Wednesday, January 5, 2011

PubBelly - South Beach

PubBelly styles itself an "Asian inspired gastropub," but I'm not convinced that's entirely on the mark.  With its semi-open kitchen, a menu dominated by small plates, and an overt pork-centricism, PubBelly's Western influences seem much more Iberian than Anglican in derivation. If anything, PubBelly strikes me less like an English gastropub, and more like a well-mixed mashup of a Spanish tapas bar and a Japanese izakaya - which, it should go without saying, is far from a complaint.

PubBelly also claims to be the first of its type in Miami, and I'm even more certain that's not the case. As has been noted here seemingly ad infinitum, the contemporary casual Asian meme has clearly taken hold in Miami, and did so well before PubBelly opened its doors around Thanksgiving. But I've also said that I think there's plenty of room in this particular sandbox, provided the food is done well and there's something to distinguish one place from another. And happily, that's mostly the case with PubBelly.

The smallish room is centered around a long communal table, on either side of which are scattered several 4-tops. There is more seating at stools lined up around a small bar which doubles as a cooking station. Brick walls and rough wood furnishings that look like they could have come out of an Ikea catalog give something of a D.I.Y. aesthetic. The soundtrack is primarily 90s and early 21st century alt.rock - Oasis and New Pornographers figured prominently on my last visit, turned up perhaps a notch louder than would invite any intimate conversation. It's a tight, noisy, friendly place, where everyone seems to know each other - and if they don't, are still often happy to talk, particularly about whatever you just ordered. It was also fairly crawling with restaurant industry folk when I popped in recently on a Sunday evening.

They're coming to sample from a menu that features mostly small plates - about a dozen or so cooked items, supplemented with a selection of raw and cured items from land and sea, a handful of vegetable dishes, rounded out by a few larger noodle and rice bowls and a short list of large plates. It's a diverse lineup which appears to be changing, around the edges, anyway, on a pretty regular basis. At least three or four dishes had come and gone or metamorphosized between my two visits, only a couple weeks apart.

The name and the pig head logo are good hints to what this place is about: pork belly, the newly fashionable cut, makes appearances in multiple dishes. Indeed, if you should wish, you could easily craft a "7 Courses of Pork Belly" variation on the traditional Vietnamese "Bò 7 Món," or 7 Courses of Beef: start with some pork belly rillettes, followed by pork belly dumplings, then perhaps the pork belly with butterscotch and pumpkin, a McBelly sandwich, a bowl of ramen garnished with pork belly and shoulder, a side of mofongo with pork belly, and finish up with the soft-serve ice cream with brownie and bacon crumbles. This is a menu that really puts the slogan "Everything's Better with Bacon" to the test.

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Still other dishes celebrate porcinity in its various other forms, including a small selection of various cured hams in the "Raw, Marinated and Cured" section that leads off the menu. Along with Spanish jamon serrano and Italian speck, on one visit there was country ham from Kuttawa, Kentucky, on another night some Mangalitsa ham (the new "it"-pig) from Smithfield, North Carolina (presumably from Johnson Country Hams). The hams are served simply, just thinly sliced, perhaps drizzled with a bit of olive oil, and with a sidecar of some spicy mustard. They need nothing more. A fish crudo (amberjack when we tried it, though your particular fish may vary) was less successful, the mild strips of fish overwhelmed by the saucy pickled beets with which they were paired, the crispy garlic and shiso lost somewhere underneath the magenta blanket.

Mangalitsa Ham
Bread, if you should like, costs extra. But the various little toasts, listed in an unassuming far corner of the menu, are actually some of my favorite discoveries here. The pan con tomate - a simple item that can be prosaic or transcendent - is every bit as good as some of the best versions I had in Spain. They use a crusty, thin split roll (a nice trick that makes these extra crisp) that is toasted, rubbed with fresh garlic and puréed tomato, then drizzled with good olive oil. It's a fine accompaniment to any of those hams, or perfectly good on its own. Variations on a theme include pan con ajo (garlic bread), and another with goat butter and truffle (maybe a little more of the former than you'd spread yourself, and just a subtle hint of the latter, not overwhelming with the aroma of manufactured truffle oil). I regretted skipping an uni toast on my first visit, only to find it gone upon my return. My disappointment was tempered by a new substitute, morcilla toast, with meltingly tender crumbled blood sausage topping the pan con tomate.

