be one of Miami's most talented young turks. That was a very wise pick.
The enlightened menu: A five-by-eight-inch card with 20 food items on the front and 29 beverages on the back. Comestibles are categorized into noodle bowls and rice bowls (three of each); "raw" and "grill" items (five of each); and a quartet of "basics." It's always a good idea to start with the basics. Especially the Gigi buns — two fluffy, white, taco-shaped steamed bao breads padded with moistly roasted pork and a light spread of chopped peanuts. The fully flavored pulled chicken rocks too, as does one stuffed with shiitake mushrooms.
We skipped the basic "pound of Southern boy BBQ ribs" for a petite square of braised short rib. Shreds of the meat were compacted into a "meat loaf" that was delicious with scallions and hot chilies on top — and deliriously so when swiped through smoky plantain sauce on the plate. More good eats come by way of a BLT with meaty, brown sugar-cured pork belly on bao buns that get griddled with olive oil (shouldn't it be a PBLT?). A small jar of ginger-pickled cucumbers and cauliflower alongside the sandwich is a delectable touch.
Two of the raw items are salads: local greens with miso honey, and a bright, ripe blend of Homestead avocado and excellent-tasting tomatoes garnished with palm hearts, orange segments, and wispy wafers of crunchy rice — pretty and perky as Audrey Hepburn (in her stage role as Gigi).
A ceviche that was advertised as Florida snapper with celery, sweet potato, and "big corn" passed muster even though it substituted white tuna (escolar) and lacked celery and sweet potato. Our waiter warned us about the fish substitution but not about the missing ingredients. Generally, though, the friendly, fast-moving workers here are well-versed; service is solid, especially considering how new and crowded the place is.
From the grill, a duet of meaty chicken drumsticks came bathed in a blend of potent fried mustard seeds tempered by honey — a dee-lish $5 snack. Don't know how long local "summer corn" will be around, but grab a cob while you can — chopped in three and topped with a smear of spicy, softened tofu (at $3, it's cheaper than a bag of movie theater popcorn).
One of our favorite dishes was a duck leg slowly braised in red wine and piquant, exotically spiced curry — the meat resting upon a perfectly executed, dairy-free risotto lightly infused with coconut. Another standout was tempura tiger shrimp, one of three nightly blackboard specials. The five succulent crustaceans came cleanly crisped with a puffed rice coating; a honey-sweetened kim chee spread alongside was so addictive I found myself dipping other food items into it.
We didn't noodle around with the Caribbean-influenced pad thai, instead indulging in a bowl of ramen with shredded barbecue pork, thin noodles, scallions, and an organic poached egg; and a sizzling steak chow fun filled with wide, plush noodles seared with shiitake mushrooms and Japanese eggplant with a juicy, bright-red, grass-fed Florida skirt steak draped atop. At $15 and $16, respectively, these two dishes are the Maseratis of this menu.
Pricing is all about offering value to the customer. How else can one describe the proffering of fresh, quality, chef-driven food that starts at $3 a plate and tops out at $16? While the laws of mathematics dictate that it all adds up, a couple could ostensibly order every single one of Gigi's 20 menu items for less than $100 per person. Desserts start at $1. Add $2 for a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon or $3 for a cold draft of Sapporo or Stella Artois.
There are four red wines and four whites proffered, each available by glass or bottle (the former $5 to $7, the latter $18 to $24). Sakes are $5 to $7 per glass, with three bottles offered — including a Bunraku special reserve junmai. Teetotalers are taken into account here too via spritzers, iced tea, and other homemade, nonalcoholic drinks; carafes of house-filtered water are available for a dollar per person.
Split enough plates and you might find little appetite for a big dessert. That's why it's so astute to offer bitty bites such as nondairy vanilla/chocolate soft ice-cream cones for just a buck and a homemade chocolate chip cookie for $2. For a larger lick, try a luscious, full-size wedge of carrot cake layered and crowned with cream cheese frosting — perfectly fresh and not too sweet ($5, or half what most restaurants charge). Peach crumble delighted too; a medium dice of the fresh, uncooked fruit arrived atop buttery shortbread with soft vanilla ice cream melting in ($4).
More Gigi ingenuity: a large, free parking lot. Plus it's open late every night — until 3 a.m. weekdays, 5 a.m. weekends. We should probably admit that owner Amir Ben-Zion, not Gigi, is the one with the brains. He's well known for other partnered ventures such as Sra. Martinez, Bond Street, and Buck15. Just up the block from Gigi is club Bardot, also owned by Amir (thus patrons can shuffle from Gigi to Bardot, from Bardot to Gigi). The restaurant will soon be open for lunch, at which point its location on North Miami Avenue just to the west of the Shops at Midtown should make Ben-Zion look pretty shrewd as well.
What does it mean for a dining establishment to be conceptualized and operated so brilliantly? On a recent Monday at 10 p.m., a flock of patrons was huddled around Gigi's counter. They were waiting for some seats to open up.
View our Gigi slide show.