Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Yardbird Southern Table and Bar - Miami Beach

Yardbird

Geography notwithstanding, Miami really isn't part of "The South." Though Florida as a whole is undoubtedly a Southern state, those who live here know that the South really ends somewhere near Palm Beach County's northern border, and Latin America actually begins in Miami, with Broward and Palm Beach constituting something of a demilitarized zone of transplants from the Northeast.

So when word came out that Chef Jeff McInnis, recently departed from the Momofuku-esque Gigi, was going to be cooking regional Southern fare at a new place on South Beach, it was at least something different from the waves upon waves of burger joints and steakhouses. It seemed a far cry from Gigi's Asian-inspired small plates, but McInnis' work before Gigi at the Ritz Carlton South Beach, more Mediterranean than anything else, wouldn't have exactly suggested pork buns either.

Yardbird Southern Table and Bar opened in October 2011 and clearly was on to something; the place was immediately packed, and the crowds haven't stopped coming. Turns out, the chameleon-like McInnis hails from the Florida Panhandle (according to the map I've laid out above, that definitely is the South) and started his cooking career in Charleston, South Carolina, so maybe the food at Yardbird is actually closer to home than initial appearances would suggest.

Yardbird

(You can see all my pictures in this Yardbird flickr set).

As with Gigi, where McInnis teamed up with experienced restaurateur and club-owner Amir Ben-Zion, Yardbird is a collaboration between the chef and John Kunkel, founder of the rapidly expanding Lime Fresh Mexican Grill chain. They've created a look and feel for the place that is casual and Southern-accented without being entirely hokey: white-washed brick walls and unfinished wood-beamed ceilings, jars of pickled vegetables and blackboard drawings of farm animals as decoration. It's sort of Crate & Barrel meets Cracker Barrel.[1]

The menu likewise plays on traditional tropes of the Southern genre while updating them with some contemporary style. Astute menu deconstructionists will be able to spot several McInnis dishes that got translated from Asian to Southern when he moved restaurants: that short rib meat loaf is a variation on one he did at Gigi; the pepper-spiced watermelon that accompanies the fried chicken used to be a component of a Gigi small plate; there's a fried green tomato BLT that comes from the same family as Gigi's pork belly BLT; the "Sweet Tea-Brined Southern Ribs" bear more than a passing resemblance to what used to be Gigi's "Southern Boy" ribs. Working with flavor profiles that have a more personal connection, the hope is that Yardbird's versions ought to be even better.

(continued ...)


Southern Edamame

Things start well at Yardbird. "Small Shares" are the kinds of things that used to be known as appetizers, once upon a time. Among these, my favorites include the "Southern Edamame," peas steamed in their shells, slathered in a chili-inflected butter, and sprinkled generously with coarse sea salt. They're best eaten like their namesake, dragging your teeth down the pod to release the peas within while simultaneously catching all that spicy butter and salt.

melons & cheese

I was at least equally fond of the "Melons & Cheese." Planks of watermelon are topped with equal-sized planks of grilled farmer cheese, then garnished with fresh celery leaves, a drizzle of Meyer lemon olive oil, and a sprinkle of salt. A deceptively simple dish, it offers a wonderful contrast of cool fruit against creamy warm cheese, further brightened and enhanced by the other components.

Farmers Salad

The Farmers Salad, on the other hand, feels more haphazardly thrown together: a lot of lettuces, not enough vegetables for real variety, and nebbish slices of hard-boiled egg, though some slivers of pickled onion and a smoked Vidalia onion vinaigrette do their best to keep things interesting. And the "Meat Loaf" (really braised  short rib, shredded and pressed back together) was more exciting when plated with the smoky plantain purée and a molasses drizzle at Gigi than here at Yardbird, where mashed potatoes and tomato jam "ketchup" are a more pedestrian pairing.

"Mama's Chicken Biscuits" offer a small-scale way to sample two of Yardbird's more "signature" items in one package. Slabs of fried chicken breast are sandwiched within split buttermilk biscuits, with a smart addition of pepper jelly to perk things up. There are good flavors here, and some fine biscuits, but soggy fried chicken unfortunately literally dampened things. The "Fried Green Tomato BLT" likewise offered good flavors, but the "Double-Down" like assemblage of fat slabs of fried tomato and crispy pork belly was unwieldy and sloppy.

