|Photo via Anise Taverna|
I scoffed when Marco Pierre White insisted at a conference last year, in a not even remotely veiled attack on much contemporary cuisine, that the only proper way to serve fish is "on the bone, with lemon juice, olive oil and salt." To me, both traditional and contemporary styles have their place and can be immensely satisfying when done well. But that means that the simpler forms of cooking can't be dismissed either. This is an area where Anise Taverna excels.
The owners of Anise, Gennaro and Liza Meoli, started in Miami with Ouzo's on Normandy Circle in North Beach. After a couple years they decided to make the leap to South Beach, but unfortunately their move coincided with a massive and interminable construction project right outside the new location. After finally running out of patience, they eventually reopened as Anise Taverna in a location along the Little River in Miami's Upper East Side, just off Biscayne Boulevard (and just across the street from Red Light). Their persistence has paid off.
Years ago, the primary function of this location was to serve as a parking lot for visitors to the Immigration Offices across the street. It housed a procession of Indian restaurants - first the very good (but very dingy) Renaisa, then, after the folks who ran it left to open Heelsha in North Miami Beach, the imposter Renaisa, then the inconsistent Taj Majal, then, very briefly, the intriguing but even more inconsistent Cambodian/Indian Monarch Bay. When the Meolis took it over, they finally gave the place the good scrubbing it so desperately needed, and it now actually has some genuine charm, with rustic wood tables, colorful walls decorated with a sizable collection of (empty) ouzo bottles, and a pleasant outdoor seating area on the Little River, which feeds out to Biscayne Bay.
The menu sticks mostly to traditional Greek dishes but makes occasional forays into broader Mediterranean territory, with an extensive selection of meze as well as a decent number of main course offerings. We almost always start with the "combo dip platter," which features four dips - usually hummus, tzatziki, baba ganoush, and taramasalata (though sometimes the taramasalata is substituted with a feta and red pepper dip), accompanied by warm toasted pita. I'm usually the one eating the taramasalata, while if you try to get some of the tzatziki away from Little Miss F, you're asking for a fight (we often have to order an extra just for her). The hummus is good, and the baba ganoush has a nice smoky note to it.
Cheese and fire are also generally big hits with the kids, so the cheese saganaki is usually in order when we go with them, too, the kefalotiri cheese having the unique capacity of being able to be warmed and slightly melted without going completely gushy. Some of my other favorite things at Anise are also found in the meze portion of the menu: the octopus, marinated in olive oil and herbs and then grilled, is simply some of the best, most tender octopus I've ever had; and the grilled sardines (a generous three to an order for $12) are the paragon of perfect simplicity. For those not intimidated by getting a whole fish and picking its tender, slightly oily meat from the tiny bones, this is happiness on a plate. (Perhaps Marco Pierre White was on to something after all).
I've also enjoyed the "Prawns Anise," fresh head-on shrimp given a triple dose of anise flavor: served on a bed of julienned sauteed fennel, in a creamy yogurt sauce spiked with Pernod and dill. The grilled quail, rubbed with a marinade of olive oil and oregano, is meaty but tender with a nice bit of char from the grilling. We also like the loukaniko sausage, with a hint of orange to it, served over a bed of stewed lima beans. The "Spiced Lamb Fingers," almost like Greek spring rolls with ground lamb wrapped in crispy filo dough, were a good idea but were almost overwhelmed by the spice when we tried them. There are also a number of vegetable offerings, including grilled eggplant slices wrapped around feta cheese and topped with a tomato sauce, which were a hit on a recent visit.
Among the entrées, I usually stick with the fish, and they almost always have beautiful fresh dorade and branzino (or, if you want the Greek, tsipoura and lavraki) that are flown in fresh from the Mediterranean. Once again, MP White would approve, with the fish grilled whole and served on the bone, either simply with olive oil, lemon and herbs, or if you're feeling fancy, with cherry tomatoes and kalamata olives too. Though at $28, some folks would complain about the value,[*] it's hard to imagine getting a whole fish of this quality for much less; and particularly with some meze to start, one fish could easily be split among two people. The moussaka, now a more traditional version with ground lamb and eggplant, topped with a puffy, creamy burnished top, is rich, hearty and satisfying.
We closed our most recent meal with a slice of coconut cake, made using "mom's recipe," according to Liza, which was quite good and not nearly as cloying as the old standby, baklava. Meals will often conclude with a complimentary glass of Mavrodaphne, a sweet red Greek dessert wine.
Speaking of wine, the list here is surprisingly cosmopolitan for such a casual spot, and offers not only some of the new and significantly improved Greek wines (like the Boutari Santorini, a white made from the Assyrtiko grape with crisp flavors and great minerality), but some other esoteric choices such as Nicolas Joly Savennieres from the Loire Valley and Argiolas Vermentino from Sardinia.
Anise has a few nice promos going on. Monday through Thursday, they offer a "Miami Spice" style pre fixe menu, which includes a glass of Prosecco, a combo dip platter, either the grilled octopus or cheese saganaki meze, a choice from among a few entrées, baklava, and a glass of Mavrodaphne to close, for $35/person (with a 2-person minimum). There's also "Meze Mondays" during which you can choose 8 meze for $30, 10 for $35 or 12 for $40. And the last Saturday of every month they do a lamb roast, and for $35 you can have all you can eat of the lamb, plus Greek salad, roasted potatoes, and a glass of wine.
I will never relegate myself to only eating my fish on the bone, with lemon, olive oil and salt. But when that's what I'm in the mood for - or for the excellent grilled octopus, or the variety of tasty meze - Anise is often where I go.
620 NE 78th Street
Miami, FL 33138
[*]I found it peculiar that only a week after questioning the value at Anise, the same reviewer gushed over Eos - which serves the same fish, but for $36. I've been back to Eos since my initial visit, and while it certainly has its high points - the sea urchin risotto and the smoked octopus most definitely being among them - I hanker to go back to Anise much more often than I think of returning to Eos. And indeed, a meal for our whole family of four ran for less than what it cost for two of us to dine at Eos.