Saturday, January 29, 2011

Sustain - Midtown Miami

[sorry, this restaurant has closed]

I've already repeatedly mentioned here how the contemporary Asian trope has taken hold here in Miami. But that isn't the only trend afoot. If restaurants weren't turning Japanese (or Chinese, or Korean) this past year, they were going green. "Farm to table," "sustainable," "eco-" this or that appeared in every other press release announcing a new opening. De Rodriguez Ocean pitched itself as a "sustainable seafood" restaurant. 1500° was a "farm-to-table restaurant with a heavy steakhouse sensibility."[1] Even the mega-chains got in on the act, with Darden Restaurants (the people who bring you Red Lobster and Olive Garden, among others) launching Seasons 52, which claims a "seasonally-inspired menu" but was serving asparagus in December when I visited their new Coral Gables location.

Some of this is just blatant greenwashing. And yet sometimes there is a genuinely serious commitment to working with local farms, sourcing top-quality, organic product, and running a restaurant in a way that is attuned to the environment. Of course, none of that really matters if the food sucks. Ultimately, people will come, and come back, to a restaurant because the food is good, not because the restaurant does good things. Sustain, opened last month in the stretch of Midtown Miami that already includes Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill and Mercadito, is getting it right on both fronts.[2]

When you call your place "Sustain," you better be serious about it. And this restaurant was literally built from the ground up with sustainability in mind. Fixtures on the ceiling are made from recycled aluminum. A captivating wooden "ribcage" sculpture along one wall is crafted from sustainable mangrove. The tables and chairs are reclaimed cypress, the fabrics are LEED-approved, the lights are energy-conserving LEDs. The menu is equally "green": Much of the produce comes from local farms, cheeses come from local producers, fish come mostly from local waters, meats are from stock that are pasture-raised on Florida ranches.

photo via Sustain
All of which may make you feel good about eating there; making it taste good is Chef Alex Piñero's job. After all, "sustain" also means to feed and nourish. Chef Piñero, who worked his way through Cheeca Lodge, The Strand (Michelle Bernstein's first Miami restaurant), Talula, Casa Tua and Fratelli Lyon before taking over the kitchen at Sustain, takes a low-key approach to the menu here. Preparations are mostly straightforward, and ingredients are front and center. This is not the kind of place to expect culinary pyrotechnics. Sometimes such minimalism equates to blandness, but Sustain mostly avoids that pitfall.

The menu starts with several "bites" priced at $4-6, and they are all worth sampling. The pretzel bites, little tater-tot sized nuggets, are pleasingly warm, crusty, and chewy, and come with ramekins of whole grain mustard and honey for dipping (best in combination, if you ask me). Fried chickpeas have an intriguing pop to their texture, and are napped with a light green herb oil. Meanwhile, corn dogs, featuring house-made mini hot dogs encased in a light cornmeal batter, are true to the carnival classic, a nostalgic start to a meal.[3] Tender pork and beef meatballs, served in a little cast-iron Staub pot, are draped with a rich mushroom gravy and dollops of creamy goat cheese. Those corn dogs and meatballs are also reflective of the restaurant's underlying ethos: the ground pork and beef that go into them are a way to use up the less-than-glamorous bits that do not become chops and steaks. Indeed, as you read through the menu you can reconstruct much of a cow and a pig along the way.[4]

Some of those bits also wind up in a charcuterie plate. The plate features a jar of pork rilletes (shoulder and belly meat cooked in its own fat and shredded to a fine paste) which were the best I've had in Miami, for a few reasons: they're unabashedly fatty; they're assertively spiced; and they're not served too cold. This last in particular makes a big difference: too often (locally anyway) rillettes are served dead cold, denying them all their unctuous appeal. A country pâté wrapped in bacon was serviceable but could use something to distinguish or enliven it, whether it be a more pronounced livery tang, or perhaps some fruit or nut in the mix. The plate is rounded out with some thinly sliced country ham from Allan Benton, which is simply marvelous stuff, as well as some house-made pickles, mustard and grilled ciabatta.