As is the style these days, Yardbird's menu suggests that instead of individual starters and main courses, the restaurant offers up dishes meant for sharing. This sometimes-dubious premise (Don't most people think of pimento cheese or a salad as starters for a meal? Are shrimp 'n' grits, or a pork chop, really dishes made for sharing?) then serves as the excuse for plates hitting the table willy-nilly as they come out of the kitchen. Shared or not, I've usually found that notwithstanding this disclaimer, most restaurants still tend to course things out with at least a modicum of sense to which plates come out when. Not so much at Yardbird, where our entrées - excuse me, "Big Shares" - of "Llewellyn's Fine Fried Chicken" and "Sweet Tea-Brined Southern Ribs" were among the first things to arrive at the table.

Fried Chicken

Setting aside the pace and sequence of the meal, the fact that the fried chicken showed up within a few minutes of ordering it makes at least one thing clear: it's not cooked to order. And perhaps that's why some pieces had a flaccid crust, while others had dry meat. I was initially ready to quibble when culinary thought-mine Ideas in Food tweeted, "Texture is as important as flavor," but in some cases, it's true. Fried chicken is undoubtedly one of those cases, where it's really all about that crispy skin encasing still-juicy flesh. Yardbird's missed the mark for me, which is a shame because the rest of the plate - savory cheddar and chow-chow waffles, that peppered and mint-flecked watermelon, a little pitcher of spiced Tupelo honey - were all right on target. Yardbird makes much ado about their "27-hour" fried chicken recipe - I wish they'd spend just a little more time and attention on the final step of the process.

Sweet-Tea Brined Ribs

Those ribs were another miss for me, with not a hint of smoke, though perhaps it was buried underneath the over-sweet sauce with which they were shellacked. But that's not to say that Yardbird can't do great things with pork.

pulled pork sandwich

A Carolina style pulled pork sandwich (lunch menu only) topped with cole slaw and served on a puffy freshly baked bun was absolutely delicious - and even better if you stick some of those house-made pickles under the bun. A hearty serving of a black-eyed pea salad made a nice accompaniment.

Mac n Cheese

Another winner was their mac n cheese, a gussied-up version using thick, curly torchio pasta and Grayson cheese from Meadow Creek Dairy in Virginia, striking just the right balance of chewy pasta, gooey cheese, and crusty bread crumb topping.

Yardbird bar

Yardbird's bar, as it should, focuses on bourbon, that great Southern spirit. They've got more than fifty mostly small-batch bourbons, including some highly-sought items like Pappy Van Winkle Family Reserve (in 15, 20 and 23 year iterations). But even though any self-respecting bourbon fan would usually drink such things neat - maybe with a drop of water or a solitary ice cube - Yardbird imposes a $2 upcharge for a neat pour. It is obnoxious and unseemly to charge extra for serving bourbon in the manner in which it ought to be drunk.

[Update: a commenter helpfully noted that Yardbird, responding to a comment from Miami Herald critic Victoria Pesce Elliott, stopped the upcharge about a month ago. The explanation for the charge - that there is more liquor in neat and rocks drinks - is arguably accurate. But when your bar specializes in small-batch bourbons - which will typically be drunk neat or on the rocks - that should be factored into the price on the bar menu, especially when the price for nearly half of those bourbons is already over $15. Indeed, anyone getting a $20+ bourbon and not drinking it neat should have to pay a $2 stupidity charge.]

Also obnoxious was when on another visit (with the kids) we were invited to wait at the bar for 15-20 minutes and order drinks while they "got a table ready for us." The place was busy - as it always is - but I could see that there were at least a couple tables that were cleaned, set and ready to go. The bar, meanwhile, was already packed, and our 14 and 11 year olds were not exactly welcome there anyway. When we opted to hover at the hostess' station instead of adding a couple cocktails to our tab, we were seated not more than 10 minutes later - at the same exact table that was ready when we walked in.

