With the opening of the astounding structure known as Brickell City Centre, Miami’s financial district has hopped into overdrive, a skyscraper-laden, traffic-dense, retail and restaurant center the likes of which we’ve never seen before.
Yet amid all the glass and chrome and idling foreign cars waiting for the Miami River drawbridge sits a comfortable hangout for locals, a place where you can kick back and watch a football game or an old movie, sample craft cocktails and eat creative, made-to-order food that really has no business being in a bar.
It’s Baby Jane, kind of the baby sister to Ariete, where chef Michael Beltran is doing some dazzling cooking as part of the Coconut Grove restaurant revival. Beltran and partner Jason Odio launched Ariete and then opened Baby Jane. Beltran calls it “drink forward,” a place that focuses on cocktails yet offers ceviche, beet and peach salad and a memorable steak tartare to go with its more typical bar food.
Baby Jane has about 70 seats inside and out, with a big bar, a handful of indoor tables, a patio trapped in a wind tunnel between skyscrapers and a big projection television on the back wall. The library-like interior is pleasantly cozy, with a wall of cubbyholes holding books and knickknacks, a cluster of plates on which regulars have penned messages and funny slogans and a retro refrigerator door serving as the entrance to the bathrooms.
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Cocktails have cute names like Bebito, Jane and Juice, Golden Hawn and Pedro Pan. Servers are happy and friendly if a bit scattershot, but the vibe of the place makes this OK.
Baby Jane’s menu has a lot of things that people who are drinking want to eat. But there is a path to eating a top-grade meal here that doesn’t focus on deep-fried finger foods.
Take the local fish ceviche. This simple, straightforward ceviche is made from the fresh fish brought in daily at Ariete — grouper, cobia, red snapper — chopped and tossed with citrus, soy, herbs and red onion. It is a light, fresh treat to start.
Beet and peach salad (fruit choice is seasonal and probably will be mango in the summer) features local greens, pistachios, whipped ricotta, champagne vinaigrette, mint, parsley and tarragon. The beets are lightly salted and roasted and chilled. It’s refreshing and big enough to share.
Steak tartare is minced flat iron steak with shallots, chives, crispy malanga, lime juice and Cajun spice. The citrus and Cajun spice cut the density of the meat, and a runny soft-cooked egg on top adds still more delectable richness. Scoop it onto freshly grilled bread.
Now let’s get into some intense bar food. The house burger is a slam dunk. The double patty is a mix of house (Ariete)-ground chuck, brisket, short rib and ribeye fat, and if that sounds like a recipe for a dense, rich, juicy burger, you’re right. American cheddar oozes all over, and homemade bread-and-butter pickles, made at Ariete, add a sharpness that will leave you wanting more.
Pork belly banh mi features two sliders on country baguette, big pieces of pork belly slathered with the caramel fish sauce, pickled daikon and carrots, with a layer of spicy mayo. Good flavor combination, but one of our sliders suffered from overly chewy pork.
Beltran likes to evolve the menu constantly. Take the soy caramel chicken wings, coated with a glaze made of soy sauce, shallots, garlic, fish sauce and sugar, reduced down. Originally, there was much more fish sauce in the glaze, a salty and esoteric concoction that might fly at Ariete but didn’t mesh too well with cocktails. So the fish sauce was tempered and more soy added. The salty-sweet flavor tandem is a lot of fun, but half our wings — the non-drumstick ones — were unacceptably tough.
There aren’t many composed entrees on the menu here, but fresh, local grilled fish is always a good option. Our succulent swordfish rested on a bed of shaved salad (fennel, radish, red onion) with a champagne vinaigrette. Orange salsa on top added a zesty finish.
Grilled chicken thighs get the Cuban treatment with mojo Frances, a dark chicken jus with sour orange, vinegar and onions. A luscious yuca mash is the starch, and roasted fennel and charred onions round it out.
Steak frittes is a natural dish for a bar. The generous portion of grilled flat iron steak is beefy and juicy, but the superstar here is a big portion of French fries hand cut, blanched in oil and chilled and then fried again upon order. The double-cooking lends a crisp joyfulness that overcomes any guilty feeling about inhaling a pile of fries.
Desserts aren’t here yet, because Baby Jane has no freezer. Baked cookies are on the way. It’ll be a good excuse to return.
Miami Herald critics dine anonymously at the newspaper’s expense.
If you go
Place: Baby Jane
Address: 500 Brickell Ave., 105E, Miami
Rating: ☆ ☆ 1/2 (Good)
Contact: 786-803-8004; babyjanemiami.com
Hours: Noon-3 a.m. Sunday-Thursday; till 5 a.m. Friday-Saturday (kitchen closes at 2 a.m.)
Prices: Starters $4-$15; entrees $15-$22; craft cocktails $12-$16
FYI: VS, MC, AmEx; metered parking on street or a more expensive garage across the street; moderate noise level.
What the stars mean: 1 (Poor) 1.5 (Fair) 2 (OK) 2.5 (Good) 3 (Very Good) 3.5 (Excellent) 4 (Exceptional)