I'm not a big salad eater, but the "50 Mile Salad" is one that I actively crave. As the name indicates, the salad is composed of ingredients all sourced from within 50 miles of the restaurant.[5] It starts with a blend of baby brassicas (mustard greens, mizuna, kale, arugula) from Paradise Farms in Homestead (here you can read a bit more about their "Bx3 Baby Brassica Blend") which is the remedy to everything I typically find uninteresting about salads. Instead of grazing, cow-like, on a monotonous bowl of bland lettuce, there is a lively contrast of textures and flavors here, alternating sweet, bitter, soft, spiky, herbaceous, peppery from bite to bite. Then add an earthy bass note of roasted golden beets, carrots all blistered, caramelized and sweet from the wood-burning oven, tart-sweet heirloom tomatoes, tangy pickled onions, creamy fromage blanc from Hani's (there's more to read about Hani and his goats at Mango & Lime), a vinaigrette redolent with soft herbs, salt it well, and that's a salad I can enjoy.

(continued ...)

A simple corn bisque, prepared with Florida sweet corn and not supplemented with any cream, has an astonishing vividness of flavor. As one person at our table put it, "It's like I'm eating soup and hallucinating about corn." The pizza, baked in the wood-burning oven, has more notes but a similar clarity of flavors. The components may vary from day to day, but on our last visit, smoked mozzarella, caramelized onions, roasted garlic and fresh spinach leaves (barely wilted and some a little crispy from the oven's heat) each assertively made their presence known while still making for a harmonious composition; the crust was pleasantly blistered without being crackery-crisp. It's also a sizeable portion as appetizers go, definitely better to split.

A couple other starters I sampled at a preview dinner seemed like they could still use refinement (the place has only been open a month, after all). There was nothing wrong with the sweetbreads with braised onions and oyster mushrooms over focaccia bread, but there was nothing particularly interesting about them either: no bright flavors, no real textural contrast between the fluffy sweetbreads, the fluffy focaccia, the tender onions and mushrooms. The wood-oven roasted sausage (more use of those off-cuts), with roasted peppers and fennel over that same focaccia, was hearty but perhaps too much so for an appetizer. It's a dish that might do better expanded into a belly-filling entrée.

As for entrées, one of the best is the "Fork and Knife Burger," made with a grind of Four Arrows Ranch grass-fed beef, topped with caramelized onions, bacon and melted cheddar cheese, and served on a brioche bun. As the name suggests, it's a somewhat messy enterprise, but worth rolling up your sleeves for (or you can always go Costanza style). Some, though, may question whether it's worth the price ($18), as even the Brooklyn hipsters are balky about burgers going for $12-16. It comes with fries, which are tasty but could be a little crispier, though this fault can be disregarded if you go for the "wet fries" drizzled with bone marrow gravy, which are a soppy, rich delicious treat.

Grilled quail came two birds to an order, paired with a brightly colored and flavored beet mostarda, brussels sprouts, and roasted cippolini onions, nice contrasts of spice and earthiness against the slightly gamy birds. I've yet to catch Sustain's version of porchetta, the Old World classic pork roast, but I did try the Four Arrows steak on my most recent visit. While I often enjoy the more robust texture of grass-fed beef, some people accustomed to corn-fed beef can find it tough, and Sustain uses a couple tricks to combat that: the sirloin was sliced thin, like a tagliata, and it was draped with a dense oxtail marmalade for extra richness and moisture, though the blanket of brown sauce will not win many presentation points.[6] The steak was served with wilted mustard greens and a slab of decadently rich (maybe a bit too oily) "potato confit." Like the burger, the pricing ($28) might seem a bit steep, particularly for a portion size that was perfectly sufficient but smaller than the honking big slabs of meat some might expect, though in fairness, you'll typically pay in the $30s and $40s for those at most places.

There are usually at least a few fish among the entrées, all from local waters, including at least one wood-oven-roasted whole fish meant for sharing. For smaller appetites, my favorite has been a daily special which paired cobia, a firm but supple white-fleshed fish, with a hearty romesco (a pesto-like sauce of roasted red peppers, tomato, nuts and chile peppers) and green cauliflower. Golden tilefish, served with a light stew of white beans, kale, chorizo and clams, had good flavors (the chorizo in particular adding a welcome spice note), though the beans were a tad undercooked and the dish maybe a tad oversalted (indeed a few dishes we tried were right on the edge of oversalted). Lighter still is a yellowtail snapper served in an "ocean broth" with slow-roasted tomatoes, olives and roasted Jerusalem artichokes.

