Although both occupy the Thompson Hotel in Miami Beach, Seagrape and Talde restaurants seemingly have little in common other than their mid-century modern address.
Seagrape is the year-old elegant outpost of Miami superstar chef Michelle Bernstein, whose James Beard Foundation award-winning style celebrates her Jewish-Latina heritage.
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Talde is the new Brooklyn import of two-time “Top Chef” contestant Dale Talde, who has parlayed his Filipino-American background into pan-Asian fare with a contemporary twist.
Yet like yin to yang, Talde adds a brash complement to Seagrape’s posh presence, making for two memorable, albeit contrary, eating experiences by boldface names in one space.
Talde is clandestinely tucked into the northern corner of the small hotel lobby. Follow the neon blue arrow down a long, narrow hallway lined with old street fliers and graffiti. A giant photo of Talde flanked by two women in barely-there bikinis looms over the hostess stand like a 1990s hip-hop album cover.
Dim lighting, concrete flooring, a drop-ceiling grid of faux Victorian tin tiles and comic graffiti-covered walls by Brooklyn artist Mr. EwokOne amplify the speakeasy, underground vibe. Booths built into a brick-red metal shipping container with open sides on a raised platform dominate the 160-seat dining room, their tweedy brown and buckled coverings conjuring memories of basement couches.
The one-page menu is dominated by appetizers, noodle dishes and sides for sharing, with five entrées for heartier appetites. The offerings mimic the fun mash-up of American-Asian culture that distinguishes the eponymous restaurants Talde opened a few years ago in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood and Jersey City with partners David Massoni and John Bush.
Before his time on TV, Talde worked in Chicago’s now-defunct Vong and Stephen Starr’s Buddakan in New York. His inventive training shines through with stellar starters, such as tender dumplings stuffed with shrimp, kale and smoky Tennessee-raised bacon, their contrasting flavors sharpened by soy-chili vinegar for dipping.
Vietnamese garlic shrimp comes out spitting and spicy from the grill, their tempers cooled by chilled noodles, thin strips of escarole, peanuts, flat carrot slices and bright chunks of Chinese grapefruit.
Charred fatty short ribs are pounded thin and served with half-moons of crunchy Asian pear, green onions and salt-and-pepper walnuts on a banana leaf-laden small cutting board with stubby legs. Robata-style grilled shiitake mushrooms, flattened on skewers, brighten under the tang of pickled shallots.
From the five noodle dishes, lobster tom kha was a delightful sinus-clearing combo of coconut milk, Thai chile peppers, rice noodles and corn with large chunks of lobster.
Less impressive: Pad Thai with bacon and batter-fried oysters tasted like it needed more time in the test kitchen. The noodles were obscured by a scrap heap of fresh cilantro, julienned carrots and raw cabbage. The vinegar-strong oysters and bits of bacon weighed down the delicate dish like combat boots on a ballerina.
Among the five entrées, Talde’s trademark Korean Fried Chicken also went largely untouched. Sliced for sharing, the double-fried chicken breasts had a pleasing crunch on the outside but weren’t very moist inside. The sweet coolness of sliced grapes scattered on the plate was a happy distraction from the orange pool of kimchi yogurt sauce, which was overwhelmed by hot sauce better suited for wings at a sports bar.
Crab fried rice, a pricey side dish topped with fish roe, was dry and disappointing, but we used it to soak up the watermelon nuoc mam, the delicious sweet-and-salty Vietnamese sauce that came with our lemongrass pork chops. The chops were pounded flat and grilled to smoky goodness, with a scattering of chopped peanuts.
Be sure to sample nightly specials, which tend to riff off holidays and local favorites. Our Hanukkah-timed potato latke was a fun, fried potato cake topped with green onions, eel sauce, creamy Japanese mayo and salty bonito flakes.
Only one dessert exists, but it’s a must-try and easily serves three to four people. Halo-halo, a famous dessert in the Philippines, is a bowl of shaved ice sweetened with condensed milk and chunks of fresh strawberries, blueberries, mango and pineapple. Talde’s twist is to serve it with matcha sauce and Cap’n Crunch cereal, which turns the dish over time into a green sugary sludge — triggering a joyful flood of pajama-clad memories of binge-watching Saturday morning cartoons. You won’t be able to wipe the silly smiles off your faces.
Cross-cultural experiments from the adjacent 40-person bar and lounge area are also worth exploring, like plum wine bellini and green tea-infused vodka cocktails.
Talde’s wait staff, dressed in relaxed jeans and black shirts, is hit or miss. We felt secure with a knowledgeable waiter who told us he worked for the Brooklyn restaurant, but suffered through wrong dishes and lack of info on a second visit with a nervous waitress in training.
With patience and time, guests should soak up the pleasures of dining at Talde. The proudly inauthentic restaurant, along with sophisticated sister Seagrape, makes eating your way through the Thompson a must.
Critics dine unannounced at the Miami Herald’s expense. Jodi Mailander Farrell: @JodiMailander