Being an artist generally implies the pursuit of personal vision over commercial viability; if the latter comes at all, it does so serendipitously. Yet chefs who see themselves as artists rarely take this tack: An empty restaurant costs a whole lot more than an unsold canvas.
So when a chef/owner describes his or her modest establishment as an expression of personality, the unspoken presumption is that this individual ideal is naturally compromised by and calibrated to the tastes of potential customers.
Micah Edelstein makes no such concessions. Nemesis Urban Bistro is what she wants her restaurant to be — take it or leave it. She lets guests know this sentiment via stenciled lettering on the front door: "Those lacking imagination and a sense of humor are not welcome at Nemesis. Please return from whence you came, and do not darken our door again!"
View a photo slide show of Nemesis.
It's a twist on the traditional "We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone" signage. But don't let the warning put you off. I didn't, and Edelstein had made it clear that the disclaimer was aimed at people like me. The fiery former Top Chef contestant had taken issue with a blog post I'd written in which Nemesis topped my list of Miami's six worst restaurant names. Her response: "It is evident from your words that you would have to stop at the threshold. Please don't bother to come here, as you are not welcome at my table with an attitude such as this."
A restaurateur telling a reviewer to stay away is quirky, all right. Doing so is indicative of a confident, independent person — even if it might also suggest thin skin and a lack of regard for commercial viability. More pertinent, because this was a first for me, I wasn't sure how to handle the review etiquette. So I waited until the restaurant had been open a year before paying a visit.
I'm glad I ignored the warning, because Nemesis dizzies with its spins on convention. If you choose to accept Edelstein's challenge and enter her restaurant, you will be greeted by visible confirmation of the creative and eclectic sensibility at work.
The eatery is located in the LegalArt building (a few blocks west of the American Airlines Arena), and indeed it feels like a small art gallery exhibiting an installation of secondhand tables, mismatched chairs, and an open kitchen. The walls are filled with large portraits of famous people, and other artwork is scattered about — including a montage of neckties above the front window.
Nemesis is a hip, relaxed space, and the block it sits on has been cleaned up to the extent of seeming more barren than bad. Parking is a cinch (which is not a first, but close to it), and a number of luxury cars can often be seen parked outside. A surprisingly well-heeled crowd slips into this sandals-and-sneakers-style room.
The cuisine is as idiosyncratic as everything else — actually more so, for chef Edelstein fuses the dishes with influences from her native South Africa. This melding of distinctive spices and ingredients creates flavors not available on any other plates in town.
Don't believe me? Where else can you find kangaroo carpaccio with rooibos-tea-smoked tomato oil?
A brief, one-page menu leads off with small plates of "Sexy Nibbles." (Too cutesy a soubriquet? I'm not saying.) Five are offered, as well as a quintet each of appetizers and main plates — four if you don't include bread, which is caramelized shallot foccacia with hibiscus-rosemary mascarpone.
Four pot stickers come plumped with pulled duck meat efficaciously braised with figs and leeks; a swipe through piquant guava cardamom sauce makes them taste even better. The bottoms of our dumplings, however, were too darkly seared — to the cusp of being burned.
There's a sweet/spicy equilibrium to many of Edelstein's creations. The traditional South African sosatie, the local take on shish kebab, brings mildly pungent, tamarind-enhanced cubes of lamb skewered with dried, sherry-soaked apricots. Pomegranate syrup and minted yogurt dotted with poppy seeds conjure a cool companion to the juicy, well-seasoned meat. The two sosatie skewers are small, but the serving is just $6. Excepting a $13 "Tuscan sushi"(prosciutto, mascarpone, Gorgonzola cheese, and figs three ways), prices in this category run $6 to $8. That's more than fair.
Diners can watch Edelstein working hard as she prepares the meals in full view. The flow of fare to the tables can be slow at times (only one other worker, sous-chef Izzy Almonte, assists), but any lapses are forgiven and forgotten once the first forkfuls of food flood the palate. This is especially true of smoked veal bobotie, a scrumptious round of moist meat loaf crested with diced apricots and embellished with frisée greens, spiced pecans, and a citrusy vinaigrette.
The bobotie is one of a "Cool Couples" grouping of plates that also encompasses guava-chili pork with rosemary-cheddar spätzle and apple-fennel compote; the aforementioned kangaroo; and "boerewors & eggs." "Couples" refers to the suggested wine or beer pairing listed for each. Bottles of white wine are $38 to $78; reds range from $45 to $90. Just two wines are available by the glass ($12 and $14). If Estiatorio Milos can offer a $30 bottle to match its extravagantly priced seafood dinners, surely there are similar labels to square with the fare here.
The eclectic selection of craft beers is more affordable: Eight of ten brews are $6 to $8 (including Well's Banana Bread Beer from England and Shiner Ruby Redbird, with red grapefruit and ginger notes, from Texas).
The house-made boerewors is a South African farmers' sausage (in Afrikaans, boer means "farmer"; wors is "sausage"). Here the beef-and-pork sausage arrives slathered with sweet tomato chutney that seems too cloying and clumpy a foil; it cloaks the allspice-coriander seasonings (the chutney is a spin on tomato-onion relish served atop the traditional hot-dog-like "boerewors roll"). Fried eggs are laced over the top of the sausage as well; the menu reads "local chicken or duck eggs," which I took to mean whatever the kitchen had at the time. In fact, it's the diner's choice, which should be mentioned by the only waiter, Jeremiah Sutherland, who fills out the Nemesis team trio. He did a solid job otherwise, but when the room fills, the one-man system can lead to service stalls.
Main courses are less playful than the precursors. A gigantic 16-ounce bone-in rib eye was served to a patron nearby, and it looked like what you'd get at a standard steak house — in other words, incredibly tempting. It's $38, but all other mains are $12 to $27.
View a photo slide show of Nemesis.
A trio of huge, meaty scallops was grilled perfectly, the interiors resembling translucent pearls. The seafood is stocked with a saffron-steeped tomato sauce studded with currants and ground chorizo. This assemblage might be relatively conservative for Nemesis, but it still features taste notes rarely encountered.
The ratatouille "renovation" is different too. Softly braised rounds of eggplant are piled with thin, crisp, al dente slices of zucchini. A sherry-spiked tomato sauce and teeny fried capers round out the gratifying vegetarian course.
Rooibos (pronounced ROY-boss) is a legume from South Africa, where it's used mostly in the making of herbal tea. The sweet, fruity, herbal taste is not only touted in a tomato oil here, but also flavors the ice cream atop malva pudding — an Afrikaner treat that's more spongy than custardy. Amarula sauce and piri piri caramel caress the cake; the former is made from a sweet caramel-tasting cream liqueur, and piri piri is a chili pepper.
If the dining experience here doesn't rise to the level of great art, it certainly is handcrafted. In fact, I suggest that the lettering on the front door of Nemesis might instead be changed to the kind of disclaimer found on the labels of leather goods and organic items:
"Any imperfections you might encounter are a distinctive byproduct of the natural, handmade process involved in putting together this restaurant. These flaws only ensure that your experience here will be genuine and uniquely one-of-a-kind."