Talking to Sam Gorenstein makes me feel good about the world.
His latest restaurant concept, Zuuk, (the name is a mashup of Arab and Hebrew meaning market) is a gift for sore taste buds. Not only has this incredibly talented chef-turned-owner brought together the foods of the Middle East into a fairly simple build-your-own-bowl concept, he has managed to bring more fresh ingredients to the plate than any other fast-casual spot in this city.
I’m always preaching to my kids that a good vegetable is hard to find when you’re out and about — especially in Miami. (No, platanos don’t count.) Restaurants, especially low cost ones, can be real veg deserts.
Gorenstein and partner Roger Duarte, along with Daniel Ganem, his former Sous Chef at BLT, are passionate about offering “really amazing food without breaking the bank.”
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And they do. The space, a brightly lighted storefront just steps from their My Ceviche looks more or less the same. A wall-mounted menu complete with pictures makes ordering at a counter easier — though the number of unfamiliar choices might baffle some. Young staffers customize your plate in an assembly line, a la Chipotle.
And prices are not much more. It would be tough to spend more than $13, even if you up-order the deftly spiced lamb kefte or the tender and terrific slow-roasted beef. Okay, add in a soda from the Boylan self-serve, a craft beer or serviceable pistachio baklava and you might hike it to $20.
The portions are large and the choices are many — perhaps too many. For the base, you can go with a nutty basmati turmeric rice or a fluffy bulgar wheat, super fresh lettuce greens or a combination of grains and greens.
Layer in up to three dips and spreads. We liked the rich, red pepper hummus and a light mint tzatziki with shredded cucumbers as well as a deeply roasted version of the classic eggplant dip, babaghanoush.
Then choose a protein. The plump falafel have great flavor but do suffer a bit in texture since they are baked rather than fried, though calorie-conscious folks will appreciate the savings.
Our favorite however is the turmeric-yellow chicken, which reminds me of the Halal guys’ carts in New York City minus the thick tangy-sweet mayonnaise sauce. But the meat — skinless, hormone-free thighs hacked into a tight dice — is tender and moist with a lemony flavor and a hint of garlic.
Also fantastic are the juicy lamb kofte, aggressively seasoned and nicely charred. Grilled veggies make a fine light option.
Toppings such as pickled neon-red cabbage, see-through slivers of radishes and feta cheese are colorful and fantastically fresh. Jalapeno peppers, chopped kalamata olives, fresh tabouleh and sumac-tossed red onion slivers add punch.
It would be much nicer to have a separate plate for the lovely dips so that you could scoop them up with pita or chips. As it is they get lost in the heap.
The focus of this fast-food spot is definitely the quality of the food. What other restaurant soaks its own chickpeas for hummus and serves fresh-squeezed juices and brewed teas such as coconut green tea or mango coriander? The Greek yogurt tahini and honey frozen yogurt wasn’t offered on my various visits (machine acting up), but I hear it is revelatory.
But as good as the food is, the service is abysmal. The evening crew seemed to be direct descendants of the Three Stooges. They wove a human macramé with their arms while attempting to put together three bowls and take an order over the phone. Their outrageous cluelessness had me wondering if they had been out back with another kind of bowl.
Not only were they physically clumsy, their knowledge of the ingredients was sketchy. No, those gorgeous jars of preserved lemons are not “too old” to eat or “just for decoration.” The tasty little triangle of a dessert with all the nuts and honey is baklavah and the staff should pronounced it correctly. Zhoug is the name of the kicky spice blend made with cilantro. And Harissa is the more fiery red stuff that pepper heads will adore. Their servers could use a primer.
And while I am kvetching, I must say that the lights are too bright, the fan annoyingly loud and seats of the sort that will send you straight to the chiropractor — mine is only blocks away, thank god.
But the point at Zuuk is really the food. It’s healthy. It’s fast. It’s cheap. It’s fresh. And it’s damn good.
Follow Victoria on Twitter @VictoriaPesceE and on her Facebook fan page.
Miami Herald critics dine anonymously at the newspaper’s expense.
If You Go
Place: Zuuk Mediterranean Kitchen
Address: 1250 S. Miami Ave., #105, Brickell
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ stars (Very Good)
Contact: 305-200-3145; zuukkitchen.com
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. (until 11 p.m. weekends)
Prices: bowls, wraps and salads $8-$11; sides $2-$5, dessert $3.
FYI: Can get loud inside; craft beer; online ordering; pick up and delivery; metered street parking and nearby garages; no reservations; AX, DS, MC, VS.
What The Stars Mean: 1 (Poor) 1.5 (Fair) 2 (OK) 2.5 (Good) 3 (Very Good) 3.5 (Excellent) 4 (Exceptional)