Venezuelan restaurateur Symcha Zylberman's first name means "happiness" in Hebrew. But on a Tuesday night at 7 o'clock, his charmingly landscaped, oversize courtyard across the street from Joe's Stone Crab in South Beach is empty. He's at the host stand looking surprised to see us. Though the place opens at 6, the votive candles on each table remain unlit and the bar is still dark.
We are alone until around 7:45, when a few other diners stroll in. Then, 15 to 30 minutes later, a party of regulars appears. But for the most part, things are exceedingly quiet. A few days later, on a Friday, we return at 9 p.m. to a notably livelier scene. Zylberman sits at patrons' tables while kibitzing, cheek-kissing, and shooting smiles even to newcomers. Now he seems happy.
The sectioned, 40-seat dining area exudes warmth and rustic elegance, with wooden planked floors and thickly beamed ceilings. Chandeliers create a cozy glow. The walls are made of inlaid stone, reminiscent of a fancy European ski lodge. Taupe-linen-backed chairs and rich brocade banquettes packed with pillows are both attractive and comfortable. It's a room that makes you want to return often.
If only the food did the same.
Executive chef Joshua Wahler, a Miami native who was "fired" by Gordon Ramsay on the third season of Hell's Kitchen, spent time at 5300 Chop House and Kung Fu Kitchen & Sushi at the Catalina Hotel. He plates the food carefully, taking appropriate measures to ensure that pricey dishes exit the kitchen dressed to kill.
To start, a tasty house-made garlic and shallot butter accompanied crusty white bread and a multigrain minibaguette studded with whole cranberries. Appetizers included a seafood ceviche served atop a smooth slab of pink Himalayan salt ($16), veal sweetbreads with minted guacamole ($22), and cream of tomato soup ($12). A pan-seared crab cake ($23) proved terribly disappointing. Beautiful jumbo lump blue crab meat was concentrated in the center, enclosed in what tasted like wet Wonderbread. The spongy coating lacked any trace of a proper sear. A side of tarragon aioli and a smoky bacon sauce fragrant with lemongrass weren't sufficient to overcome the core deficiencies.
An order of Niman Ranch pork belly ($14) was dry and improperly rendered with a stringy texture. Alas, the "braising demi" beneath was more tomato-gravy than reduced jus. Both the crab cake and pork belly were garnished with minced red and yellow pepper, leading us to wonder if those items were added to the plate for nothing more than color. Creekstone Farms beef tenderloin carpaccio ($14) was a favorite at the table, although pickled mushrooms were so finely diced they got lost. Thinly sliced meat melted with every bite, and crowning rings of crisp shallots provided the right textural balance.
A full bar offers signature cocktails such as a pear version of the classic Bellini ($14) and "Forever Young" ($16), made with an açaí spirit and blueberries. Wine by the glass is decently priced; whites hail from California, and reds offer a more global perspective. A $10 rosé from the Rhone Valley had a pleasantly dry finish and enough heft; a Simi Sonoma Cabernet for $11 paired well with heavier menu selections.
Entrées didn't quite live up to their price point. Though a garlic-and-herb-braised Kurobuta pork shank (listed at $34, though we were charged only $29, a fortunate error that stumped our server) easily fell from the bone, the tender flesh lacked depth of flavor. The "crispy pork crackle" turned out to be a disturbing cut of thick, greasy pork skin. One bite delivered an unpleasant gelatinous oozing of fat that was difficult to swallow. Diver sea scallops capped by a nest of micro-chives ($29) were cooked perfectly. However, a garnish of tomato and onion chutney eliminated the critical sear and left the mollusks a bit soggy. Our "potato hash" was, in fact, triangular potato pancakes. During cooking, the center of the triangles must have mysteriously vaporized, leaving a crisp yet empty shell. Both entrées suffered from a single note of seasoning. The scallops were overwhelmed by the particular taste of saffron in their leek cream sauce, while the shank was mostly a canvas for the red-wine reduction.
Other options include half-rack of lamb ($45), cachaça-marinated Chilean sea bass ($39), and veal osso buco braised in Chardonnay ($39). All of the produce and proteins are flawlessly sourced from places such as Tanglewood Farms and Sterling Silver Premium Beef, but they somehow underwhelm on the plate.
Sides are a standout here. The praiseworthy truffled polenta ($9) is creamy and salty, with just a touch of Parmesan. It's a bit slick with oil but feels wicked, like indulging in something not necessarily good for you. Brussels sprouts were smoky and crisply blackened, with chunks of Nueske's bacon and whole cipollini onions.
Service was generally attentive. Our water glasses were always full and the table was repeatedly swept clean. On our first visit, the server was polite, but when queried about specifics such as seasonings and components, he floundered and delivered responses right off the menu descriptions. When it came time for dessert, he forgot to return to the table for our order. Luckily, one of his colleagues eventually stepped in. Another dining experience began with high hopes. After our waiter explained the day's specials in loving detail, we anticipated more dedicated service but were sadly mistaken. He soon vanished after promising he would take care of us that evening. Another waiter eventually appeared. It was like getting dumped on a blind date.
The spectacular desserts have cheeky names such as "A Tart Named Desire" ($12): a dense peanut-butter shortbread cylinder that's about a half-inch thick and packed tall with an unbelievable amount of rich chocolate ganache and caramel. We loved the bread pudding, called "Challah If You Can Hear Me" ($10). Swirls of sweet white chocolate melted into the soft chunks of cinnamon-scented, doughy challah, which is served with a dipping sauce of dark-rum-infused "anglese." The pastry chef is taking that job very seriously at Symcha's. Dessert was clearly the highlight here, so save room.
This place would be a fabulous spot for a casual dinner with friends if the prices were more within reach. The food is certainly satisfying enough, and the décor is welcoming — it could be a favorite restaurant in the South of Fifth's residential area. The bottom line is that dinner for two, including two apps, two entrées, two sides, and dessert, will set you back about $150, plus drinks, tax, and tip. In its current form, Symcha's is simply not worth the wallet shock.