Monday, May 1, 2017

first thoughts: Charcoal Garden Bar + Grill - Wynwood


Ken Lyon is something of a grizzled veteran of the Miami dining world, one with a knack for spotting valuable restaurant real estate. He was way ahead of the curve when he opened Lyon Freres, a Franco-philic market and cafe, on Lincoln Road in the early 1990's, well before the tourists thronged and the rents skyrocketed.[1] More than a decade later, he was also one of the early pioneers of the then-sleepy Design District: in 2008, he opened Fratelli Lyon, an Italian restaurant, in the space which is now home to MC Kitchen. His jump into the Design District came not very far behind Michael's Genuine, which just celebrated its tenth anniversary.

Though Lyon's been around for a while, his latest project – Charcoal Garden Bar + Grill – is very much on-trend. It's in Wynwood. It's built entirely out of semi-portable shipping containers. And everything is cooked using a Josper charcoal grill/oven, the new favorite toy of chefs who like to play with live fire.

This time, Lyon may be a bit more of a trend-chaser than trend-setter. Wynwood has already been one of Miami's hottest restaurant neighborhoods of the past few years, elbowing its way in among South Beach and Brickell. The Josper has already made its way like wildfire (sorry) into Miami kitchens, being the theme of Deme Lomas' new Arson and a touted feature of Klima, Coya and Lightkeepers too. And while Charcoal pitches itself as the first full-service restaurant assembled from shipping containers in the U.S., I think there's at least one already in Washington DC plus a whole Container Park in Las Vegas with multiple restaurants; and of course locally, gastroPod was doing the shipping container thing two years ago, though not as a full-service restaurant.

But none of that takes away from something more important: Charcoal's a really nice restaurant. Everything at Charcoal is very simple and straightforward, depending for its success on good ingredients and solid execution. Happily, if our first visit is any indication, Charcoal is getting it right.

(You can see all my pictures in this Charcoal Garden Bar + Grill flickr set).

As you enter Charcoal, which occupies a corner of the Wynwood Yard multi-purpose space,[2] a cluster of containers forms a courtyard around an open patio which provides most of the seating. A cut-out container on one side offers some cover when the sun's out, while a double-wide along the back is also air-conditioned. There's a full bar to one side, behind which lies the kitchen.

The limited space and equipment of the kitchen gives the menu its focus. Starters are mostly things which require no cooking: cheeses, charcuterie, smoked fish, raw oysters. For the rest of the meal, an assortment of animals and vegetables are simply grilled or roasted using the Josper. Many of the fish and meats come from Florida waters and farms, including cuts from a whole lamb or pig brought in each week and butchered at their nearby commissary. Some of the vegetables come from an on-site garden, installed by my CSA farmer, Little River Cooperative (though probably not much these days, as the growing season is starting to peter out). You can then combine these with a choice from more than a dozen condiments, listed on a punch card. Ask nicely and you can sample more than one.


We started with some of that charcuterie. Most of it is bought-in, but one item – a pork and duck liver terrine – is made in-house. And it was very good, richly flavored but not overly heavy, and generously studded with pistachios and prunes. We coupled it with some 'nduja Americana from La Quercia, which makes a great version of the soft, spicy, smoky pork spread. There's also a really nice selection of cheeses, including some personal favorites – Point Reyes Blue, Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog, Vella Jack, Jasper Hill Harbison – which you can either order on their own or, for a small upcharge, add to the house salad which accompanies each main.

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