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Review: Beaker & Gray is warm & trendy

 

★★★

If a philosophy major opens a restaurant, does it make a noise? The first time I went to Beaker & Gray in Wynwood, at the tail end of last year's Zika scare, which spurred a federal travel warning, the handsome room was eerily quiet. It was early on a Sunday evening in the artsy Miami neighborhood, and my group ate and drank in a tranquility that was peaceful yet jarring. The food was ambitious and mostly good. The cocktails were delicious and creatively served. But the place was a ghost town. I feared for the prospects of a venture launched in December 2015 by two Miami childhood buddies, chef Brian Nasajon, who studied philosophy at New York University, and bar manager Ben Potts, who studied business at Tulane University in New Orleans.

It turns out to have been needless worry. When I returned this winter, at 10 p.m. on a weeknight, the restaurant was in full flight. The dining room was full, the bar was packed and the open kitchen hummed, with line cooks knocking out a steady procession of small plates with influences from seemingly everywhere (Asia, Europe, South America). There were packs of bearded hipsters, young professionals and women imbibing on their girls' night out. The dark, wooden bar, hardwood floors and brick walls gave a warm and sophisticated glow to the room. If it's possible for a place to be trendy and welcoming at the same time, Beaker & Gray manages to achieve it. The eatery is open seven days until 2 a.m., serving lunch, weekend brunch, dinner and a late-night menu.

"There's good energy," says Nasajon, 31, who started his culinary career in New York and spent time at Wish and SushiSamba in Miami Beach.

There's also some pretension, which is why I thought I would hate the place before I set foot inside. Beaker & Gray's website bills its as "eatery, bar room, purlieu." I had to look up "purlieu" — "an outlying district" according to Merriam-Webster — so I guess that means the patio. The website also explains the restaurant's name: "A Beaker is a vessel used by bartenders to mix drinks. A Gray spoon is a high quality utensil used for plating and serving. Both are tools used by industry professionals who place emphasis on the quality of their product." Oh. I thought a beaker was the thing I always broke in chemistry class, and gray is the encroaching color of my hair, but whatever.

And then, there's the menu, which is more annoying and cloying than the actual food. It contains a cryptic listing of ingredients under headings such as "Bites," "Colds," "Smalls" and "Not So Smalls." The items read like a foodie vocabulary quiz, or a culinary version of "One of these things is not like the other." Some examples: "Pork belly, cascabel, lemongrass, caramel," "Florida grouper, honeydew, elderflower, fennel," and "Nova lox, horseradish, ikura, cardamom."

I had that lox plate ($12) on my first visit, and it was a surprise. Instead of sliced smoked salmon, the platter featured three dollops of fluffy fish mousse, accompanied by small mounds of salmon roe and a splatter of creamy horseradish sauce. It's not what I imagined it to be, but the flavor was good. Nasajon likes to rotate dishes seasonally, every six to eight weeks, so that summery dish is gone from the dinner menu.

A few hits stick around, including the pumpkin gnocchi ($14) with braised pork rib and manchego cheese. The flour-based dumpling is spiked with pumpkin and has become such a big seller that the flavor transcends the usual autumn season. Then, there are the cheeseburger croquettes ($9), four fried balls of ground American Wagyu beef and Yukon gold potatoes, placed atop a layer of Peruvian aji amarillo (pepper-and-cheese sauce). It's a perfect Miami bar bite, crunchy and creamy and hefty enough to soak up any craft beer or cocktail.

Speaking of cocktails, Potts' bar program has some delicious drinks, even if this is the kind of place where precious mixologists use squeeze droppers and tweezers to assemble libations. On my first visit, I had the Holliwell ($12), a blend of Stolichnaya vodka, Cocchi Americano rosa (an Italian aperitif), ginger, strawberry and mint. On my second, I had a Moscow mule ($12) with Tito's vodka, spicy ginger beer, lime juice and sprigs of fresh mint, served over crushed ice in a classic copper mug. Both were refreshing.

The cauliflower small bite ($14), with bacon, queso fresco and yuzu (a Japanese citrus fruit), also was refreshing, even if my plate was marred by a foam topping. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: The only places I want to see foam are atop my draft beer and spread across a runway when my flight has landing gear trouble. All was forgiven when a plate of sea scallops ($17) arrived, perfectly seared and served with peas and green asparagus (not the listed white asparagus) atop puddles of pureed peas and black garlic.

The plates are all over the map, with influences from every continent, so assembling a meal that fits together can be challenging, particularly when something goes awry. That's what happened on my second meal, when I sat at the bar alone. I started with the housemade ricotta ($12), a slab covered with dollops of creamy cheese, hunks of dehydrated figs, slices of Spanish chorizo, bits of olives and grilled slices of Zak the Baker herbed bread. It was delicious.

Then came a disaster, beef Wellington ($28) that was overcooked and served with a cold pea puree and liver mousse. The pea puree was supposed to be hot and the liver room temperature. I was so hungry, I ate one of the two Wellington pieces, even though the pastry shell was almost burnt and the meat was leathery. I belatedly threw up the white flag, and alerted the server. He took it back and told me the kitchen agreed that it was overdone, but said that since I had already eaten so much he couldn't remove the dish from my tab. Instead, he offered me a comped drink or dessert.

I was still hungry, so I ordered the yellow curry rice noodles ($16), topped with snow crab and Chinese sausage. In my mind, that should have been the comped dish. Or I should have been charged for the noodles, and not the Wellington. Nasajon apologized when I later recounted the episode. He says I shouldn't have been charged for either dish. The woeful Wellington turned out to be a blessing, because the curry noodles provided one of the more weirdly wonderful tastes I've had in a while. Made with a base of coconut milk, this was much creamier than the typical Thai or Malaysian noodle dish. Imagine an Asian version of fettucine Alfredo, with the added bonus of sweet crab and chewy sausage. It was a sloppy-looking dish, but I loved it.

I ended up taking the complimentary drink instead of dessert. At Beaker & Gray, where good vibes make up for the occasional hiccup, a liquid finish seemed like the logical conclusion. This comfy spot is the essence of bar chic.

mmayo@southflorida.com, 954-356-4508. Follow my food adventures on Instagram: @mikemayoeats. Sign up for my weekly dining newsletter SouthFlorida.com/EatBeatMail.

BEAKER & GRAY

2637 N. Miami Ave., Miami

305-699-2637 or BeakerAndGray.com

Cuisine: American and global small plates, with a few larger main courses

Cost: Moderate-expensive. Small plates and salads cost $7-$18. Large plates cost $22-28.

Hours: Noon-2 a.m. Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Saturday-Sunday

Reservations: Accepted. Can book through Resy app.

Credit cards: All major

Bar: Full bar with specialty cocktails, craft beer and wine

Sound level: Lively

Wheelchair access: Ramp from street level

Parking: Metered street and valet

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