Amir Ben Zion, the savvy and ambitious Israeli businessman who brought us Bond St. Sushi, Bardot and Gigi, intends his new South Beach hybrid, Cooper Avenue, to be a sort of modern Main Street — “a 21st century food service concept” to satisfy “the needs of the Mac generation,” as the website declares.
I’m not entirely sure what that means, but I like most of what I’ve eaten here so far.
There’s plenty more to look forward to. In addition to the restaurant, the nearly 10,000-square-foot space will house a deli, bakery with pizzas, late-night lounge, market and boutique, all packed neatly into the Frank Gehry-designed New World Center.
The steely, industrial-gray warehouse space has floor-to-ceiling windows and a cool vibe with a soundtrack that’s sometimes cranked up a bit too high with a kitschy mix of ’80s hits and current dance music. Straight-back, metal chairs could use cushions, but otherwise the place is comfy as can be with its low lighting and well-spaced tables. Red market umbrellas shade outside seating.
The menu, printed on rough brown cardboard, is nicely limited to a couple of dozen items that appeal to a grown-up crowd, but it’s confusingly organized. Savvy waiters could clear things up, but the T-shirt clad cuties here seem clueless.
So diners are left to figure out on their own how to order. Some dishes, like a sausage sandwich stacked Dagwood-style, are outsized, while others, like the veal jus-drenched meatballs, disappear in a few forkfuls.
I’m a big fan of the salads (categorized, oddly, as “small plates” rather than “from the garden”). The simple but spectacular lobster salad features tender, steamed claws on a bed of frisee dotted with bits of snappy corn, tiny heirloom tomatoes, meaty fava beans and a fan of perfectly ripe avocado slices.
Also delicious is the golden and red beet salad with gently seared squares of goat cheese as well as a lovely local green composition with iridescent fennel, see-through sheaves of radish and cherry tomato halves.
Big plates include a gorgeously glistening pappardelle with earthy hunks of braised lamb and shavings of Manchego cheese and an equally toothsome short rib with perfect brussels sprouts and celery root. A slender swordfish steak was overseasoned but otherwise picture perfect with its chorizo and sweet corn accompaniments.
Sides like a fiery kale sauté with garlic, bacon and chiles are mostly fantastic, at least for pyromaniacs like me who don’t mind a gentle scorching.
The herby fries can be addictively hot and loaded with sprightly spices or dangerously oversalted. Likewise, calamari was pristine on one visit but chewy and doused with what tasted like dried herbs on another.
A small selection of petite desserts changes often. For now, a not-too-sweet square of flourless chocolate cake works well with its dark, bittersweet cherries, and a dense brick of carrot cake has a satisfyingly chunky texture and a rich cream cheese frosting.
There’s a sophisticated selection of wine and beer, plus cocktails by the pop-up Broken Shaker crew that include twists on classics such as the Moscow Mule and Sazerac with house-made bitters and syrups — a steal at $10-$12.
It needs some tweaking, especially in the service department (welcome to South Beach), but Cooper Avenue is a welcome addition to the scene.