Monday, May 1, 2017

first thoughts: Charcoal Garden Bar + Grill | Wynwood (Miami)

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. (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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Charcoal uses Florida-raised, grass-fed beef for all its steaks, and sometimes grass-fed beef can be tough, but not here. Their hanger steak, served simply with just a drizzle of herb-flecked olive oil, has an intense flavor and a texture that is juicy and tender, while still offering up a pleasing chew. The hanger, or onglet, is one of my favorite cuts – I think of it as like a double-wide skirt steak (and indeed like the skirt, it comes from the diaphragm muscle) – and it's nice to see it done well.

Pork shoulder, meanwhile, needs time to become its best self; low and slow cooking is what's required. Charcoal does that by roasting the shoulder for several hours in the embers of the last night's fire. The result – a practically melting heap of porcine goodness with some burnished edges for contrast, perfumed with herbes de Provence and orange – is worth the wait.[3]

Those salads which accompany the mains are simple but refreshing and good: perky lettuce, thinly shaved raw vegetables, a well-balanced, classic vinaigrette. In addition to the cheeses, you can also add some crisp, salty house-cured bacon, which is almost always a good idea. Each of the condiments we tried was also textbook: a rich, nutty Catalan romesco, an aioli enriched with garlic and saffron, a tangy Moroccan style blend of yogurt and harissa, a fresh, clean tzatziki.

We bypassed the selection of charcoal-grilled vegetables this time, but we did order the skillet cornbread, and I encourage you to do the same. (Order the skillet cornbread, that is – I'm not telling you to skip your vegetables.) Baked to order in the Josper, this comes out with a delightfully crusty exterior and a soft, almost creamy interior enriched with roasted poblano chiles, and you'll find yourself pressing your fingers on the plate to get all the crumbs.

There's a full bar with a selection of house cocktails, and also a nice list of mostly very fairly priced wines and beers. We found an intriguing and delicious German rosé of pinot noir (a/k/a spatburgunder) for $42, which appears to be a reasonable 2x markup over retail. Our server was attentive, enthusiastic and helpful.

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.

Charcoal Garden Bar + Grill
82 NW 29th Street, Miami, Florida

[1] If memory serves, he was there before Van Dyke Cafe and before Pacific Time, though not before a little place called Wet Paint Cafe, opened by Bernie Matz with a young chef named Douglas Rodriguez in the kitchen. Rodriguez went on to open Yuca, then Ola, then several other restaurants in Miami, New York and Philadelphia.

[2] Wynwood Yard is also home to a bar and a rotating assortment of food trucks, currently including Myumi sushi (which I've written about before), Della Test Kitchen, Kuenko, Shnitz n Fritz, and Yoko Matcha.

[3] Obviously, given the hours that this takes to cook, the pork shoulder is not made to order, so don't fret that you'll be spending all night waiting if you order it.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this post! Love this place. Last time when i visited wynwood, we have enjoyed delicious food at the butcher shop beer garden & grill that is the best restaurants in wynwood. Sure, next time i will visit this Charcoal Garden Bar + Grill to taste its cuisines.