South Beach has a new go-to spot for locals who want fresh food at prices not meant for tourists. Charles St. is so laid back and easy that you nearly forget that it is on one of Collins Avenue’s most upscale blocks. And although it’s situated in a hotel, its storefront entrance doesn’t plunk you down in the middle of a lobby.
In fact, the clean, beachy design is wonderfully calming, almost spa-like with its herringbone wood floors and sleek gray marble tabletops. Heather linen booths and cool, sea-themed trinkets give it a warm touch.
The menu, too, is an easy sell, with appealing and familiar but not boring favorites such as baby-back ribs with Asian slaw, branzino over fennel with lemon vinaigrette, braised lamb with pappardelle and roasted chicken with French beans.
But what we found best were the various seafood selections, starting with a meaty, almond-crusted crab cake with a sweet as summer corn puree, avocado slices and tiny smiles of tangy grapefruit.
An exceptionally fresh and buttery spaghetti came with Manila clams, garlic, shallots, chiles, white wine, parsley and plump, whole roasted cherry tomatoes as sweet and juicy as the fruit they are named after.
Fish selections are handled stunningly, including a wild salmon fillet with skin so crispy it could have shattered with the touch of a fork while the tender meat beneath is as succulent and fresh as any I have had this year.
Meat eaters should note that the sliders are not to be missed, especially the sumptuous short rib shreds on a toasty egg bun sprinkled with sweet, pickled red onion and a touch of melted aged Cheddar.
Simple standout sides include slightly garlicky sautéed kale and shoestring fries that come out hot, salty and crisp.
Charles St. is a collaborative effort by Maso Hospitality Group and chef Wolfgang Birk, who is making his mark as culinary director of THINK Hospitality.
Most, but not all, of the dishes we sampled were excellent. Fresh as they were, some of the salads were overly acidic, dressed more for a winter storm than our balmy shores. The octopus salad was a bit stingy, as was the beet salad, with the roots overcooked until nearly mushy.
A serviceable wine list could be better handled. Bottles are stored out in the open with only a cork as defense against oxidation. A cough-syrupy Argentine malbec could have used a bit of a chill to take off the sharp edge. Prices are four to five times retail in some cases.
Our waiter was smart, kind and funny. I would only ask that on our next visit, the staff — bored to tears, poor dears — give some extra effort to at least pretending there were more diners in the place. Our three waiters spent much of the evening cheering on the Heat from the corner of the bar, and one of the bussers sprayed down the table next to us with pungent cleaning liquid just a foot or two from our plates.
Desserts include chocolate mousse, crepe with passion fruit and a picture-perfect pistachio crème brûlée dotted with bits of toasty nuts on the sheer amber glass coating of burnt sugar. Inside, perfectly smooth, velvety custard was demurely sweet and not at all cloying.
Mornings might bring fresh squeezed juices and quinoa-fried rice or a spicy huevos rancheros, while lunch lures a young work crowd with Camembert-draped turkey burgers and perky salads. Like this hidden but handsome newcomer, the food draws you in and makes you want to stay.
Miami Herald critics dine anonymously at the newspaper’s expense.
E-mail Victoria at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @VictoriaPesceE.