Restaurant News & Reviews

Flashes of magic at ‘Top Chef’ alumni’s Sarsaparilla Club

The short rib dumplings are stuffed with savory pulled meat and a creamy base.
The short rib dumplings are stuffed with savory pulled meat and a creamy base.

The long-awaited Miami return of “Top Chef” alums Jeff McInnis and Janine Booth rides on a pushcart.

A full-aproned server sheepishly wheels the metal and wood, two-tiered cart through the poolside dining room three times during a meal at the new Sarsaparilla Club inside South Beach’s Shelborne Hotel. Ferrying small plates dubbed “American dim sum,” the cart bears handwritten signs advertising prepared starters that are partially assembled tableside.

A tiny bowl of chopped yellow and red tomatoes on creamy ricotta receives a plop of chilled tomato sorbet and a flourish of herbs. Ta-da! Slivers of carrot and beet “tartare” are tossed with garlic aioli, capers and chives then garnished with brittle root chips. Abracadabra!

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The trouble is there’s nothing spectacular about throwing a few cold ingredients together. By the time the dishes are ceremoniously placed on the table with dainty mismatched china plates, diners may feel like they’ve been forced to watch a bad magic act with the tricks revealed in plain sight.

My advice: Feign delight to relieve the poor waiter of his belabored task.

Gimmicks aside, this power couple is capable of real magic. McInnis won a following at Gigi’s in Midtown, where he hired Booth. He later became Miami’s fried chicken darling at Yardbird in South Beach, where Booth also worked. After McInnis split from Yardbird’s parent company, 50 Eggs, in 2013, the two packed their knives for New York, where city slickers fell for their southern-fried bird. The duo’s Root & Bone restaurant in the East Village’s Alphabet City has delighted food critics and was voted Best New Fried Chicken by Eater NY.

Here’s what the two have dreamed up in their test kitchen for Miami: A restaurant named for a 1930s American soda that serves Asian and American Southern-influenced food from dim sum-style carts in a setting with seaside motifs and 1970s macramé hanging planters. Throw in some ’80s college radio rock in the background.

Whew. What are we eating again?

In their new Miami digs, draped sea dock lines and hanging plants separate the open kitchen from the indoor dining room, with seating for about 50. Velvet banquettes and upholstered chairs surround polished block wood tables, each one sporting a small glass jar with a rosemary sprig. Cozy sofas and chairs claim the middle, along with a small square bar. The restaurant spills over onto the pool deck for outdoor dining.

McInnis and Booth live up to culinary expectations with many of Sarsaparilla’s cold “dim sum” offerings. The local snapper ceviche in tangy yuzu with chunks of watermelon is light and refreshing. Drunken deviled eggs, their whites turned hot pink from a pickled beet-brine bath, are topped with diced chips of the pickled root, giving the cold-comfort favorite an earthy tang.

Warm starters are respectable, if not as memorable. The short rib dumplings are stuffed with savory pulled meat and a creamy base. Beet and goat cheese dumplings are one of many vegetable-only options, but ours were chewy and slightly dry from a dense filling that included chopped hazelnuts.

Along with the short dim sum menu on a small, wood clipboard, there’s a separate, one-page menu of small, medium and large plates.

Fried chicken returns for a star appearance, this time with a Thai twist. Brined in a green curry paste, the poultry is tossed after frying in a kaffir lime powder, with toasted coconut, fresh lime and cilantro sprinkled on the final, golden product. Served in white paper inside a wire basket, the chicken pieces are crisp on the outside, moist on the inside. It’s classic, creative McInnis, even if the large and chewy coconut flakes risk overshadowing the subtle lime-curry notes.

The pork tenderloin with fried plantain strips couldn’t compete. It suffered from accompanying kimchi cabbage rolls that were shriveled and soggy, and a heavy-handed swath of plantain BBQ sauce.

Steamed snapper, topped with chimichurri and floating in red miso sauce, with green beans and peppers, was disappointingly soft and pulpy.

For desserts, the cart makes a third and final spin by the table, where shenanigans resume. Honey is dramatically drizzled over sarsaparilla root beer chocolate cake, which still manages to taste chalky and dry despite the sweet glaze.

If meals on wheels amuse you, it’s worth returning for Sunday brunch for at least two dishes: The Benedict BLT buns are two fried eggs served on hearty bacon buns with Hollandaise sauce and the sweet corn grits are a dreamy mix of maize and marscapone, topped with avocado cream and crunchy, popped large-kernel Peruvian chocolo.

Thai fried rice with shreds of pork belly and short rib, wood ear mushrooms, pickled fresno chiles and bok choy is another brunch winner.

Whether it’s called dim sum, Asian or American southern food, there are plenty of clever dishes worth exploring here. Sarsaparilla’s future rides on whether diners are patient enough to endure the haphazard themes and décor to find them.

Miami Herald critics dine anonymously at the newspaper’s expense. Follow Jodi Mailander Farrell on Twitter: @JodiMailander.

If You Go

Place: Sarsaparilla Club

Address: 1 18th St., Miami Beach (in Shelborne Hotel)

Rating: ½ stars (good)

Contact: 305-341-1400, Sarsaparillaclub.com

Hours: Dinner 5-11 p.m. Monday-Thursday, until midnight Friday and Saturday, 5-9 p.m. Sunday; Breakfast 7-11 a.m. Monday-Sunday; Brunch 11:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday.

Prices: Dim Sum and appetizers $7-$14, entrees $22-$67, desserts $8-$9

FYI: VS, MC, AmEx; full bar; parking on street or hotel valet $15 with restaurant stamp; noise level moderate.

What The Stars Mean: 1 (Poor) 1.5 (Fair) 2 (OK) 2.5 (Good) 3 (Very Good) 3.5 (Excellent) 4 (Exceptional)

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