Monday, January 6, 2020

deep thoughts: Silverlake Bistro | Normandy Isles (Miami Beach)

The restaurant review is having a midlife crisis. So says this guy, anyway. While there's a kernel of truth in his identification of the symptoms, I'm far less convinced of his diagnosis as to the cause. At its heart, his claim is that the problem is the restaurant review format itself:
I just want to deal with one of the genre’s challenges — namely, its form. ... To be blunt, the traditional review is a terrible vessel for inventive prose, contrarian opinions, and nuanced arguments about the mystery and meaning of food.
Well, on that point, I must beg to differ. Good writing transcends genre. Restaurant reviews are as useful a format as any to paint a portrait of of a city, as Jonathan Gold did so beautifully for Los Angeles, to explore social and cultural issues, as Soleil Ho does at the San Francisco Chronicle, to craft poetry like Ligaya Mishan does at the New York Times, to entertain and enlighten with wit and snark, like Jay Rayner does at The Guardian. The problem isn't the vessel; it's all about what you're putting inside.

Also: there's a whole universe of food writing that isn't restaurant reviews. That's not to say I believe reviews should be devoid of any discussion of broader issues – if you've been reading here at all, you know I'm prone to plenty of digressions – but rather, that there are lots of ways to talk about culture through the lens of food, reviews being just one of them.

Also, also: I am perhaps one of a dying breed who believe that the underlying purpose of a restaurant review – to help answer the question, "Where should I want to eat?" – while not as noble or important as curing cancer, is still itself a worthwhile and valuable endeavor.[1]

Having said that, it does seem that the restaurant review industry, in some quarters anyway, is in the doldrums. I don't think the problem is the format, though no doubt it is kind of a bore to read reviews that just grind through the "here's the apps, here's the mains, here's the desserts" routine by rote. To my mind, it's more a combination of the decline of media outlets that provide the budgetary, editorial and promotional support for restaurant criticism, and the rise of crowd-sourced opinions a la Yelp. Combine that with a lack of diversity and community representation in the voices that still get heard. Throw a little "death of the blog at the hands of Twitter and then Instagram" into the mix too. Sprinkle some "influencers doing it for the freebies" over the top like finishing salt. And what you have is a dearth of credible, reliable voices motivated and able to write thoughtfully and critically about restaurants.

(continued ...)

Locally, I appreciate what Zach Fagenson is doing at Miami New Times. Even though New Times' overall coverage skews heavily toward listicles, recycled press releases and clickbait, Zach is still turning out actual restaurant reviews and casting a broader net than just the latest new opening, covering places like the Israeli Hadekel 1, Arab-Brazilian Sfiha's House, and Haitian Bon Gout BBQ. The Miami Herald still does restaurant reviews, I think, though you wouldn't know it if you go to their website. Seriously, click on their "Restaurants" page and tell me if you see any reviews, much less a dedicated page, index or useful search function.[2] The Infatuation just dove into the Miami market and is doing the work, with more than a hundred reviews already posted after just a couple months.[3] And there's a handful of local bloggers I follow, who you can find over at the "Blogosphere - South Florida" gadget on my home page.[4] But it's kind of slim pickings. Are there more voices I should be listening to? If so, please let me know.

All of which is to say: one of my New Years' resolutions is to try to get back in the habit of writing more review type things over here at Food For Thought. And to use them to talk about things other than just the food on the plate. Like, for example, the role of restaurant criticism in contemporary culture.

So, the traditional cure for a midlife crisis is a flashy sports car or an affair with a partner half your age. What would be the restaurant equivalent? One of David Grutman's new places? Pass. The restaurant review might be middle aged,[5] but this particular one is pretty happy with its current lot. So instead of a visit to Swan or Papi Steak, let me talk about a place that's not at all flashy and is perfectly age-appropriate: Silverlake Bistro.

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

Silverlake Bistro is not one of the most talked-up new Miami openings. (It's actually been open nearly a year and a half already). It's not in a hot neighborhood (It's in Normandy Isles, in the northern reaches of Miami Beach). It doesn't have a celebrity chef. And it's one of the places we visited most frequently over the past year.