There are a few dumplings on offer, including the aforementioned pork belly version, which come garnished with shoyu, shichimi and sesame oil. The duck and pumpkin dumplings come with a soft filling of confit and pumpkin mash wrapped inside a silky gyoza-like skin. They're fairly skinny, more like a ravioli than, say, the plump dumplings at Chow Down Grill, and come swimming in perhaps too much soy brown butter. Some crumbled almonds and orange segments try to cut through all that richness, but it's an uphill battle. The flavors are right here, it's just the balance that needs tweaking.

You know what's a good dish? The pork belly. More specifically, the pork belly with butterscotch, pumpkin and bok choy. The thick slab of meat is cooked to that nearly-melting point of quivery translucence, and then crisped up around the edges. The (miso?) butterscotch hits just the right balance of salty and sweet, the pumpkin providing a counterbalancing creaminess, and the spears of bok choy some much-needed crunchy, vegetal contrast.

Also hitting the right balance was the "McBelly" sandwich. It features, yes, pork belly, a generous slab, dressed with some kimchi, lightly pickled cucumber slices, some slivered onions, and a thick, salty-sweet (tonkatsu?) sauce, squeezed into a soft bun that gets a drizzle of some garlic oil for a little extra oomph. It's a similar composition to the Sakaya Kitchen pork bun and a slightly more distant relative of the Gigi BLT, using a few different notes to strike a similar chord.

One of my favorite items from our first visit wasn't there the second time around: the "tigres," or stuffed mussels. These are common in Spanish tapas bars, almost like a croqueta on the half-shell, with the mussels steamed and removed from the shell, mixed with a bechamel, bread crumbs and spices, then put back into the shell and fried. PubBelly's version includes - what else? - pork belly in the mix, to good effect. If they're on the menu, order a few. Another fried item, the fried chicken thighs, are sort of a mash-up of a Japanese chicken katsu and a Korean ssam: nuggets of boneless thigh meat, more flavorful and juicy than the breast, have a crisp panko coating, and are paired up with kimchi, a mustardy miso sauce, and some bibb lettuce to assemble wraps. These were OK, but probably mostly serve as a concession to those who find the menu too pork-intensive.

The "PubBelly Ramen" marks a return to the overarching theme. Stocked with both pork belly and shoulder, along with a poached egg, the broth lightens things up a bit with an infusion of lemongrass. It made for a nice presentation, in a big ceramic bowl, but I'm still waiting for a Miami restaurant that can deliver a truly knock-your-socks-off ramen experience (the kimchi ramen at Hiro's Yakko-San remains my local favorite). Better than the ramen was the kimchi rice bowl. Served in a heated rough stone bowl like a bibimbap, the rice was nicely crisped at the edges, studded throughout with kimchi, diced pineapple, and - you guessed it - bits of pork belly. A raw egg is cracked over the top and stirred in tableside, adding an extra layer of richness.

Among the vegetable dishes I've tried so far, the standout was the roasted beets, small cubes dressed in a (wait for it...) bacon vinaigrette, with an herbaceous (shiso?) creamy goat cheese for contrast. This was much more successful and balanced than the fish crudo with beets; my only quibble would be that the beets were diced so small as to be somewhat unwieldy to pick up, also diminishing the potential for textural contrast. The mofongo brings a small bowl with a towering pile of fried and then mashed plantains, studded throughout with (I think you know what's coming) big cubes of pork belly, all swimming in a salty shoyu broth. There's nothing delicate about this dish, and yet the presentation was perversely reminiscent of the elegant and iconic Nobu toro tartare, served in a pool of wasabi-infused shoyu. It's a hearty, satisfying dish, one that would make fine ballast for a night of drinking (either before or after). I was intrigued by the "celery root kimchi remoulade" - the idea of cross-pollinating the French classic céleri rémoulade with Korean flavors was clever - but the execution fell flat, the two flavor profiles never really making a connection. Perhaps this might work better as a component of a larger dish.

