Sunday, February 4, 2018

first thoughts: Shelley's | South Miami

Sorry We Missed You
I have a new crush, and her name is Shelley. Shelley's, actually.

She's kind of hard to describe. (You can see all my pictures in this Shelley's - South Miami flickr set).

Shelley's - dining room
She's pretty, in an almost old-fashioned kind of way – but she's also quirky and hip. Imagine a seafood shack crossed with a diner crossed with a tiki bar: fifties-style formica-topped, metal-edged tables, old-timey framed pictures and nautical knick-knacks on the walls, rattan-wrapped stools at the bar, lobster buoy lamps hanging from the pressed-tin ceiling. She's not all that fancy, but she's got style, like a fashionable outfit assembled out of thrift store finds. When the light from the big windows facing Sunset Drive hits her just right, she's a beaut.

fried chicken sandwich
She's relaxed and friendly, but she's serious about her cooking. Like her fried chicken sandwich, one of the best I've ever had. So crispy outside, so juicy inside, layered with pickle chips and fresh greens, on a squishy bun slathered with herb-flecked mayo. But what makes it special is a hit of Vietnamese style fish sauce caramel – a pungent, funky, salty-sweet burst of umami that you don't expect and that keeps drawing you back for more.

shrimp Scotch egg, grits, kimchi collard greens
She's kind of obsessed with seafood, which finds its way into unexpected places, like a Scotch egg made with shrimp served over grits and kimchi collard greens, or a fish "bacon"[1] egg and cheese sandwich, or a charcuterie platter that can feature tuna conserva laced with chiles, a fat sardine done escabeche style (pickled and fried), and a silky monkfish liver pâté studded with bits of octopus that will show why monkfish liver is called the "foie gras of the sea."

seafood charcuterie platter
(continued ...)

Baltimore Benedict
Shelley's idea of eggs benedict is a fat round puck of sweet, sticky jumbo lump crab – no bread other than a bare minimum of crumbs to hold it together – topped with a perfect poached egg, all napped with a silky Old Bay hollandaise. It's so rich that you really probably shouldn't do more than one.

She speaks with an accent that sounds Southern sometimes – fried catfish with tomato gravy and grits – but then occasionally you'll hear a Caribbean lilt in her voice when she says things like braised oxtails, or mofongo fritters with chili, garlic and cane butter.

roasted carrots
She likes her vegetables, and vegetarians will like her too: her kale caesar salad is crisp and fresh and bright with purple leaves and crumbled yellow cornbread croutons; and if you didn't think about it, you wouldn't even know that her roasted carrots were fully vegan, the burnished spears and cubes of celery root given richness with a cashew cream, a little sweetness from a date syrup drizzle, some brightness from a tarragon salsa verde.

Strip and Go Nene
Shelley's comes from a great family. Her chef is Cleophus Hethington, a US Navy vet who's worked in some great kitchens: Matador Room, Alter, Ariete, Cypress Room, The Optimist in Atlanta. Brian Griffiths, a Broken Shaker alum, seems to run just about everything else from a perch behind the bar, with help from head bartender Baylee Pruitt, who came here all the way from Bloomington Indiana where she'd headed up a cocktail program for Cardinal Spirits Distillery.

So it shouldn't be a surprise that Shelley's can drink with the best of them. She likes her cocktails bottled or frozen, things like the "Sorry We Missed You," with pre-batched bourbon, honey and citrus perked up with fresh marjoram and a shot of sparkling wine, or the "Strip and Go Nene" which turns Banks 5 Island rum, passionfruit, citrus and IPA beer into a slushy. Her girlfriends seem to really like the "Frosé," a pink frozen concoction of sparkling rosé, Bacardi rum, passionfruit and apricot. Can you blame them?

table, bar, sailfish
I'm not saying she's perfect: the salt of the kimchi collards might overwhelm some folks, and without the crunchy snap of cabbage, the big, somewhat tough leaves can be tricky to eat; the dressing on that kale caesar brought back a taste memory of Miracle Whip that some might find nostalgic, and others disconcerting, depending perhaps on their general feelings about Miracle Whip. But she's so charming that it's easy to overlook these things, which I suspect she'll fix over time: she's only been here a couple months, after all.

She lives in South Miami, which for a Beach guy like me is somewhat geographically undesirable, so we've only seen each other during the day, when she does brunch on Saturdays and Sundays. But I'll bet she's a lot of fun at night too, when her menu includes things like scallops with burnt honey, bourbon and house-smoked ham, and fish collars with a sherry mustard jus and roasted local vegetables.

Maybe what I like about Shelley's the most is that she seems so happy to just do her own thing. In a city where so many seem to chase the same trends and fashions, it's refreshing to meet someone with a unique and different viewpoint, combined with the ability to do it the way they want. I'm really hoping we get to spend more time together.

nautical theme

5845 Sunset Drive, South Miami

[1] She cures and smokes cobia, then pan-fries slices of it which come out looking like bacon and mirroring the salty-smoky flavors in fishy form.

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