Friday, April 8, 2011

Bittersweet Sugarcane



My recent return to Miami shocked me. Not because of the superfluous development of highrises or  because old and new business are playing location tic-tac-toe. But because this little place I used to call home is now making earnest strides to create its food footprint, a marathon in which we all know New York is globally countless steps ahead. And owners of Sushi Samba (also in NYC) have jumped on the bandwagon, opening Sugarcane in the up and coming Midtown Miami area (the name yet another ode to NY?). While it's certainly a restaurant I could see in Tribeca, with its high vaulted ceilings and beautiful loft-like breath, I'm not sure their hit-or-miss tendencies would receive a New Yorker's stamp of approval - admittedly, not this New Yorker.
Inside dining

,
Outdoor seating
I have a unique perspective having been born and raised in Miami (before it had any interest in expanding its horizons beyond Cuban cuisine) and being transplanted into the  forever-morphing world of eats of a New Yorker. So as a Miamian, my experience at Sugarcane was acceptably sweet, while the New Yorker in me could not ignore the bitter slip-ups and discrepancies: the discerning tongue that knows excellence is in the details. With the optimistic, root-for-the-underdog force on one shoulder, and the elitist critic tugging for attention on the other, my resulting 5-hour dining experience was of conflicting emotions, leaving me unsure of what to conclude.

Part of the uncertainty could stem from a menu that seems all over the place, divided into categories of Snacks, Tapas, Robata Grill (cooked over charcoal), Raw Bar (sub-categorized further into Crudos, In the Shell, Sushi/Sashimi, Sushi Rolls), and Large Plates (boasting only three items: a fish, a whole chicken, and daily hand-carved meat). Eclectic American-Asian-Spanish fusion? To me that screams jack of all trades, master of none. But this is not necessarily a recipe for disaster. Let's give it a chance, shall we?

Pig Ears
After two starter cocktails, a beet-infused mojito and a margarita-esque tequila with cucumber juice and mint (which I swapped from the cilantro, an herb to which my taste buds have a strong aversion), the feasting began. My lovely guest was a former server at this restaurant so we expected top-notch turn out, starting off on the right foot with salty palate-openers compliments of the kitchen: shishito peppers and spicy barbecue-dusted pig ears, the latter being a first for me. The spice created a dangerously delicious finger-licker that only complemented the gentle tooth-pull of the fried pig.


Shishito Peppers

Hamachi and Salmon Sashimi
Scallop Sashimi
Special Sushi Roll
Next came our two Crudos (meaning raw): yellowtail topped with grapefruit and avocado, and scallop (can't pass that up) with apple, black truffle and jalapeno slices. I always order raw scallop any chance I get, but I thought for sure this one would be extra special with all those fancy accompaniments. Peculiarly, they didn't add a thing. Yes, both raw selections were fresh, which is always appreciated. However gussying them up didn't enhance the fish's flavor at all. To keep the sushi flowing, a special roll not on the menu arrived at our table (another complimentary plate to remind us we were special too), donning heaps of tuna with California roll ingredients inside - though definitely fresh, and not imitation, crab. Much appreciated but certainly not special. I know you may be thinking, How special can a sushi roll be? Well that's up to the chef, and I can tell you I've had some bangin' flavor-bursting combinations rolled into seaweed and rice. So this was definitely a Thanks, but let's save room for what's to come. Tapas, please.

Duck and Waffles
Enter the duck and waffles, one of my must-order dishes in the selection process. My excitement all too quickly turned to utter sadness as soon as my knife eagerly punctured the yolk of the duck egg. No runs here - and in this instance, that's not a good thing. A runny egg is a runny egg and there is nothing more disappointing than to find it overcooked - especially when you are particular about your eggs, as yours truly is. Call me spoiled but if this egg had been cooked correctly I would confidently say this dish was a winner. The crispy leg confit that rested atop the sweet mustard maple-glazed waffle was just waiting to bathe in that expected smothering of egg yolk. The sweet and salty juxtaposition of flavors in addition to  the contrasting textures of crispy duck and pillowy waffles was almost - just almost- perfect. Close but no cigar. Never underestimate the power of the egg.