In two visits we've still not gotten around to ordering any of the large plates, though a diner sitting next to me was raving about the braised lamb shank. The brief list appears to rotate regularly, featuring short ribs one day, steak frites another, a skate dish another time. We did get to one of the desserts, soft serve ice cream served with brownie crumbles and (I think this is the last one) bacon bits. It will please the bacon fetishists, but I've yet to be convinced by the soft-serve mania spawned by the Momofuku empire. To me - at least from the versions that have made their way down south, at Gigi and now PubBelly - the flavors are muted and the texture insipid.

There's a well-curated, broadly international selection of craft beers, mostly in bottle but at least a few options on tap. The wine list is similarly diverse, eclectic and food-friendly: think Slovenian Tocai, Austrian Zweigelt. If I knew more about sakes I could tell you more about their list, as it is I can only say there are well more than a dozen choices by the bottle.

Speaking of Momofuku, PubBelly is not shy about wearing its influences on its sleeves - or on its walls anyway: the shelves behind the bar are stacked with cookbooks. I saw not only David Chang's Momofuku, but Ferran Adria's A Day at El Bulli, Thomas Keller's "Ad Hoc at Home," Heston Blumenthal's "The Fat Duck Cookbook," Morimoto, Robuchon, Eric Ripert's "On the Line," and many more. Interestingly, aside from all the hottest new titles, I also spied Penelope Casas' "Tapas: The Little Dishes of Spain," a book I've used for years. No doubt, there's much here that borrows liberally from elsewhere, but it does so without inhibition or pretense.[*]

The surreptitious Iberian influence, meanwhile, starts to make even more sense when you look at the resumés of PubBelly's co-chefs. Chef/partner Jose Mendin did stints at Taller de Cocina Ramiro in Castilla y Leon, Meson de Candido in Segovia, and Madrid's El Chaflan before working his way through the SushiSamba and Mercadito organizations. Chef/partner Sergio Navarro, meanwhile, went to culinary school in Spain and subsequently worked with Chef Sergi Arola, both in Spain and at the short-lived La Broche in Miami. It's that Spanish sensibility that I think may ultimately give PubBelly a way to distinguish itself from the influx of contemporary casual Asian restaurants of late. Though I love pig as much as the next guy - really, I do - even the most dedicated porcophile may find its presence on the menu here a bit overwhelming and overplayed. But the hypothetical intersection of Spain and Asia - which no doubt involves pig among many other things - seems like particularly fertile ground to explore further (and indeed much is happening on that front in Spain these days, as I've noted previously).

PubBelly is a fun place with fun food. Even if it wants to call itself an "Asian-inspired gastropub," it struck me rather as the closest experience I've had locally to a real Spanish tapas bar - a place you can get a plate of ham, some pan con tomate, and a few small plates - some maybe fairly typical, others more creative - and wash them down with a good beer or glass of wine. If there's a fault with PubBelly, it's that its style too often borders on excess - too much butter, too much sauce, too much pork belly. That's a flaw I'm happy to tolerate.

1418 20th Street
Miami Beach, FL

Pubbelly on Urbanspoon

[*]Indeed at least a couple dishes appear to be taken directly out of the Momofuku cookbook - the jonah crab claws with yuzu mayonnaise, the tomatoes and tofu with shiso and ponzu (a dish I wrote about last year); the selection of cured hams is likewise straight from the Momofuku Ssäm Bar playbook, if not the cookbook itself.

1 comment:

  1. I think that the best dish on their menu is the buffalo style sweetbreads. They are worth the trip there.