Restaurant Reviews

Opening With A Bang

No local resident needs to be reminded that Manhattan and Miami are now enjoying the lucrative benefits of their seasonal trade agreement -- tourist dollars for sand dollars. We need only to drive past the lines at Wolfie's and Rascal House, or watch white flesh singe into sunsets on the beach, to acknowledge this annual truth.

But this season Manhattanites have a larger stake in Miami than sunburned-earlobes status used to warrant. Not only have they flown south to avoid the north, their favorite restaurants have migrated as well.

In the past, New York restaurants intent on exploiting the Miami market simply packed up and moved, sacrificing their northern clientele (or perhaps their lack of one). In some cases, such as North Miami Beach's Cafe Chauveron, the success was so immediate and the transition so long ago, most of its patrons believe the restaurant to be as indigenous as stone crabs.

The latest expression of business savvy, however, is to mimic snowbird mentality and maintain dual residences. SoHo's clever I Tre Merli cloned itself in SoBe down to the last lobster ravioli. Barocco Manhattan has its local counterpart in Barocco Beach. Maybe it's the comfort factor: If you frequent the place in New York, you may be more inclined to try its subtropical twin.

I prefer a bit of subtlety. You would never know from appellation, for example, that the owners of the Grove's Brasserie Le Coze are also the proprietors of the Big Apple's Le Bernardin. Unless, of course, you read it somewhere.

The same is true for BANG, cousin of SoHo's BOOM, and newest member of Club South Beach. Both title and menu differ enough from restaurant to restaurant to make them identifiable, but not identical.

For instance, due to part-owner/chef Geoffrey Murray's passion for travel as well as cookery, BOOM's menu features "world" cuisine, while BANG spotlights the "islands" (islands pertaining not only to the Caribbean but to every land mass smaller than a continent and surrounded on all sides by water). It's entirely possible that a sojourn in Sardinia prompted the Sardinian ravioli stuffed with potato, ricotta, and mint, with a tomato and mint sauce ($9.00). That appetizer may be drawn from an island, but how to account for the Vietnamese five-spiced grilled quail ($8.50)? Regardless, it is a beautifully charcoaled combination of delicate poultry and hearty piquancy.

Granted, BOOM, BANG, and CRASH (the latest onomatoapoeic eatery in the series, to be opened in a hot market soon) are about as subtle as a Fourth of July celebration, but it could have been worse. It could have been SNAP, CRACKLE, and POP. Or BOOM could have been the Batmanesque BAM, an anagram of the owners' last initials -- Cesare Bruni, Rocco Ancarola, and the aforementioned Murray. Perhaps they should be congratulated on their restraint.

Indeed a classy restraint characterizes much of BANG, from the small brass wall plaque outside (in lieu of a flashy sign) to Murray's deceptively simple dishes (often the descriptions of entrees sound more overwhelming than they actually are). My grilled blue prawns with a Hawaiian lili koi (passion fruit) basil butter and macadamia nut stir-fried rice ($18.50) translated into three tremendous crustaceans, cooked in the shell like langostinos but thankfully served headless. These were a bit more pungent than a smaller shrimp, a flavor complemented, not diminished, by the strength of the grill. A mound of sweet, fruited rice acccompanied this dish that was so quietly rich I finally believed the claim that shrimp have as much cholesterol as egg yolks.

I also admired the poise of the host, who kept cool during BANG's opening explosion, when patrons hadn't yet realized call-ahead confirmations were in order. Confronted with an obviously reservation-less model and an equally obvious "prince" (who laid his calling card on the hands of beautiful women as if placing them on silver salvers), the maitre d' still honored his prior commitment to us (neither models nor princes, except in our own minds). Of course, fair treatment should be a given. But the encoded crowd that frequents perinatal BANG (a restaurant that, suckling on the reputation of big sis BOOM, sees no need to advertise) allows one to form the occasional misconception.

Or preconception. Because excess, ying to restraint's yang, is also in fashion at BANG. Though Manhattan (an island!) clam chowder ($6.00) and Greek salad ($7.00) contribute to the appetizer selection, the norm tends toward more exotic dishes. Japanese-style spinach and seaweed salad ($6.50), a tender twirl of greenery that would empower Popeye, and Tahitian coconut marinated fresh tuna ($8.50), a rare pleasure of cured tuna, reflect Murray's desire to bring the expansive world to the common table. What can we expect if he ever goes on a safari? Blackened zebra on a bed of fresh meadow greens?

The decor adds to the sensation of superfluity. Nothing has been left undesigned, including the wait staff, who wear traditional kung-fu blouses and brass and sea-glass jewelry (Billy Peacock for Dayne Duvall). The interior of BANG, dubbed "ocean and stars," combines the mysticism of abstract artist Gianfranco Langatta and figurative artist Kaye Mahoney with the earthiness of found-art sculptor Gerd Verschoor. The ceramic dinner plates were designed by local artist Roly Chang; metal cocktail tables and chairs were conceived by Dana Hotchkiss, also a Miami-based artisan. From floor to ceiling, including most of the clientele, BANG is either a work of art or a piece of work.

But perhaps the most self-indulgent and ambitious aspect of BANG is its beverage list. Red and white wines are featured from eleven different countries; beer represents twenty. This United Nations of refreshments would be commendable if they were all in stock. However, on a recent visit, three consecutive selections of beer were unavailable. And rather than asking us for another choice, our waiter would simply gift us with a beer he thought we'd appreciate. Most of the time -- a Presidente for an Amstel Light, for instance -- he wasn't even close.

Still, the juxtaposition of excess and restraint is an ideal one for South Beach, and an attitude that is highly reminiscent of the New York social scene. True, some difficulties have arrived along with the migration of the herd: New York prices have been introduced to South Florida budgets, an irreconcilable discrepancy. Another potential problem is a result of BANG's tasteful nuances: The nameplate that adorns the restaurant's entrance is not visible from the street, and may cause consternation in those seeking the eclectic establishment. But an evening with the Hong Kong-style wok stir fried lobster with a black bean chili sauce ($19.50) and the Puerto Rican chicken adobo with roasted mashed tomatoes, black beans, and rice ($15.00), two outstanding preparations, is more than worth the trouble of locating BANG. This is cuisine sure to convince you that a world (or island) view of food isn't restricted to a single city any more than a restaurant belongs to a specialized crowd. In a couple of months, when the novelty has worn away, natural selection will ensure that BANG, and its talented chef who has done our traveling for us, enjoys continuous cosmopolitan success.

BANG 1518 Washington Ave; 531-2361. Open for dinner nightly from 6:00 to midnight. Bar is open to 4:00 a.m.

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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