“I’m not the biggest vegetable eater myself and never really have been,” Blue Collar chef-owner Danny Serfer says.
You wouldn’t know it from the restaurant’s menu. Positioned as a comfort-food hangout for locals, Blue Collar does something more altruistic than merely filling you up on rib-sticking meats, potatoes and bread pudding. It gets you to eat your vegetables.
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Blue Collar does this by making vegetables as appealing as anything else on the menu, using super-fresh produce and creative combinations and — in some cases — making vegetables taste like something else entirely. Hey, whatever works.
Open four years come January in the MiMo district, Blue Collar has nestled into the space between family-style diner and upscale gourmet and found a loyal following of repeat customers. Its tiny, stainless-steel kitchen doles out the likes of macaroni and cheese, potato latkes, burgers and ribs with carefully sourced, top-drawer ingredients.
That’s not just any bacon in the German potato salad. It’s Nueske’s, from Wisconsin. Those aren’t ordinary sausage chunks in the jambalaya. They’re from Miami purveyor Proper Sausages. Those luscious grains in the shrimp and grits aren’t from Sysco. They’re milled to order at Anson Mills in South Carolina. It’s as if Serfer launched a foodie-culture invasion of a Morrison’s Cafeteria, with consistently satisfying results.
Serfer manned Blue Collar’s kitchen until summer 2014, when he opened Mignonette in Edgewater. He brought on the talented Ervin Bryant as Blue Collar’s chef de cuisine, letting Bryant put some of his stamp on the menu, which begins with about 10 appetizers, mostly hearty stuff.
Pork and beans are a lush mix of Proper Sausage, applewood bacon, San Marzano tomatoes, rich homemade pork stock (made from the drippings created by roasting ribs), cannellini beans, a hint of Scotch bonnet pepper and a runny fried egg on top. Serfer says it’s his favorite thing on the menu, and for good reason. Served with grilled bread from Parisian Bakery in North Miami.
Cuban spring rolls are the product of Serfer’s desire to serve Cuban sandwiches combined with the kitchen’s lack of space to make them. Classic ingredients like Serrano ham, manchego cheese, Proper chorizo and yellow mustard go into a spring roll and are quickly fried, and the flavor is unmistakable.
Shrimp and grits starts with grits cooked in homemade lobster stock. Seven to nine large shrimp stand out, as do the grits’ intense corn flavor and the mix of trugole, sharp cheddar, fontina and parmesan cheeses. Chunks of bacon add texture and salt, and the barbecue sauce of Worcestershire and lobster stock has just the right tartness.
Each day, there’s a selection of one type of ribs (short ribs, baby back, etc.), a parmesan dish (chicken, veal, eggplant) and a braise (brisket, oxtail, pork shoulder). Our half-portion of baby back ribs was seven big fat ones, slow-roasted with a seasoning rub and finished on the grill with barbecue sauce made with pork stock. German potato salad on the side hits all the right notes of mustard and bacon.
The entree menu has lots of choices from all the major meat groups. Our order of Corben, brisket done in a traditional red wine braise, had plenty of depth and tenderness. It’s served with two toasted Portuguese muffins, which Serfer says is what you’d have if an English muffin, brioche and white bread had a baby (shaped like the muffin, white in color and with brioche’s gentle sweetness). Two homemade potato latkes are on the side, along with Dijon mustard and a tub of the braising jus. You can make a sandwich or eat it all deconstructed, your choice.
Crispy-skin local snapper is a 7- to 10-ounce fillet seared hard, skin-side down, for a quick crisp and succulent, juicy flesh. Rock shrimp vegetable fried rice with pineapple and sweet potato and coconut red curry sauce are on the side (our curry sauce arrived cold, but that was quickly fixed).
Jambalaya is a savory mix of spice-rubbed wild Royal Red shrimp, spicy Andouille-style Proper Sausage and pulled chicken thighs nestled in basmati rice cooked in gumbo file and lobster stock. Huge portion; you can save some.
Those vegetables dot the menu as side dishes, are offered a la carte or can be ordered as a four-part vegetable plate for $19, and this platter was easily the most appetizing of anything we tried.
Spaghetti squash is roasted and pulled apart, the soft flesh warmed with just enough butter and parmesan to bind it but leave it tasting like squash. Wilted garlicky spinach is sautéed in homemade garlic aioli. Caramelized brussels sprouts are blanched a few minutes to set the color, then seared and sautéed in butter to create nuttiness, no bitterness.
Curried cauliflower purée starts with chunks of cauliflower poached in milk with red curry paste and madras curry, then puréed with hot cream and cold butter with red wine vinegar, honey and salt. Large spears of asparagus are blanched briefly to set their color, then grilled with olive oil, salt and pepper and topped with blue cheese crumbles.
A lone misstep was kale sautéed in olive oil with crushed red pepper, shallots, butter and white wine: The undercooked kale was served basically in one giant leaf that could have been a salad bar garnish at the Golden Corral, and the level of red pepper brought tears to our eyes.
“I’m not much of a pastry cook,” says Serfer, and there’s no space in the kitchen for baking. But there’s a dessert of legend here, butterscotch Heath Bar bread pudding, on the menu from the start. It’s a custardy bread pudding with rich butterscotch flavor, and you can really taste the Heath. Served with spicy cayenne whipped cream.
Critics dine unannounced at the Miami Herald’s expense. Kendall Hamersly: @khamersly