Timon Balloo is as much a fusion of cultures as the eclectic menu he’s been refining without pause since opening Midtown’s Sugarcane almost seven years ago.
Chinese-Indian from Trinidad, then the San Francisco Bay area and for years now, South Florida, Balloo cooked alongside Michelle Bernstein at Azul and has soaked up international influences from Argentina, Cuba and Japan. (Peru is next, by the way.)
His polyglot of a menu is fluent in almost anything you’re craving on a given night. In a megamall whose dining options are mostly lunch-oriented — sandwiches, pizzas and such — Sugarcane has outlasted other original dinner places like Mercadito and Sustain, building such a successful brand that a plan is afoot to expand to Las Vegas later this year.
Sugarcane, on the southern lick of Midtown near the impending Walmart site, is a sprawling, noisy, genuinely fun place to eat. With about 200 seats inside and out, two big bars, a raw bar and an open robata grill, you can watch your flap steak or short rib getting its sear on. Weekend brunch is a thriving affair, with free-flowing drinks and a happy crowd.
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A sister restaurant to the SushiSamba chain, it opened on the upswing from the ’08 recession as Balloo’s culinary playground, a place where no variety of offal was off-limits and the religion of tail-to-snout usage of the pig was assiduously followed. As business picked up, favorites developed and the menu — organized into raw bar, crudos and sushi, small plates, a handful of entrees and à la carte items from the robata grill — became more stable and accessible.
From the raw bar, we opted for sumac-cured salmon, a dainty and successful dish with four pieces of lushly pink salmon that were salt-cured and laced with Lebanese sumac, which evokes a rose-like flavor. Greek yogurt, crumbled pistachio and microgreens complete the pretty picture.
Watermelon poke is Balloo’s refreshing tribute to growing up on the West Coast with Polynesian flavors. He likes to use watermelon in a savory application, and here it gets a drizzle of sesame, honey and soy, with texture provided by crispy rice. It’s a big serving, so plan to share.
Sushi roll options include ones involving Spam, Maine lobster, bacon and Wagyu beef. We went more traditional with a spicy hamachi ponzu roll, the delicate fish rolled with avocado, the Japanese pickled radish oshinko and mango, with chili sesame oil-marinated shoestring daikon radish scattered on top. The daikon gives extra crunch.
Balloo likes to feature a corn soup, and the current one is a puree of sweet corn with garlic, onion and chicken stock, the powerful sweetness of the corn offset by smoked paprika, crumbled goat cheese and homemade popcorn drizzled with parsley oil.
Wonderfully meaty, lean pork spare ribs are dusted with coriander, homemade Chinese five spice powder and chili, braised in orange, ginger and garlic then glazed. The four big ribs are nestled on a bed of greens, cilantro and chiles to add a fresh component.
Chicken meatballs, studded with bacon for background flavor, rest in a ramekin surrounded by a puddle of rich polenta. The dish gets texture and a little welcome sweetness from golden raisins and Marcona almonds.
Lechon con manzanas isn’t advertised as pork belly, but that’s what it is, like it or not. The meat’s richness is both offset and enhanced by apple three ways: yuzu-compressed Granny Smith, Gala puree and julienned fresh Gala.
Pork jerky married with fresh cantaloupe has a lot of good things going on. The homemade jerky is crisp and hot, salty and spicy. Next to the ribbons of cantaloupe, amplified with jalapeño, mint, cilantro, Thai basil, lime juice, fish sauce and sugar, the dish transports you to Thailand.
Peruvian influences creep in to the Jalea octopus salad, which utilizes bits of tentacle, tips and the tender octopus head. It’s braised with spicy aji amarillo paste, lime, garlic and onion, served with an aioli. Pieces of watermelon radish and arugula aren’t necessarily Peruvian, but Balloo likes to honor international flavors without necessarily mimicking them completely, and it works.
Chicken thighs on the robata are small boneless pieces marinated in mirin, sugar, honey, soy sauce and pureed onion, with big Bibb lettuce leaves on the plate. If you’re perceptive, you’ll notice the conceptual similarity to Asian lettuce wraps, and you might even eat them that way.
Flap steak on the robata is straight-ahead Argentine parrillada fare, simply cooked and served with chimichurri. Japanese eggplant is doused with olive oil, then grilled flesh-side down to create marks, flipped over and basted with yakitori sauce.
Entrees include a whole roast chicken with potatoes, pan-seared snapper, a big ribeye and a special we tried, snapper pozole. Balloo calls it a match of Mexican rich flavors with South Florida freshness. The fat fillet bathes nicely in a homemade fish and charred-vegetable stock incorporating onions, chiles, tomatoes, cumin, coriander and oregano. The traditional pozole garnishes — crema, cilantro, cabbage, fresh radish — are mixed in, sort of un-deconstructed pozole.
One dessert was epic, one was forgettable. Grilled peaches came off as cloyingly sweet. If you’re envisioning a simple plate of big, luscious peaches with grill marks and subtle flavors, get ready for a soggy bowl of small peaches overwhelmed by pound cake and homemade burnt caramel ice cream with honey drizzled on top.
But then there’s peanut butter whoopie pie. It starts with a chocolate fudge whoopie pie, sort of half cookie/half brownie, with peanut butter mousse piped inside. It’s garnished with coco nibs and salted pretzel crumble and served with homemade strawberry ice cream. It’s a dessert that has perfect flavor balance and textural variety, a sweet closing salvo by a creative chef.
Miami Herald critics dine anonymously at the newspaper’s expense.
If You Go
Place: Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill
Address: 3252 NE First Ave., Miami, in the Shops of Midtown.
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ (Very Good)
Contact: 786-369-0353; sugarcanerawbargrill.com
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-midnight Monday-Wednesday, till 1 a.m. Thursday, till 2 a.m. Friday, 10 a.m.-2 a.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-midnight Sunday.
Prices: Raw bar $2-$90 (for deluxe tower), crudos $8-$14, sushi rolls $13-$19, small plates $4-$23, entrees $32-$49, robata grill $6-$22.
FYI: Noise level high; reservations strongly suggested, street and garage parking plus valet, $35 corkage fee, all major credit cards, full bar.
What The Stars Mean: 1 (Poor) 1.5 (Fair) 2 (OK) 2.5 (Good) 3 (Very Good) 3.5 (Excellent) 4 (Exceptional)