As the downsizing of America affects everything from airplane seats to candy bars, companies have been doing their best to shift attention away from the diminished dimensions. The food world, however, has embraced the trend toward less. Indeed, small-plate menus are proudly touted as cred for being in lockstep with the tastes of contemporary diners.
Jose Mendin, Sergio Navarro, and Andreas Schreiner were far from the first to flirt with this food fashion, but their presentation of Asian-inspired snacks at Pubbelly proved immensely popular — so much so that they have since opened Pubbelly Sushi next door on 20th Street in South Beach (with their even newer tapas restaurant, Barceloneta, anchoring the other corner). The young trio haven't modified the formula much for their sushi joint: tasty, creative food at a good value in a welcoming pub setting.
The space is designed in a similar vein as Pubbelly: exposed brick walls, lots of wood, and a cozy industrial ambiance. Yet because the ceiling here is loftier, the room takes on a different feel — less of an intimate tavern than a contemporary urban café (replete with works by graffiti artists). The two venues are equally laid-back, with a thoughtful mix of music weaving through both, so which to choose will depend upon preference or mood and whether you want sushi as part of your meal.
As the restaurant's moniker indicates, this menu is baited with raw fish, no doubt to catch some of the abundance of sushi seekers in the Sunset Harbour neighborhood. Ten of 13 sushi-sashimi selections are priced at $2 to $2.50 per piece, with the sourcing for each listed: mackerel from Norway; madai (red sea bream) from Kumamoto, Japan; fluke from Jeju Island, South Korea; and so forth. Uni, from Santa Barbara, is the pearl of the group at $5.50. Speaking of pearls, Malpeque oysters from Prince Edward Island are available for $2.50 apiece (or $6 if you want one as part of a "bloody ninja" shooter from the bar).
Sassy specialty sushi rolls might not elicit admiration from purists, but most palates will thrill to barbecue pork belly and fried clams rolled with kimchi coleslaw. Sweet, warmed shreds of snow crab crammed into goma (sesame) soy paper was likewise a finger-licker, but a lobster-dinner-mimicking side dip of clarified butter (lightly accented with yuzu) seemed too rich for sushi.
We savored the snow crab in a different guise: rolled in green soy paper, dappled with truffle oil and yuzu, and capped with yellowtail sashimi ($15). It's one of the priciest items but well worth it (other rolls are $9 to $14, except an $18 soft-shell crab BLT).
Rock shrimp tempura also makes multiple appearances — in a sushi roll with avocado, mango, tuna tartare, and tobanjan (hot bean sauce) aioli; Buffalo-style on a snack plate with spicy aioli, blue cheese, and pickled carrots; and as one of four New England-style rolls (small potato rolls, not sushi), whose fried crustaceans are bathed in Tabasco-piquant mayonnaise and plunked into buttered and griddled bread.
Fried clams are available as a minisandwich too, but we tried them as an $8 side plate with a sprightly coleslaw accompaniment. Alas, the mollusks got lost in bulky, gummy coating that stuck together into one unappealing mass.
Other à la carte sides include heirloom tomatoes with burrata cheese, and home fries with shichimi spice blend ($6 to $10).
As at Pubbelly, there are precious few greens here. The only one we came across, besides iceberg lettuce, was a garlicky and greasy mound of broccoli rabe that accompanied a robata-grilled slab of hamachi kama — a collar cut of yellowfin tuna that is adored in Japan. The white flesh was sweet but dry from overgrilling; plus $18 is a lot to charge considering there's not that much meat on the bone.
Of the eight or so robata items, only the hamachi and a seven-ounce skirt steak ($19) approach entrée size (subject to change; the paper menu is printed daily). Pork belly, short ribs, pinchos de pollo, and shishito peppers are likewise cooked in the coal-fired robata ($7 to $9), as is a skewer of Amazon paiche brightened by lemon-miso glaze. It's Miami's fish-of-the-moment, described by our enthusiastic and efficient waiter as "meaty, like the texture of chicken." Right she was, and the paiche proved delectable too.
Nonsushi, nonrobata "snacks" comprise edamame, shishito peppers, wedge salad, French onion-miso soup, salmon rillettes, and tostones with hamachi ceviche.
A creamy raspberry and mascarpone parfait, with buttery green-tea crumbles, was far better than we imagined it would be — creamy, crunchy, sweet, tangy, and eccentrically tea-centric.
Pubbelly helps your beer belly with 14 brews, a half-dozen of which are Asian imports; others come largely from Spain and the States. The quirky wine list is a quick read of boutique vintners, with a little more than a dozen choices $40 or less. Twelve select sakes are sold by the bottle, 300-milliliter carafe, or glass.
So as America diminishes before our very eyes, the Pubbelly empire continues to expand. If politicians could run Washington the way Mendin, Navarro, and Schreiner operate their restaurants, our nation might be able to dig itself out of this mess.