Tripe
Then the beef honeycomb tripe hit the table and we were on what I feared to be a downward spiral. The fried tripe rings were soggy and flavorless. So much so that the most interesting items on the plate were the assortment of kimchi vegetables. Never have I loved brussel sprouts so. Similar story with the lamb sweet breads, prepared fricasse-style, A.K.A. fried, which seemed to be the down fall trend of this night. Sounding much more scrumptious than it actually was, nestled on a pumpkin puree and sprinkled with capers, these also did not amount to much. Too greasy and tasting deep fried, I can't actually tell you what the sweet breads tasted like. They could have been tofu for all I knew. And the aromatic sage, which it reported to have, would have been a fabulous complement to the sweet pumpkin if it could have been recognized. Another curiosity as it is an unmistakably powerful herb. Perhaps the chef was trying to appeal to the masses, but it was a mistake to mask venturesome foods such as tripe and sweet breads with an overpowering coat of fried breading - ill-executed to boot. I guess not everything tastes better breaded and fried.
Lamb Sweetbreads
But hope was on the horizon in the form of bone marrow. Who knew this part of the anatomy would be palate salvation? Prepared in the most tantalizing way possible with a sweet veal cheek marmalade, the marrow succulently fell off - er, out of - the bone. The tender marrow combined with silky pieces of veal made for a sloppy joe spread I wanted to slather on everything. Suffice it to say this dish was left in true bare-bones form - and don't think I didn't consider eating those too.

Bone Marrow
Cauliflower
Octopus
And no sooner that there was a hit, was there an insurmountable miss. Yes, cauliflower from the Robata grill with a "bagna cauda" anchovy garlic sauce sounds promising. I love vegetables and I love grilled vegetables even more. Unfortunately, this cauliflower was not one of them. When I tell you it tasted like absolutely nothing, consider that an understatement. All my mouth sensed was texture to signal I was actually eating something. How could the powerful flavors of anchovy and garlic possibly go unnoticed on one of the most bland vegetables? I don't know, but they managed to succeed.  And what about the flavor a good ol' grill provides? Lost. The cauliflower probably packed more punch in its raw state. Utter disappointment. Also from the grill were the skwered chicken liver and octopus. Both fair (knockouts in comparison to the cauliflower, but really, what wouldn't be?) The liver sat in a horseradish creme sauce, which was surprisingly mellow and paralleled the creamy texture of the meat. The octopus definitely exuded the char of the grill, but it ended there. The smokey "aji panca" (Peruvian chile pepper) sauce was the best thing about it, yet it dominated any flavor the fish may have contributed.
Chicken Liver
At this point we are 12 plates stuffed but still browsing the dessert menu, of course! While a peach cobbler and a deconstructed  Snickers bar call my attention, my date had the insider scoop that the Torrejas are the restaurants signature dessert. Commonplace in many tapas restaurants, this Spanish-style French toast was familiar to me. And while I usually like to try something I've never had before, I couldn't pass up the specialty of the house. Well, I could have. With a few sauteed Fuji apples and a meager melting scoop of cinnamon ice cream, this bread-based dessert was just...there. I shrug my shoulders. Nothing out of this world that I would tout as a specialty. That doesn't mean I didn't finish it though. The thick cuts of soaked Brioche had a welcomed bread pudding mouthfeel that noone could dislike. But mostly because it was the ever-necessary sweet meal cap, not because it was a stellar dessert.

 
Torrejas
Now it would be fair to assume that so many negative points would have a amounted to a poor experience. My New Yorker would agree with you. But the nostalgic Miamian in me also pushes to the fore, enjoying the company of a great hometown friend, and the beautiful breeze blowing through the expansive windows. For this girl, where Sugarcane missed in food, it hit in the hope that improvement is on the horizon, with glimmers of promise here and there. So which weighs more, what you eat or what you experience while eating it? For now, we will tally it at a 50-50 split. But a recount is never out of the question.