Individually, every server we've had at the restaurant has been friendly, attentive and helpful, despite a near-constant press of customers. So what's particularly obvious - and frustrating - is that the none-too-subtle efforts to pad the bills come from the top down. These kind of ploys come off as more South Beach hustle than Southern hospitality, and management ought to think more carefully about whether they're worth it in the long run.

Yardbird is a good restaurant right now, but an inconsistent one. It could be a great restaurant; indeed, there's no better evidence of the heights to which Southern cuisine can climb, if appropriately pushed, than what Chef Sean Brock has done with Husk in Charleston. I suspect Yardbird doesn't have such lofty aspirations, but I hope that its popularity doesn't keep it from looking to improve.

Yardbird Southern Table and Bar
1600 Lenox Avenue, Miami Beach
305.538.5220

Yardbird Southern Table & Bar on Urbanspoon

[1] Yardbird's social media presence is a different story. The restaurant's Twitter timeline has more dropped g's and y'all's than a season's worth of Dukes of Hazzard episodes. They'd do well to take a look at how a place like Husk Restaurant, which is as authentically Southern as it gets, uses Twitter without resort to any such contrived and insincere caricatures of Southern hospitality.


22 comments:

  1. Right on the money... Fried chicken meat was juicy but skin wasn't crispy enough, watermelon is well executed but present in a few dishes making it lose its appeal. Cocktails are a highlight of the bar ...

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great post, Frod. I found myself nodding a lot while reading this one. Need to disagree w/ Javier though - I found the cocktails to be weak and not as advertised.

    I've heard through the grapevine that the bar manager is gone and they are looking for someone new. I also heard rumor that the $2 upcharge for rocks/neat was stopped but again that could be nothing more than a rumor.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I didn't order a bourbon on my most recent visit, so maybe they've fixed that particular issue. I hope so.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Not a rumor. Here's the proof: https://scribe.twitter.com/#!/Yardbird/status/141923858398720000

    ReplyDelete
  5. Great Post, I completely agree with everything you said besides the mac n cheese which must mean they have fixed the issue.

    ReplyDelete
  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    ReplyDelete
  7. The mac n cheese picture is set to private, please open it back up :)

    ReplyDelete
  8. Your post echoed most of my concerns with exception to their Mac and cheese and biscuits, which were both excruciatingly dry when I visited. Great read.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Nice geography analysis. I think, however, that a lot of South Broward (esp. Hollywood) is actually part of Colonial Canada... as stated by the Great Snowbird Treaty of 1935.
    Hearing about a Southern themed restaurant that cannot make decent fried chicken is heresy. What the hell is 27 hour fried chicken anyway. We don't usually consider the marinade time. Unless they are cooking the chicken sous-vide first then frying which is just silly and trying to put lipstick on a pig.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Contrived, gimmicky restaurants are insufferable. Those guilty of the "South Beach hustle" are abominable.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Isn't there a 'standard' pour for bourbon? 1.5 oz?
    If you drink it neat it should still be the same amount as if you mix it with something, no?
    Mixed drinks should cost more because of the additional ingredients and the bartender's time/talent in mixing.
    If they serve a larger pour for neat drinks (say 2 oz)they should list that along with the price.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Great review. Having spent a fair amount of time in the Carolinas (including living in Charleston for a couple of years), I've been curious to read reviews of Yardbirds. Thanks for a great article, though I immediately cringed and thought I might never visit the place based on that chalkboard littered with southern cliché.

    Really want to see what they do with their shrimp 'n' grits. It's been so long since I've had them.

    ReplyDelete
  13. silver - if you dig around you'll find several discussions on the topic, including this one on chowhound.

    It is not completely outside the bounds of civilized society to charge a "neat charge," the theory being 1. it's a more generous pour than in a mixed drink (sometimes, though Yardbird's was not particularly generous)and 2. booze costs more than mixers or the labor involved in a mixed drink (the latter possibly being a more questionable proposition, especially in this day and age of highbrow mixologists).

    What I found objectionable about it is that bourbon - especially pricey, small-batch bourbon - is something that typically will be - should be - consumed neat or maybe over an ice cube or two. So if you've got a bourbon-focused bar, your price list ought to assume that folks will be ordering it neat, not mixing it with Coke or Red Bull.

