Monday, May 5, 2008

Restaurant review - Abokado

Mary Brickell Village,
900 South Miami Avenue,
Miami, Fl., 33130
T 305.347-3700
F 305.347-3777
Open Sun.-Wed. 12:00 p.m.-11:00 p.m.,
and Thu- Sat. 12:00 p.m.-midnight

I don't really get out much so maybe everyone already knows about Mary Brickell Village. I only heard about it last week. Tucked away at the east end of Calle Ocho, the mall is a bit hard to find and when you do its pretty unassuming until you get inside and see the central plaza laid out in front of you. There's a fair bit of shopping, but we're here to talk about food and Mary Brickell Village has a pretty impressive line up of restaurants:
Abokado Sushi Restaurant
Balans Restaurant
Blue Martini
Grimpa Steakhouse
P.F. Chang’s
Oceanaire Seafood Room
Rosa Mexicano
Kuva Restaurant & Lounge
Blu Pizza e Cucina

The standout here is clearly Rosa Mexicano which was mobbed fairly early on both the Monday and Thursday nights I was in the area. Tonight I wasn't planning on going there anyway, I was headed for Abokado.

On its website, Abokado describes its concept:
"Abokado’s Japanese Pan-Latin menu is born of the union of traditional Japanese and Latin American cuisines, preserving the natural balance, taste, aroma and texture of fresh seasonal ingredients from both worlds.

"The restaurant’s distinctive signature dishes - handcrafted to perfection by expert chefs - create a cuisine that redefines fusion presenting a true evolution of flavor. The menu incorporates and respects the distinctive character and essence of each cuisine and culture represented."

Sounds intriguing, doesn't it? I definitely thought so, so, with my waiter's help, I picked out a selection of dishes that you can't find anywhere else.

I tried
The Abokado "Nachos" - spicy tuna, avocado, cucumber and kaiware sprouts served on top of crispy shiso leaf,*

the tiradito sampler, which included:
Tuna Tataki - tuna, apple-daikon relish, aji-amarillo sauce *
Salmon - avocado, Asian pear, salmon roe with jalapeño and key lime ponzu
Hamachi - serrano, cilantro, avocado relish with chile-sesame ponzu *
Beef Filet - crispy shallots, jicama, micro arugula with yuzu truffle aioli,

the Viva roll- spicy tuna, avocado, cucumber, cilantro and jalapeño wrapped in warm flour tortilla, served with Spicy Crab Mix *

I'm sorry I don't have any pictures; I wasn't really planning to do a review after just one visit so I didn't bring my camera along. It's a shame as all of the dishes were beautifully laid out. I think I tried enough different dishes and saw enough of a pattern emerging that I can make a make something of a judgment. Just keep in mind that a) I didn't try any main dishes and b) I like big bold flavors. If you're the sort who's always finding food too spicy, you'll have a very different experience than I did.

Let's start with my waiter's primary suggestion, the "nachos". I was served tempura fried shiso leaves, each with a dollop of tuna paste dotted with tiny bits of diced avocado and cucumber. I can't say I noticed the sprouts. It's a fun idea and quite pretty with the vivid green of the shiso leaves contrasted with a bed of threads of deep red beets. Unfortunately, the tuna was extremely mild and a 5 millimeter cube of avocado doesn't add anything. This was finger food, so you pick up each leaf like a tortilla chip and take a bite. The flavor starts with a hint of tuna but that's quickly overwhelmed by the tempura batter. And that's all there was to it. If it wasn't trying so hard to be clever I wouldn't mind so much. I still wouldn't like it, but I wouldn't be actively insulted by the idea that I'm supposed to like it. Cleverness is never more important than flavor.

The tiradito sampler was a step up, but still didn't wow me at all. The tuna had a microgram of relish and a couple drops of sauce so it was just a piece of tuna with a hint of burn. That's something that particularly bugged me about all of the spicy dishes. (The ones marked with a star, theoretically.) The spice was always the heat of a raw slice of pepper; It was never incorporated into the dish to work with the other flavors. On the other hand, I did like how the tuna was marinated as a chunk and then sliced to mimic pieces of seared tuna.

My first impression of the salmon was that the pear was a puzzling addition that didn't make any sense. But the real problem was that it was undersauced. My waiter brought me a little sauce sampler dish and an extra drizzle of ponzu really tied the dish together. So this one was well-conceived but poorly executed.

The hamachi I liked just the way it was. The avocado relish (It was guacamole. Why couldn't they just call it guacamole?) paired well with the fish and there was enough of the ponzu for the chile and sesame add some extra notes.

