The Sarsaparilla Club Presents American Dim Sum

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There are many places in Miami that serve Chinese dim sum, but only one restaurant offers an American version. The Sarsaparilla Club at the Shelborne Wyndham Grand South Beach is named for a root that happens to be the main ingredient in root beer.

During the appetizer portion of the meal, apron-clad waiters approach each table with pushcarts containing an assortment of American-inspired bites and small plates. Some are assembled tableside, such as the vegetarian-friendly tartare. Rainbow beets and carrots, black garlic aioli, chives, capers, olive oil, salt, and pepper are mixed together and topped with rainbow root chips and baby carrot tops. The result is a flavorful starter that bears a shocking resemblance to beef tartare, minus the meat.

A more decadent dim sum item is corn four ways. Sweet corn is simmered in a corn stock and drizzled with a cornbread butter. Each order features half an ear of corn topped with lemon popcorn and cornbread crumbles. The citrus notes of the popcorn — though slightly odd at first — balance out the sweetness of this rich and thoroughly original dish.

Corn isn't the only Southern-influenced menu item at Sarsaparilla Club, which is hardly a surprise when you consider the backgrounds of its toques. Top Chef contestants and power couple Janine Booth and Jeff McInnis met on the line at Gigi's in midtown Miami and were reunited at Yardbird Southern Table & Bar in 2011.

During McInnis' tenure as executive chef/partner at Yardbird, he and the restaurant received three James Beard nominations in two years. Although he was born in Niceville, Florida, McInnis spent his summers with both sets of grandparents on their farms in Alabama, where he cultivated a fondness for Southern cooking. Booth, meanwhile, is a native of Australia and traveled throughout Europe and Asia prior to enrolling at Le Cordon Bleu in Miami.

Despite their success in Miami, in 2013 McInnis and Booth shocked the culinary community with the announcement they were leaving Yardbird and Khong River House, respectively, and relocating to Manhattan. Their next venture turned out to be an intimate eatery in Alphabet City called Root & Bone. They serve elevated Southern fare and, before long, won over New York's finicky crowds and critics. The couple built a test kitchen above the Manhattan restaurant in order to perfect future projects. 

So with Root & Bone running smoothly, the couple decided there was no better time to return to the city where they met. Booth says the Shelborne presented them with the perfect indoor/outdoor space for their pushcart dreams. The two are now based in Miami, renting an apartment at the Shelborne in Miami Beach, where they will soon launch a second concept — a seafood spot in Sunset Harbour.

The Sarsaparilla Club's dim sum selection contains eight or so items that change frequently and range from $3 to $9. Part of the chefs' goal is to foster creativity in the kitchen and to consistently introduce customers to new flavors and ingredients without requiring commitment to an entire dish. It's a smart concept, and one that Booth and McInnis say they fell in love with during their frequent visits to New York's Chinatown.

There is one dumpling on the menu here. The dough is made with a bright-purple beet purée — an ingredient uncommon in Chinese cuisine. It's then stuffed with braised short rib, scallions, and sweet soy and placed on a layer of ultra-rich and creamy plantain barbecue sauce. The shell is a little dry, but the combination of beet and short rib is a winner.

Once the novelty of the carts wears off — and it will — it's time to move on to the medium-plates section. Similar to the beet tartare, the heirloom graffiti eggplant is another meaty vegetarian dish. It's grilled and then spiked with a velvety black garlic aioli, as well as Marcona almonds, pickled Fresno chili peppers, and fresh local herbs. The eggplant is cooked to perfection, while the assertive garlic aioli helps draw out the vegetable's undeniable umami quality. It's easily one of the city's best meat-free dishes.

Presentation is a major component at Sarsaparilla Club, where everything is meticulously plated, often on the prettiest mismatched vintage china. Verdant plants and light bulbs dangle from thick ropes of varying lengths throughout the restaurant, while guests sit on reclaimed antique chairs that also don't match. There's a distinct rustic feel going on, but one that's not overly contrived.

The interior is rather dark, so grab a seat outside overlooking the Shelborne's swimming pool and order the couple's famous fried chicken from the large-plates section of the menu. Their bird at Root & Bone was lauded by Eater New York, but whereas the chefs prepare it in a traditional Southern way up North, the chicken at Sarsaparilla Club has Thai influences. First, they brine a free-range chicken from Florida for 24 hours in a green curry paste. Afterward, the protein is coated in seasoned flour and fried until golden. It's then tossed in a homemade kaffir lime powder and accented with toasted coconut, fresh lime, and cilantro.

The chicken is crisp on the outside, moist on the inside, and not the least bit greasy. Subtle hints of lime and spice permeate each bite and help make this comforting yet chef-driven dish a bona fide hit. Credit must also be given to Sarsaparilla Club's chef de cuisine, Marco Ferraro. The Italian-born toque trained under Jean-Georges Vongerichten and was the executive chef at Wynwood Kitchen & Bar before joining the likes of McInnis and Booth.

Another large plate is a steamed snapper crowned with garlic-and-herb chimichurri and presented with a side of spicy miso beans. It's a nice, clean seafood entrée with ample heat; however, skip it if you prefer your fish's skin crisp.

Desserts can be ordered à la carte or from the cart, which holds the day's specials. Pastry chef Gail Goetsch was part of the Yardbird opening team with McInnis and Booth. Her delectable candied kumquat fritters are stuffed with a caramel and vanilla pastry cream, while chocolate lovers will get weak at the knees over her sweet and salty chocolate peanut caramel tart. And because 'tis the season, a must is the peach pie made using local peaches. Goetsch makes a flaky, buttery crust and adds ginger and a drizzle of sweet cream for some oomph.

On a recent Friday night, the beautiful 3-month-old restaurant was only half-full, and tourists flanked our table on both sides. When our courteous waiter asked where we were from, his response was that of genuine amazement when we replied Miami. Perhaps locals haven't yet heard about the Sarsaparilla Club, or maybe no one informed McInnis and Booth that Miami's hottest dining neighborhood is no longer this part of South Beach.

It's not to say eateries can't thrive in this part of town — just look at 27 Restaurant & Bar — but Miamians these days simply don't get excited about dining at a hotel on Collins Avenue. And why should they when options in Wynwood, the MiMo District, and Sunset Harbour abound? Bottom line: Sarsaparilla Club has the looks and the goods; all it's missing is the energy that only a bustling crowd can provide.

The Sarsaparilla Club
1 18th St., Miami Beach; 305-341-1400; sarsaparillaclub.com. Breakfast daily 7 a.m. to 11 a.m.; brunch Sundays 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.; dinner Monday through Thursday 6 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturdays 6 p.m. to midnight.

  • Carrot and beet tartare, $9
  • Corn four ways, $3
  • Beet and short rib dumpling, $4
  • Graffiti eggplant, $13
  • Fried chicken, $24
  • Steamed snapper, $29
  • Kumquat fritters, $8
  • Peanut butter caramel tart, $8
  • Peach pie, $8

Correction: This story was updated to reflect the fact that Jeff McInnis and Janine Booth's test kitchen is located in New York City, above Root & Bone, where the couple also have a residence. McInnis and Booth are also renting an apartment at the Shelborne in Miami Beach, in the same location as their South Beach restaurant, the Sarsaparilla Club.

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