    It's not exactly like they don't have a solid profit margin on the stuff already. As an example: they list Old Rip Van Winkle 10 Year at $16. That's a bottle that probably retails for about $45 (they're buying through a distributor and not likely paying retail prices). They will get more than 16 1 1/2 oz pours (a shot) from that bottle. Even if they're giving a 2 oz pour, it's still at least 12.

    That's nearly $200 in revenue (minimum) from a $45 bottle. To put it in a little perspective, a restaurant bar I visited in Louisville lists that same bourbon for $7.

    But the good news is they've dropped the charge, which I'm happy to hear.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I ate dinner at Yardbird a few weeks after they opened and nobody in my party enjoyed the food. It wasn't fresh and definitely not worth the price tag. I recently took a look at the menu and they lowered the price of a few items. Is it normal for restaurants to adjust the price? I want to give them another try, but with so many restaurants to choose from I'm not sure that I'll make it back.

    ReplyDelete
  15. Have not been to the restaurant but I'm a fan of grid and know you walk the walk. But not surprised to see good, bad but mostly average reviews of the place. Jeff has never been known for great food at gigi's or the Ritz. John kunkel or lime not known for great food but rather a great concept. Which it looks like they have created the same with Yardbird, a great concept average food. It's not going to get better we all know that. From what I understand gigi's has seemed to get better. That $7 bourbon place may not be paying $200 a sq ft rent either. Its easier and more common to pad the liquor for profit than it is to increase the food price to make money. Until I visit will have to take your word for it, but in no rush.

    ReplyDelete
  16. Richard - I overall liked what McInnis was doing at Gigi (though again I found it inconsistent), and noticed a dropoff shortly after he left. Have not been back in a while, maybe they've rebounded.

    You're probably right that the rent in Louisville is cheaper than South Beach (though this place was far from a juke joint). But Yardbird's bourbon prices are in many instances higher than a place like Blue Smoke in NYC, to draw maybe a fairer comparison.

    ReplyDelete
  17. My main point for hating the phantom upcharge includes that it is phantom but is mainly because it's ridiculous. The price on the menu should reflect what I'm going to pay for my spirit neat, rocky, in a drink or whatever other way possible. If the argument is "well, it's a bigger pour..." then fine, make stiffer drinks that use 2oz. There's enough padding in liquor that you don't have to do crap like that and F the customer. Glad they got rid of that nonsense.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Insider tip- they will let you sniff the pappy for $1.00.

    ReplyDelete
  19. chowfather - thanks for the tip. You can sniff my pappy anytime.

    anonymous - it is not unusual at all for restaurants to change their prices. Usually what you'll see is when places first open their places will be lower to draw customers in, then sneak up over time. Yardbird has actually gone in a different direction in some instances, where prices have come down rather than gone up. Part of that is connected to their notion that their entrées are "meant for sharing" (and thus are priced higher) which may or may not be a reasonable proposition, and may or may not be one that diners desire.

    I suspect they've reduced the portion size on some of the "big shares" and reduced prices accordingly.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Honestly, I was very very happy with my meal at Yarbird, as was my dinner companion. Our fried chicken had a great, crispy exterior, and was extremely juicy inside. It was miles above Tudor House's fried chicken, and I found it comparable to Sustain's fried chicken as well, which I love so much that it is the background of my phone. Our server was great - he wasn't pushy, he was knowledgeable. The only thing I will say is that we came for a relaxing dinner experience. Instead, after 5 minutes of placing our apps in front of us, the chicken and ribs came out. It was overwhelming and although we didn't feel rushed, it wasn't as leisurely as we would have liked. Perhaps their biggest problem is inconsistency.

    ReplyDelete
  21. Frod, J9 and I agree with your entire post. Although I'm not a big Bourbon drinker I do appreciate a nice pint of good draft beer. Unfortunately their pint-priced beers are really closer to 12 ounces, which is just as much, if not more, of a scam than a $2 up charge for a fancy way of asking "no ice please."

    ReplyDelete
  22. bull. the yardbirds chicken was amazing, not dry at all and the sauces were delicious, maybe some of you went on a bad night. On my night the place was packed and it was perfect.

    ReplyDelete