For dessert, the most intriguing item may be the peanut butter panna cotta, crowned with a strawberry gelée and drizzled with a strawberry consomme. It's a grown-up PBJ, though I actually preferred a version I sampled at the preview dinner that was studded with bits of fruit to provide some textural contrast. Another nostalgic note is sounded by the freshly baked cookies, two each of chocolate chip and oatmeal raisin, with a little cup of milk for dunking.

Sustain finally secured its liquor license this past week, more recently than any of my visits. I expect you'll see a wine list featuring organically and biodynamically produced wines, consistent with the theme, as well as an ambitious cocktail program. The restaurant already has the best soundtrack in town, going seamlessly from old-school alt-rock like the Pixies to new-school MGMT. If they ever tire of cooking, they should sell mix-tapes.

It's curious to me that despite the "green wave" trend, and despite the overwhelming success of Michael's Genuine, which was at the forefront of that wave here in South Florida, so few local restaurants have really seriously emulated that farm-to-table model. That's clearly the mission Sustain has charted for itself. Open only a month, Sustain is clearly a work in progress, but there are already some gems: the 50-mile salad, the corn bisque, the burger are as good as any comparable dishes I've had in Miami. While others may still be subject to refinement, there are good things happening here.

3252 NE 1st Avenue #107
Miami, FL

Sustain on Urbanspoon

[1]Sometimes these pitches could stand some proofreading. 1500°'s website describes itself as "local, fresh, wholesome, authentic, artesian." Their steaks come from underground wells? Of course, this is also a place that offers a three-course "pre-fixed" menu.

[2]Full disclosure: I met the managing partner of Sustain, Jonathan Lazar, at our first Cobaya dinner nearly a year and a half ago. I've been to the restaurant a few times (and also to a "friends and family" type pre-opening event) and it's been impossible for me to get in without being spotted.

[3]These were much improved over the pigs in blankets I sampled at a "friends and family" preview meal, where the texture and spice of the hot dogs hadn't yet been worked out.

[4]A project a waiter undertook one evening in explaining the menu to our table, to an overextensive degree. The waitstaff's description of the restaurant theme needs to be honed to an "elevator pitch," not a 5-minute monologue before the diners can place their orders.

[5]Not to be hypertechnical, but I'm reasonably certain the oil in the dressing traveled more than 50 miles. I'll bet the salt did too.

[6]That oxtail marmalade is a twist on an item generally credited to New York's Blue Ribbon Brasserie, basically a dense, sweet, heavily reduced oxtail stew.


  1. You didn't mention the fried chicken - it was amazing!!!

  2. I really enjoy your blog. You have some delicious posts on here! I am a Personal Chef. Amazing!

  3. Just thought you'd like to know that after seeing this review linked from SFDB, I suggested this place as a meeting spot for my book club. We ate there this morning and everything was wonderful! The food was excellent, as was the service. We really enjoyed it and all commented that we'd be returning again. So thank you for the review. Otherwise we'd never have known about it.

  4. Was reading this yesterday while thinking about where to go for lunch. No brainer. We had the burger (local beef, w/cheese and caramelized onions) at the bar and it was great. They serve the local greens in a small salad and fries with it for 12 bucks. How can you beat that?

  5. Midtown is great, cool but with a more relaxed vibe than Brickell. Just tried 100 Montaditos and love it. Best espresso in town, sweetened with condensed milk, now why didn't I think of that. Note: make sure you ask for it extra hot since I think they keep the condensed milk in the fridge which cools down the coffee too much for my liking.

  6. Looks wonderful! I'll check this one out. I'm a big fan of Midtown, I just don't get a chance to get out there much! (We're in Kendall)

  7. Yes, yes, yes! It's so good to see local ethics really taking hold here in the South.

    Tell us, is there a decent vegetarian spread at Sustain?

  8. Wow that was strange. I just wrote an very long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn't appear.
    Grrrr... well I'm not writing all that over again. Anyway, just wanted
    to say superb blog!