Restaurant Reviews

Native Sons

"Miami is a big city but a small town," observes Jake Klein, the 26-year-old chef-proprietor of the new South Miami restaurant JADA. He is referring to the six-degrees-of-separation phenomenon that seems to dog him. Only in Klein's case (he's the "JA" of JADA) it's more like two degrees of separation: The personnel involved with this South Miami native's eatery are so interconnected you need a family tree to keep them all straight.

For starters, Klein met his partner in the venture -- 30-year-old manager David Gordon ("DA"), another native -- through mutual friend Skip Perna, who used to work as a cook for Klein back when the latter was executive chef at Lure (a now-defunct pan-Asian restaurant that thrived briefly on Lincoln Road). Back then Perna was just starting a composting business, using scraps from the restaurant as fertilizer to grow vegetables. Now Perna works for Klein and Gordon at JADA, supplying them with homegrown vegetables from his business Skip's Garden.

Then there's the matter of mothers. Gordon's mom Susan Gordon helped design JADA's modern, utilitarian space, which features metallic gray walls and lots of bright steel and glass surfaces. (The only splashes of color here are provided by paintings of bromeliads done by Klein's friend Jackie Roach.) And Klein's mom Barbara Raichlen, former publicist for Mark Militello of Mark's Place, is now hyping for her son. She's married to James Beard Award-winning cookbook author Steven Raichlen. When I ask Klein if he's had any formal training, he quips, "Yeah, I went to the Steven Raichlen school of cooking." As a kid, he explains, his chores included breaking down leftover roast chicken to make stock. When he was naughty, he was given prep work for tedious recipe testing: "I never let on how much I liked their punishments."

Those familiar with Klein's work at Lure won't be surprised by the chopsticks on the table and the fried wonton noodles in the breadbasket at JADA. Nor will they be startled by an appetizer of Vietnamese-style beef and noodle soup, another Lure-influenced holdover. With its hints of brown sugar, the golden-brown broth was insistently delicious; red pepper flakes and lime, brought on the side, perked up the tender, medium-rare tongues of beef that lay in the stock amid slippery glass noodles.

From the menu's "noodles and soups" list we chose fresh wonton noodles, cut into fettuccine-width strips and intertwined with foresty wild mushrooms; the al dente noodles were drenched with a rosemary-thyme syrup at once brothy and sweet. Shreds of bok choy added welcome crunch to this herb-infused appetizer.

Apparently Klein likes thyme: It was sprinkled over a diced salmon tartare starter and its wasabi-Scotch bonnet vinaigrette. The delicate salmon cubes were also bathed in cumin and fragrant bay leaf oil; a rice cracker big as a palm frond proved useful in scooping up the fish chunks. We thought the wasabi concoction was a bit too understated, however, with the Scotch bonnet chili peppers hardly registering.

That same subtlety worked much better when it came to a crisp mixed green salad. Cloaked in a light vinaigrette, the greens were accented by hearts of palm, thin-sliced figs, and rounds of smoky cured lamb. Those mini-medallions of lamb whetted our appetites for a main course of pungent, "red-cooked" lamb shanks. Red-cooking is a Chinese method of braising. Klein mixes up the braising liquid: a combination of red wine, juniper berries, cinnamon, ginger, and orange zest. After preparing an order of lamb, he reuses the liquid. The concept recalls a sourdough starter, whereby you save a bit of the dough in order to make the next batch. To kill any bacteria, he always brings the liquid to a boil, and he whips up a new batch each month. I was lucky enough to order the shanks at the end of the sauce's life span; by that time it was so rich it virtually candied the lamb, which fell off the bone almost without prodding. Garlic mashed potatoes helped to sop up the remaining sauce.

Thai chicken, on the other hand, suffered from a lack of delectable accompaniments. The lemon grass-infused chicken itself was excellent, the breast sliced into moist, juicy rounds. But an eggplant puree that came with it was acrid -- as if someone had blown cigarette smoke on the stuff -- and a pile of bok choy was bitter. Jackfruit barbecued duck also arrived with two weak partners. As was the case with the Thai chicken, the bird was done perfectly: medium-rare breast, crisp skin, meaty leg and thigh. And jackfruit, a mild but tangy Indian and Malaysian fruit used to flavor curries, was an intriguing, apropos choice for the bird. But beer-battered onion rings seemed a poor choice as an accompaniment -- too steakhouse-y -- and plain white rice garnished with chopped snow peas tasted bland.

Fish entrees included peppercorn-seared tuna over truffled sweet potato salad, black grouper with Israeli couscous and tomato-cardamom sauce, and citrus-glazed salmon over Napa cabbage slaw. We chose a simple-sounding preparation of pan-roasted sea bass with sweet soy and lime flavors; the fish melted in the mouth like spun sugar. Crisp bits of fried ginger topped the preparation, and under the fish lay a cabbage leaf wrapped around some refreshing minced jicama.

In contrast to the restraint of the previous courses, desserts were amusingly over-the-top. Pastry chef Alison Neustein's chocolate-banana spring rolls -- two long, fried rice paper packages -- barely contained the oozing chocolate and banana. We got a bigger charge out of the luscious white chocolate cheesecake, which was placed in a fried noodle shell that resembled a bird's nest. As part of this elaborate dessert, the waiter brought to the table a white chocolate egg with a passionfruit syrup yolk. He was supposed to tap open the egg and drizzle the syrup over the cheesecake. Unfortunately, when the egg, as tough as a dinosaur's, finally cracked, the yolk squirted not over the cheesecake but over the guest who was about to eat it.

That one faux pas aside, service was terrific, good-humored, and enthusiastic. Klein and Gordon tour the floor, with Gordon going so far as to make a customer's drink. Their partnership -- the restaurant's very existence, for that matter -- is the result of ties of friendship and family, and its success, they both seem to realize, depends on a similarly clear connection with their patrons.

5837 Sunset Dr, South Miami, 665-4190. Open nightly from 5:30 until 10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday until 11:00 p.m.

Salmon tartare

Wonton noodles with wild mushrooms

Red-cooked lamb shanks

Pan-roasted sea bass

White chocolate cheesecake

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Jen Karetnick is an award-winning dining critic, food-travel writer, and author of the books Ice Cube Tray Recipes, Mango, and The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami.
Contact: Jen Karetnick

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