The "Silverlake" part of the name comes from the Los Angeles neighborhood where couple Sandy Sanchez, who runs front of house, and Benoit Rablat, who runs the back, first met while both were working at Osteria Mozza. Locals may know them from their first restaurant, La Fresa Francesa in Hialeah, which they opened about five years ago. While La Fresa Francesa skews more traditionally French, Silverlake is a little more Californian in spirit. But it stays faithful to the "Bistro" part of its name as well: it's a small space, about thirty seats in total (maybe a few more if you count the bar where we usually perch, and a couple of outdoor tables along Normandy Drive), with a short menu, friendly service, and a great wine list.

Silverlake may not be flashy like a Lamborghini, but that's not to say it lacks style. The dining room looks as if it's been assembled from a lifetime of combing through vintage shops and French flea markets, tied together by a recurring fawn motif and a sharp eye for playful, beautiful and quirky details.[6] There's around a half-dozen small plates on the menu, about the same number of mains, a few vegetables dishes, and typically a couple daily specials.[7] That's it. So if you go to my photo set, you'll see many of the same dishes, over and over again. For a neighborhood bistro, I'm OK with that.

You can start with a salad if you wish. I miss the avocado green goddess salad that was on the menu when they first opened, really a frisée lardon in green goddess drag. But the butter lettuce salad is a pretty good alternative: tender greens, tangy buttermilk dressing, creamy avocado, toasted macadamia nuts, sharp roquefort cheese (which Mrs. F asks to leave off), lots of fresh herbs.

For heartier appetites, there's gnocchi mac and cheese, the dumplings seared in duck fat, doused in a creamy, sticky smoked gouda sauce, crowned with chunky bacon lardons and a sprinkling of toasted bread crumbs. It's a small portion but with something this rich, that's about all you can take.

If you don't want to slip into a food coma before your main course arrives, you can instead try the mussels – a smaller, firmer variety, sometimes done in a Mediterranean style with saffron, tomato, olives and fennel, more recently with roquefort,[8] white wine and scallions. Either way, there's some thick cut, toasted filone bread (I'm guessing from Sullivan Street Bakery) to sop up the juices.

Other starters include crispy salumi croquetas with tangy aioli, veal meatballs in a San Marzano tomato sauce, a mini grilled cheese sandwich of taleggio, with a fried egg and truffle honey, and assorted charcuterie and cheeses. There are some vegetable dishes that can also make fine starters as well – a really nice plate of assertively roasted heirloom carrots with ricotta, pistachios, fennel pollen, espelette pepper and honey, or charred okra with chile flakes, lemon zest and parmesan shavings.

There's a thing that happens when a restaurant has a really good burger, that everyone just goes to get the burger, and then the kitchen just spends all night every night slinging burgers. So I have mixed feelings about leading off a discussion of the main course options with this, but it's inevitable: the Silverlake Burger is the best thing on the menu, and right now, IMO, the best burger in Miami. Two patties, with a crusty exterior and juicy interior. Melted white cheddar cheese. A couple slices of crusty bacon. A wonderful double feature of porcini mayo and a house-made steak sauce. All on a toasted bun that's substantial enough to keep everything intact until the last bite, but not not so much to distract from the real stars. It is a great burger, and there's always something of a debate between Mrs. F and myself over who is going to order it (even though we always end up sharing).

Running a close second place among my favorites is the brined and roasted chicken. Featuring juicy, flavorful flesh and crispy skin, and served with roasted fingerling potatoes, sorrel yogurt and a drizzle of chile oil, it's among the best birds I've eaten in Miami.

I've been less wowed by the remainder of the main course options: the braised lamb shank with cranberry beans, poblano peppers and harissa is a solid dish; the seared sea scallops are plump and sweet but the accompanying black rice and seafood broth were sort of bland. There's usually also a branzino in some form, a steak, and a roasted cauliflower with lentils, labneh and a fried egg for those seeking something more plant-based.

Rotating specials add a bit more variety. Often there's a soup, typically something simple and satisfying like a purée of acorn squash with sautéed mushrooms. There's also usually a fish – like the fat, seared tilefish with grilled eggplant, Israeli couscous and romesco sauce pictured above. If there's a duck preparation, it's probably worth ordering: I've enjoyed both the duck leg confit with blood orange vinaigrette and greens pictured above, and on another visit, a duck breast with kumquat jam, white asparagus and Spanish jamón.

