Restaurant reviewing isn't unlike taking a photo. It's a snapshot, a moment in time. I go to a restaurant expecting the best, but like any restaurantgoer, I'm sometimes disappointed.
So there we were on a Sunday night at Tongue and Cheek in Miami Beach. Afterward, two things came to mind: If a restaurant doesn't want to be open on Sunday evening, why open the doors? And as much as I don't want to believe the clichés about bad South Beach service, they are alive and well at this 9-month-old spot in a neighborhood locals call South of Fifth.
Why did it take 15 minutes to get someone to take our drink order? The easy answer is to blame the untrained waiter who fumbled through our meal. But what kind of management puts an untrained server on the floor of what's supposed to be a serious restaurant?
And is it really possible that no one in the entire restaurant can tell us what kind of oysters are being served?
"The regular chef isn't here tonight," we were told.
So where does that leave us regular customers?
Tongue and Cheek is hailed as a chef-driven, ingredient-conscious, neighborhood bistro. Certainly, owner Jamie DeRosa impressed me during his time as executive chef at Geoffrey Zakarian's Tudor House in Miami Beach. He has a top-notch resume that includes stints at Spago in Beverly Hills and time at the three Michelin-starred the Fact Duck in England. He also worked with Allen Susser at the short-lived Taste Gastropub in Delray Beach.
So why would a chef of DeRosa's caliber leave his lovely restaurant unmanaged on a Sunday night?
Much of the food is very good. But what isn't very good is very bad. I chalk that up, once again, to a mismanaged kitchen.
I'm thinking of a dish called "Gin and Juice," crudo Japanese hamachi served with Florida grapefruit sorbet ($17). Sounds good. But the not-regular-chef sprinkled salt over the entire dish. Likewise, Idaho River trout ($32) was so salty we couldn't eat it. The trout itself had so little flavor, I wondered I if I'd been served a three-dimensional print of one of my favorite freshwater fish.
Many of the items from the "Snack" section of the menu were delicious. Deviled eggs ($6) with Florida orange gelee were nicely done, even if we tasted none of the mentaiko roe in the description of the dish. Warm pretzels with purple mustard were a cheffy upgrade to the pretzel carts of my childhood. Chicken-skin chicharrones ($9), unbelievably, could have used a little more salt. By the way, we believe the oysters ($4 each) were Blue Points. They were served with carbonated cucumber mignonette. Very nice.
From the "Mids" section of the menu came delicious, Rhode Island-style fried clams with pickled hot and sweet peppers and smoke aioli. Too much batter can ruin clams, but that wasn't the case here. Fried chicken with pickled red cabbage, buttermilk biscuit and Tabasco Hollandaise ($24) was what I hoped Tongue and Cheek was all about. The chicken was fresh and hot with pleasantly crispy skin. The pickled cabbage and Hollandaise were a good foil to the fried meat.
But then came octopus Bolognese ($25), served with ricotta gnocchi, which was served at room temperature. I should mention here that we were one of three tables in the 150-seat restaurant. Being busy is never an excuse to send out dishes at the wrong temperature. So I still don't know why poutine ($12) with braised brisket, cheddar and pastrami spiced fries came cold. Does anyone really like cold french fries?
Other side dishes were more successful, including Brussels sprouts with whipped ricotta and pistachio ($9) and roasted corn with lime, espelette, aioli and Parmesan.
Pastry chef Ricardo Torres' creations were the most consistently well-executed dishes, from carrot and zucchini cake with salted pecan butter ice cream ($9) to brown-butter-crusted apple pie ($10). But the showstopper was blonde chocolate and coffee custard with pistachio cake and Dippin' Dots ice cream ($11). Here, Torres plays not only with differing textures and sweetness, but with the wonderful contrast of cold and very cold. It left me wanting to see what else he can do.
Would Tongue and Cheek be better on another night? Probably. But that's not the way restaurants are supposed to work.
431 Washington Ave., Miami Beach
Cuisine: Eclectic New American
Hours: Dinner daily, brunch Saturday-Sunday
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Full service
Sound level: Conversational
Outside smoking: Yes
For kids: Highchairs, boosters, menu, menu items on request
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
Parking: Valet $10 weeknights, $20 weekends, $30 for holidays