Like an aging diva who knows how to present her best side, Café Roval requires diners to walk down a narrow, stone side path to enter through a lush garden with a waterfall and rock-rimmed pond.
Except for Sunday brunch, the restaurant in Miami’s Upper East Side opens only in the forgiving light of evenings.
The 120-seat, one-room dining room, overlooking the backyard oasis, is a 1923 historic pump house that once delivered water to Morningside and then-Lemon City. Built from oolitic limestone, the house is covered in vines and twinkling lights.
Candles in the fireplace and small, white-shaded lamps on oak wood tables cast shadows on the fossil-pocked rock walls. Gilt-framed paintings, mirrors and wood-framed windows add to the enchantment. Metal chandeliers hang from the cathedral ceiling’s exposed rafters. An orange tomcat from the neighborhood occasionally slips past the hostess stand and cozy wine bar to wander the green-painted concrete floor.
If we could eat with our eyes, this would be a five-star restaurant.
But Mark Soyka — the pioneering restaurateur who bestowed us with News Cafe in an undiscovered, decrepit South Beach in 1988 and Van Dyke Cafe on a deserted Lincoln Road in 1994 — is better known for his keen sense of place, not plates. He has spent his career in Miami turning historic structures into charming eating spaces, providing community in up-and-coming neighborhoods. About 17 years ago, he moved his talents to the mainland and opened Soyka, followed by the carwash-turned-pizzeria Andiamo just a short walk from his latest passion project.
Next to a Haitian Baptist church, the coral rock structure was a private home and salon before Soyka realized its dining potential. Set off from the street by a curly iron gate, Café Roval opened late last year. Beyond the golden glow of the house, the café’s seating extends from a wide patio across the long, tiered backyard, connected by a meandering, palm tree-lined stone path. Lagoon-like ponds running through the middle of the yard are presided over by a bronze Buddha.
Although umbrellas and awnings provide cover, transferring food from the house’s kitchen into the garden is tricky in the rain, especially along slippery rocks. The outdoor garden shuts down when it storms. Low outdoor lighting also presents a problem for backyard dining. We had trouble finding our footing on the path, reading the menu and seeing what was on our plates — particularly disconcerting with the vegan special, a plant-based rice dish that was so overcooked and mushy that the vegetables were unrecognizable.
Café Roval’s one-page menu is divided simply into starters, main dishes and side vegetables. Twelve appetizers range from seasonal oysters and Royal Siberian Osetra caviar to salads and a cheese board. A yellowfin tuna crudo with flat bread is a fine beginning, dressed with salty-tart ponzu dressing, red onions and capers then topped with baby greens. A crowning speckled quail egg still in the miniscule, half-opened shell can be poured over the top as a silky, buttery sauce. Another reliable starter: firm and chilled wild tiger shrimp, three to a plate and served with cocktail sauce and Meyer lemon zest aioli.
Eight entrees keep it straightforward. Roast chicken, a lamb burger with feta and short ribs are among the hearty options. The Mediterranean mussels in white wine broth with baby artichokes were plump and juicy, but we were surprised by an unexpected peppery kick in place of the menu’s promised sage seasoning.
The butterflied local yellowtail snapper made a beautiful display, with charred cherry tomatoes layered on top like scales. Served with gold potato confit and asparagus, and the lemon-thyme seasoning flavored the entire plate.
A Manhattan strip steak in a Malbec wine sauce was cooked perfectly to order and served with roasted Yukon Gold potatoes and firm broccolini.
Now helming the kitchen, executive chef Peter Fred, formerly the sous chef at Brickell’s Toscana Divino, is fully capable of delivering Soyka’s standard fare. But don’t expect to be wowed by anything other than your surroundings. There are few, if any, specials offered most nights. Desserts, which include two types of crepes and truffle chocolate cake, taste like afterthoughts pulled from the nearest cookbook.
For brunch, the atmosphere and Prosecco-based cocktails are garden party-worthy, but the tres leches pancakes are dry and the American platter of eggs, bacon and pancakes might as well be called the Grand Slam.
Café Roval deserves attention because she has good history and bones. Out of respect and fascination, we’ll return — we just hope it doesn’t rain.
Follow Jodi Mailander Farrell on Twitter: @JodiMailander.
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If You Go
Place: Café Roval
Address: 5808 NE Fourth Ct., Miami
Rating: ☆ ☆ 1/2 (Good)
Contact: 786-953-7850; http://caferoval.com
Hours: 5 p.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Tuesday, until 11 p.m. Wednesday and until midnight Thursday-Saturday; Sunday brunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Prices: $11-$18 appetizers, $14-$38 entrees, $9-$10 desserts
FYI: VS, MC, AmEx; beer, wine and wine-based craft cocktails only; street parking or valet in lot next door ($5).
What The Stars Mean: 1 (Poor) 1.5 (Fair) 2 (OK) 2.5 (Good) 3 (Very Good) 3.5 (Excellent) 4 (Exceptional)