The dessert list is compact but effective, too. There's usually some variation on this cheesecake parfait – an oddly delicious sweet, creamy, cheesy concoction, studded with plumped raisins, topped with soft cookies and some seasonal fruit. Here, it's satutéed plums; on another visit it was an excellent calamondin jam.

There's also a great ice cream sundae which is delightfully reminiscent of a McDonad's hot fudge sundae; it starts with creamy vanilla Frice Cream, then adds some Ghirardelli chocolate sauce, some whipped cream, and chopped peanuts. Often there's a dense, rich butterscotch pot de creme topped with a plume of mascarpone and a sprinkle of coarse Maldon salt.

It helps, I'll concede, that Silverlake is only a couple miles from our house. But plenty of other spots fit that description. It helps even more that the wine selection is outstanding, assembled with a focus on small producers, biodynamic and natural wines, and a fondness for oddball grapes. We've had a great Santa Barbara gamay, a fascinating orange pinot grigio from the Slovenia-Italy border, old vine cinsault from Faugères, and more. Virtually every bottle comes with a backstory which Sandy will be glad to share if you ask. It also helps that the entire crew at Silverlake, following Sandy's lead, are so consistently warm, friendly, and welcoming to everyone who visits.

Is Silverlake Bistro going to make the 50 Best Restaurants list or win anyone a James Beard award? Probably not. But it's a perfect neighborhood bistro, which is exactly what it sets out to be. And this particular middle-aged reviewer, who's not suffering from any midlife crisis, is perfectly happy with that.

Silverlake Bistro
1211 71st Street, Miami Beach, Florida


[1] And it is not, I should add, one that I see as being any different than "Why does this dining experience matter?," the question the author suggests that critics ought to be asking.

[2] On the Miami Herald's "Restaurant News and Reviews" landing page as I'm typing this, I count  nine "new opening" or "new dish" stories that are recycled press releases; seven links to "restaurant inspection" stories (two pleasingly illustrated with a picture of a cockroach); a list of "boozy brunches;" a promo for a "coquito festival;" one story about the closing of Nexxt Cafe; and one "Hidden Gems" piece from Linda Bladholm, first published a month ago, on a South Beach burger spot (with the author's name misspelled in the byline, and the restaurant's name misspelled in the web page title as "Bugermeister"). The links on the landing page go back nearly two months. Try searching "restaurant reviews" (or anything else, for that matter) using their website's search function and you'll get a "This page isn't working" message. I've gone back through nearly a month of the @MiamiHeraldFood twitter feed and can't find a link to any reviews. They're also playing the SEO game so poorly that if you google "Silverlake Bistro review," the Miami Herald review doesn't even show up in the first five pages. Somehow, you will get a link to restaurant reviews for Snohomish County, Washington before you'll find it. I've heard it said that restaurant reviews don't get clicks, which is the raison d'etre for journalism these days; but maybe it's because the readers can't find the reviews?

[3] The millennial-friendly tone is a little Yelp-ish for me, some of those reviews are actually just one-paragraph capsules, there are a couple I think really miss the mark, and it's a little weird / lazy / sloppy that two recent reviews I pulled up randomly – Hometown BBQ and Pinch Kitchen – both use the same "finding money on the ground" lede, though I'm sure I've repeated myself plenty of times too. But I'm plenty impressed with the effort that's gone into this, and that their writers show up unannounced and pay for their meals.

[4] Click the "Show all" button to see the full list I'm following there.

[5] This reviewer, too!

[6] Personally, I'm a fan of the artwork over the bar featuring the owners' pets.

[7] And this is the point where I devolve into the "Here's the apps, here's the mains, here's the desserts" format I just said was a bore.

[8] And this, to me, highlights one of my few gripes with Silverlake: for a place with a menu that's already pretty tight, ingredients have a tendency to repeat: so if you don't like blue cheese, that takes 1/3 of the six or so small plates out of contention, if prepared as listed. Happily, they're glad to accommodate Mrs. F's requests to omit the blue cheese.

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