The beef I liked as well, but it was essentially beef carpaccio with a bit of crunchy vegetable in a mayonaise. Nothing wrong with that, but in a blind tasting Japanese-Pan Latin is not going to be in your top ten guesses.

Finally there's the Viva roll which can best be described as a nice try. Again all the flavors of the fillings were so mild that the primary flavor was the carrying vessel, in this case, warm tortilla. I found myself wanting a salsa of some sort to finish the dish, to give it some character. But the real tragedy was the "spicy crab mix"; it had the unmistakable flavor of a scoop of school cafeteria crab salad.

And to drink I had a pot of nice enough darjeeling tea. Along with all the various booze options, Abokado offers nine teas. My waiter brought out a box with little vials of each of the tea blends to sniff. Other than the darjeeling, they were all strongly fruity or herbal which I like but I'd never have with a meal.

My overall impression is that not enough thought has gone into how all of the pieces fit together both in the individual dishes and overall. Everything from flavor components that don't balance to the host disagreeing with the waiter's recommendations to putting the dishwasher right next to the sushi bar so you can smell the detergent wafting out. It's those stupid little mistakes and the fact that all the flavors were so muted that add up to a dining experience that have no desire to repeat. And I suppose I should mention that, with tip, the meal cost me around $75, but I'd have felt a bit ripped off at half that.

So that was my first restaurant review. What did you think? What should I have mentioned that I didn't? I know I should have photos of the food and decor. The decor was nice enough, sleek modern and all that. The place was nearly empty and the service a bit over-attentive right up until I got my bill and then my waiter vanished.

[Note: The reviewer for New Times agrees with me. See excerpts and a link to the whole thing here. The reviewer for the Miami Herald doesn't. See the same link.]

If you really want Japanese-Latin fusion, Sushi Chef on Coral Way does a few dishes in that area and I think they do it better. The plates aren't laid out nearly so prettily, but their spicy tuna is actually spicy, their ponzu has a sharp citrus tang and their flavors actually work together. And isn't that what's important?

[Note of 8/14: My last visit to Sushi Chef was mediochre I've heard from a couple other people who weren't thrilled either. A couple of off nights? Or has it gone downhill? Tough to say. I stand by my disappointment with Abokado, though.]


Anonymous said...

Not much to say, mentioning Sushi Chef on Coral Way explains everything. Spicy (Frozen) Tuna, no wonder is really spicy. So big bold flavors....

billjac said...

Frozen fish is no big deal even if tuna is exempted from the FDA requirement.

(from the New York Times April 8, 2004):
Shin Tsujimura, the sushi chef at Nobu, closer to Wall Street, said he froze his own tuna. "Even I cannot tell the difference between fresh and frozen in a blind test," he said.

Even Masa Takayama, whose sushi temple Masa, in the Time Warner Center, charges a minimum of $300 to worship, said he used frozen tuna when fresh is unavailable.

Many sushi bars, in Japan and elsewhere, routinely use frozen fish when fresh is unavailable or more expensive than the market will bear.

"In Japan," Mr. Kawauchi said, "50 percent of the sushi and sashimi is frozen. Only my American customers are so concerned with fresh fish."

Sushi Fresh From the Deep . . . the Deep Freeze

If you've had a bad experience at Sushi Chef or if you don't like its down-market style or traditional menu feel free to critique them on those points, but I've been through most of their menu and I haven't had anything as badly prepared or as ill-conceived as my meal at Abokado and freezing is not really a legitimate complaint unless you know they're botching the defrosting procedure.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I'm really surprised about your "review." I put it in quotations only to humor you since that's how you define this to be. To me, it's more of an attack - almost of a personal nature I believe.
I, along with co-workers and friends, frequent Abokado since it opened a couple of months ago and have shared nothing but great experiences. From great quality ingredients to attractive presentations, as well as consistently providing great service... I have nothing but praise. While I can obviously see how someone might enjoy a dish more than another... I just question the purpose of your writings.
Reading your comments only makes me wonder if there are ulterior motives to your comments.
For those of you on the fence about Abokado, go in and check it out. You'll be glad you did.

billjac said...

A personal attack? How can it be a personal attack when I don't talk about anything but the food? I don't know anyone involved in Abokado and the maitre d' actually seemed like a pretty nice guy.

You complimented the ingredients, the presentations and the service. I don't disagree with any of that. I thought that they consistently squandered great ingredients on dishes that looked great and tasted lousy. It's the recipes I take issue with.

You're also right that tastes vary. I put my cards on the table in my review; I like big flavors. People with a more subtle palate or put more value on a pretty plate than I do will have a different experience. Anyone on the fence should go and judge it for themselves.