Hash is being slung in a converted diner on Biscayne Boulevard in North Miami Beach, but this hash has potatoes, fennel, caramelized onions and shrimp in a delectable scampi sauce. It is the stuff of seafood dreams, not greasy spoons, served beneath a perfectly cooked piece of branzino with crisp skin and moist flesh. The fish and hash are served on a large, white plate. The $29 entree comes from the portion of the menu labeled “fancy,” but the dish encapsulates the philosophy of Mignonette Uptown and its chef-owner Danny Serfer. The restaurant is unfussy and unpretentious, simple yet elegant. Seafood is the star, but there’s no need to ham anything up.
Serfer and business partner Ryan Roman opened Mignonette Uptown in January in what used to be the Gourmet Diner, which had a three-decade run. The structure was assembled from a defunct diner shipped in pieces from New Jersey. When I entered Mignonette Uptown at dusk, with its cool-blue neon sign, silver steel frame and dim lighting, I felt as if I were entering an Edward Hopper painting. The vibe is relaxed and casual, with a neighborhood feel. Yet the food aims high and delivers, even when the inspiration is humble.
Consider, for example, the buffalo scallops ($15), an appetizer that sounds as if it could be some nightmarish fusion of TGI Friday’s and Red Lobster. Instead of deep-fried bar food that overpowers, I found a refined dish with perfect balance and flavor. Seared sea scallops with golden crusts and juicy sweet interiors were served with little, square sheets of crisp chicken skin. They were nestled atop a subtle red-vinegar sauce and celery-root puree blended with blue cheese. It was wonderful.
“Underpromise and overdeliver,” Serfer, 36, says in a follow-up interview. “The menu description doesn’t say that the scallops are seared, so it’s a little bit of a surprise.” It has become one of the restaurant’s biggest sellers.
Mignonette Uptown offers six daily varieties of raw oysters from two coasts, three types of caviar and high-quality fish prepared simply but not skimpily. In a nod to retro diner kitsch, it also has pastry chef Devin Braddock’s pies featured in a rotating display case near the front. The front counter has 23 seats overlooking the open kitchen, and the restaurant seats another 60 along the front window and a side room. Things can get cramped and uncomfortable in the smallish leather booths, one of my few quibbles.
The only other glitch: a long wait for the whole yellowtail snapper special ($37) to be filleted and served. The boneless fish arrived long after the other entrees, partly because limited staffing and space requires servers to debone the snapper in the kitchen after presenting it whole tableside. Otherwise, the service was flawless and friendly.
Score Mignonette Uptown as another winner in Serfer’s growing restaurant collection. It joins Blue Collar, which opened in 2012 in the Miami Modern district, and the original Mignonette in downtown Miami, which opened in 2014. Serfer is my kind of restaurateur, mixing highbrow and lowbrow in ways that are delicious. At Blue Collar, his rotating “Parm of the day” and “braise of the day” are homey and honest, and I can’t get enough of the braised oxtail and chicken Parm.
The Mignonettes have rotating soups, crudos and whole fish. Downtown has New Orleans accents, while Mignonette Uptown hits some Greek notes, with lamb meatballs and grilled lamb chops, courtesy of chef de cuisine Mihalis “Mo” Tzovaras, a veteran of Blue Collar. Serfer also pays tribute to his Jewish roots with potato latkes topped with smoked salmon and other seafood treats at weekend brunch.
I really admire the way Serfer has evolved, both professionally and personally, since his days working for the great Allen Susser at Chef Allen’s. Serfer has battled alcoholism and substance abuse and is open about his recovery, starting support groups geared toward restaurant industry workers. He has settled into family life as a married father of two children under age 3, with twins on the way later this summer. Serfer grew up in North Miami Beach. Mignonette feels like a homecoming for him.
“I used to skip classes at North Miami Beach High and eat at the Gourmet Diner,” Serfer says. He lives nearby and now spends most of his time at Mignonette Uptown. It is removed from Miami’s trendier enclaves on an isolated stretch of Biscayne Boulevard. “We’re in a real neighborhood,” Serfer says. “At lunch, we get a lot of people who say they were on their way to Target or Costco. But it’s also a place where you can come for an occasion.”
An occasion is what brought me to Mignonette Uptown, with the confluence of a birthday, the first anniversary of my job switch to the Eat Beat and some recent journalism awards, including first place in the national Excellence in Features Journalism contest for specialty feature writing. In modest Trumpian fashion, I gathered a dining crew around the table and made them say how honored they are to serve my agenda. Then, we ordered Champagne cocktails, oysters and caviar.
The Mignonette aperitif ($16) was a play on mignonette, the classic vinegar-and-shallot sauce that accompanies raw oysters from which the restaurant takes its name. A gastrique of French vinegar from Sauternes, pink peppercorns and shallots were placed at the bottom of a glass and topped with Champagne. “I thought of it, but I’ve never tasted it,” Serfer says. It worked perfectly as an accompaniment to a dozen pristine and briny Fanny Bay, Royal Miyagi and Beausoleil oysters ($32).
Caviar service was a wonderful throwback. We went for the midpoint option, the Siberian Baerii ($45). It featured tiny and pungent black eggs served straight from the tin with the classical accompaniments of blinis, chopped egg white, egg yolk, onions, chives and crème fraiche. The housemade blinis were not the traditional thin pancakes but were puffy and yeasty, like an oversize and pillowy oyster cracker. We loved them.
“We don’t make a tremendous amount of money on the caviar, but we wanted to make it accessible,” Serfer says. “It gives people a chance to experience something great.”
Most everything at Mignonette Uptown was great. The striped-bass crudo ($15) was gorgeous and vibrant, topped with chopped jalapenos and surrounded by orange pieces and a yellow pool of lemon juice and olive oil. The grilled grouper ($27) with beurre blanc and a side of roasted fennel was simple perfection. A side order of peas ($6), snapped with sweetness, like little pebbles of pure, late-spring bliss. The wine list, overseen by general manager Matt Dinkel, was interesting, reasonable and listed creatively in multiple ways: by color, style, geography and suggested food pairings.
Pastry chef Braddock worked with the renowned Hedy Goldsmith at Michael’s Genuine Food and Drink, but the lone dessert we ordered turned out to be a Serfer creation. Heath Bar butterscotch bread pudding ($8) was sweet and crunchy, accompanied by an airy mound of whipped cream that looked angelic. It packed a hint of devilish heat, infused with cayenne pepper. It was a fitting closing note. Beneath a simple surface, Mignonette Uptown delights with the unexpected.
13951 Biscayne Blvd., North Miami Beach
305-705-2159 or MignonetteMiami.com
Cost: Moderate to expensive. Salads and appetizers cost $9 to $19, oysters $32 a dozen, caviar $17 to $90, main courses $19 to $35, sides $6, desserts $8.
Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. daily. Dinner 5:30-10 p.m. daily (until 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday)
Credit cards: All major
Bar: Beer and wine only, with interesting and reasonable wine list
Sound level: Conversational and pleasant
Handicapped access: Ramp to elevated entrance
Parking: Free lots