Overall impression: While Pubbelly has been on my radar since it opened in the fall of 2010, it wasn't until February that I paid attention. That's when the James Beard Foundation included Pubbelly among its semifinalist nominations. While it didn't make the finalist cut, it was enough to get me in the doors of this lively casual tavern in Sunset Harbour, a Miami Beach neighborhood more attuned to locals than tourists. Pork reigns on the small-plates menu and on the staff uniforms. But the menu takes its ethnic cues from Asia, Spain, Italy, France and the United States -- just about everywhere.
Background: To read the resumes of co-owners José Mendín (Nobu, Sushisamba Dromo, Mercadito), Andreas Schreiner (Barton G., Hyatt Resorts, Four Seasons, Casa Tua) and Sergio Navarro (La Broche, Norman Van Aken's Mundo, Sushi Samba, Mercadito) is to understand the influences to be found on the Pubbelly menu. Couple their experience with their ethnic backgrounds, and you have a restaurant that looks like an American tavern but tastes like Asia and Spain filtered through a European lens. Mendín is the head chef. Schreiner is the front-of-the-house manager, and Navarro is pastry chef and in-house interior designer. Last fall, the trio opened Pubbelly Sushi next door and Barceloneta, a Barcelona-inspired tapas tavern, a few doors east.
Ambience: Schreiner says all three owners had been working in Chicago before deciding to open in Miami Beach. So it was destiny that they found a restaurant with 20-something-foot ceilings and Chicago-style brick walls. It felt like home. It seats just 45 people.
The menu: While it changes daily, the menu is divided into seven categories: plates; vegetables and sides; raw bar and charcuterie; bread; dumplings; noodles and rice; and spring. That last category changes seasonally. Food arrives as it's ready in no particular order. If I have one problem with the menu, it's that everything is similarly big-flavored and over-the-top. It would be nice to have some raw, steamed or otherwise simply cooked items to break up the richness of the menu.
Plates: Don't come here and not order the McBelly ($6), a slider of barbecue-pork belly, kimchi and pickles. It's pleasing in both texture and taste. Fried chicken ($9) thighs are meant to be wrapped with kimchi and mustard miso in bibb lettuce leaves. Shortrib tartare ($14) gets some heat from Japanese hot-bean sauce and some coolness from apples and quail egg. Bay scallops bourguignonne ($17) are another don't-miss menu item, served in an escargot dish with garlic butter and baguette. Fried snapper salad ($12) wasn't to everyone's liking, but the lightly battered, flash-fried fish was perfect with Japanese greens and sweet soy. Barbecue baby-back ribs ($15/$28) were fall-off-the-bone tender and served with peanuts, spicy coleslaw and a cheese biscuit. Steak frites ($32) were classically prepared, but came with roasted shiitakes and shiso bearnaise.
Vegetables and sides: Crispy bok choy with garlic ($7) was good, but this was one of those dishes that could be presented more simply as a foil to the rich flavors of the menu. Same goes for Brussels sprouts ($7) with bacon miso and sea salt. It was tasty, but oh, so much frying.
Other tastes: Goat-butter toast ($3) will give you a new appreciation for butter fat. Pork-belly-and-scallion dumplings ($10) are the kind of dumpling every Chinese restaurant ought to be serving. And housemade gnudi ($15) was exquisite, with tender braised shortrib, pumpkin shiitake, parmesan and black-lager jus.
Sweet! Soft-serve custard is a featured part of every dessert, from bread pudding with dry cherries and caramel sauce ($6) to brownies and bacon ($6) and Pubbelly Key lime ($6). Wow!
Liquid assets: The beer selection isn't quite as good as the wine list, but it's well-priced, diverse and succinct.
Service: Impressive, given the casual setting. On one visit, our waitress never used a pen, but somehow remembered everything we'd ordered. While some small-plates restaurants encourage ordering too much, that wasn't true here.
1418 20th St., Miami Beach
Cuisine: International small plates
Hours: Dinner Tuesday-Sunday
Reservations: Only for parties of eight or more
Credit cards: AE, D, MC, V
Bar: Beer and wine
Sound level: Noisy when full
Outside smoking: Yes
For kids: Highchairs, menu items on request
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Meter parking or $10 valet parking
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