I bemoaned the loss of Pacific Time when its Lincoln Road doors closed in June '07. Yet the truth is, I hadn't dined at the restaurant for at least a couple of years — and on those last visits, it was clearly on cruise control; there was no emotion, edge, or urgency. This didn't matter much, because both Lincoln Road and Pacific Time swarmed with tourists, and it is a tragic truth that when a neighborhood loses its soul, its restaurants go to hell.
Lincoln Road is too far gone to be saved, but Pacific Time's relocation to the Design District has been downright redemptive for Jonathan Eismann and his Pan-Asian/Pacific Rim/Throw in Some Mediterranean Too cuisine.
The new PT 2.0 is cleaner, leaner, and more streamlined than before. Visual focuses bookend the 100-seat space: To the left is a roomy and heavily manned open kitchen, and to the right is bright amber backlighting behind a busy, busy bar. The place is, in fact, bustling with local customers, both inside and outdoors on the cozy patio — just like the old days when this site housed Piccadilly Garden, a popular neighborhood hangout.
A genial hostess warmly greets diners, who soon after being seating are served warm, soft slices of sourdough bread, crusts crackling to the bite, and a ramekin of smooth butter. Frosty liters of bottled tap water, filtered and chilled in-house, are available flat or carbonated for $1.50. Homemade nonalcoholic drinks such as ginger-flecked root beer and a virgin mojito prove zestily refreshing too, and so are Florida microbrews like Monk in the Trunk Organic Amber Ale. The wine list is diverse and marked up less than the norm; many bottles go for $30 or under.
At first glance, the menu appears quite different from that of the Lincoln venue, partly because of the new "small plates" concept, partly because of the addition of more Med ingredients — from "Tuscan"-style grilled sardines on panzanella salad, to gnudi made with sheep's milk ricotta, to a side of farro with caramelized cipollini onions and soft, creamy stracchino cheese. But closer inspection shows that most of the food remains in the Pan-Asian zone, and that "small plates" is just another way of saying "appetizers" (portion size is the same, as is price; most range from $12 to $17).
Many of the offerings at the new Pacific Time are repackaged variations on old PT standards. Take, for example, a small plate of local grouper: tender snippets of the fish in a bowl of robust red curry sauce lightened with coconut water and bobbing with soft nubs of green bananas. This is delicious stuff, as was the old Time entrée of grouper with green curry sauce, bananas, and coconut. A small plate of littleneck clams gets steamed with sake, spring onions, tomato, and tarragon ($14); the former rendition featured mussels with the same ingredients ($14.50). Ginger-scallion pancakes used to be filled with Chinese-style duck, vegetables, and shiitake mushrooms ($10.50); now these pancakes are fluffed with Key West shrimp instead ($15). And yet with Eismann bolstered by new chef de cuisine Robert Pagan (who has been working with different titles since the beginning), these reconfigured plates seem fresher than before, as though buoyed by a new zeal.
Another advantage of the current kitchen is a wood-burning oven, out of which comes a mini, meaty quail pooled in sweet orange/soy pan glaze and paired with succulently roasted peach halves. There was nothing like this on Eismann's former menu, but the dish is not that different from what you might encounter down the block from another relocated and revitalized chef; in fact there are moments when you may find yourself thinking of Pacific Time as Michael's Genuine in a kimono.
Sweetbreads "buffalo style" is a winner as well. One might think blue cheese dressing and spicy sriracha chili aioli would overpower the delicately flavored glands — both are certainly capable of doing so — but dips come on the side, and when applied sensibly complement the crisply fried fingers of meat. We also liked the broiled cuttlefish, snippets of the squidlike mollusk enlivened in a salad of mango, roasted peppers, and mint dressed with nuoc cham and yuzu.
The cuttlefish salad is emblematic of Eismann's style of cooking, in that his flavors are often forged by contrasts between sweetness and acidity. Another example of this balance is the tart/sweet roasted tomato vinaigrette that cut the grease of two grilled American lamb chops. Spears of tempura asparagus looked attractive emanating tipward from the chops, but would have retained their crunch longer had they been served in a side dish — or if placed away from the sauce, as flat disks of sweet potato tempura were when plated with "Szechuan grilled" mahi-mahi. The fish was tasty in a sweet, shallot-laden mirin sauce, even if we couldn't detect any Szechuan kick.
Half an organic chicken was juicy within and boasted beautifully brittle skin, but thin slices of garlic that were slipped between the skin and meat never cooked, giving the bird too much of that bulb's raw flavor. My favorite among the entrées was "salt and pepper" skate, a wing of stringy white flesh dredged in seasoned flour and lightly pan-sautéed. The sweet fish came spread upon a dollop of parsnip purée and crisp haricot verts, all in a butter sauce with a citrusy infusion of lemongrass (and parsimoniously spotted with salted capers). Skate, a smaller sister of the stingray, is becoming a fashionable fish in the States; look for more local restaurants to be including it on their menus this year.
À la carte side dishes include a chiffonade of napa cabbage braised with cubes of smoky pork belly, eggplant and haricot verts in sweet kecap manis sauce given heat via a dash of curry spices, and fantastic French fries that are thin, homemade — unlike some other highly touted taters around town — and lightly drizzled with truffle oil (a luxe add-on not mentioned on the menu).
The waiters here know the menu and seem to have been well trained; their service is solid. Bussers, on the other hand, need more polish. I am alluding not only to clumsiness in picking up and setting down plates, but also to one busperson who, while clearing the vacated table next to ours, brushed all the crumbs onto the chairs — and left them there.
Concerning dessert, it is best to choose Pacific Time's duo of longtime signatures: key lime baked Alaska, with a marshmallow-mimicked meringue swirled over frozen key lime pie, and a densely delectable bittersweet chocolate bomb, which is better than any other in town. Amazingly, this was the first of Miami's now-ubiquitous molten chocolate cakes. Eismann had worked with the original Pacific Time pastry chef in re-creating Jean-Georges Vongerichten's popular pastry (the recipe wasn't yet in cookbooks), and after much trial and error placed it on PT's menu in 1993.
This new Pacific Time isn't likely to contribute anything as radically influential as the molten cake, but Eismann returning with renewed focus is more than reason enough for a visit.