Review: Fooq's takes the edge off in downtown Miami

David Foulquier is the one you want on your team. He’s the guy I’m guessing was always picked first in gym class. No wonder: He’s smart and funny and confident. And from what we saw on a recent Friday night, he’s not afraid to wield a big bat.

Despite a name that is easy to tease, Fooq, as he is known, seems to be a natural host. He opened his namesake bistro, Fooq’s, in a downtown stretch of North Miami Avenue that — how shall I say? — sees more dumpster diving than fine dining. So when a character emerged and threatened to mess with a patron’s car, Fooq responded quickly with bat overhead.

“They are harmless. Really. But you gotta show them you are not afraid,” explained the New York-raised, 25-year-old restaurant debutante when he passed by our table.

Though edgy — in the old Nemesis and sharing a block with The Corner bar — the snug space is beautifully decorated with warm woods, cool mirrors and low-key pendant lighting. It looks like the living room of an Upper Eastside bachelor pad. Chatter can get loud, especially on busy weekends, but it is always comfortable with cushy, pillowed banquets and plastic molded chairs.

Inside is preferable not only because of the lack of street action but also to avoid the smell of cigarettes (and more) wafting from The Corner.

But take a seat where you can get it. The place fills up with regulars who are greeted with warm embraces. The young staff is uniformly engaging, enthusiastic and eager to please.

A concise and well-chosen wine list includes plenty of gorgeous and fairly priced glasses and bottles. When it comes to the food — a mix of American, Italian, French and Persian comforts — things are almost as certain.

The chef, Nicole Votano, who cooked under Michelle Bernstein at Crumb on Parchment for three years, always sends out a complimentary taste. On both our visits they were lovely tartans, open-faced sandwiches on Zak the Baker’s perfectly chewy and nutty whole-grain toast. The lavender goat cheese topped with a sliver of purple radish, a tiny quarter of a yellow tomato, microgreens and a single blueberry is a lovely if slightly heavy way of whetting the appetite. 

Order well and you might be rewarded with what is surely one of the best burgers in town. Here the meaty but not too thick patty is made with a house-ground blend of skirt steak, brisket and short rib that is cooked to perfectly pink medium-rare. It rests on a toasty brioche bun loaded with a slab of drippy Swiss, ringlets of red onion, tender lettuce, tomato and sweet ruffled pickles. A mammoth stack of hot and crispy fries can overwhelm with all the salt but are otherwise easy to spark an addiction. 

A catch of the day, pan-seared whole yellowtail, was pristine and simple. It might have been big enough for two, with its simple beurre blanc and a side of patty pan squash and sweet potatoes. Do ask, however, about the cost: At $48, ours was more than double the average entrée price.

We also enjoyed sharing trendy “jars,” a trio of spreads that included “caveman blue cheese,” a velvety Italian tonnato and hummus served with more toasty bread.

A walk on the Persian side of the menu can likely please. Chicken based on a recipe from Foulquier’s Tehran-born mother is a richly complex dish composed of long-braised thighs and legs enrobed in a luscious peach- and nut-based sauce, richly fragrant with saffron and served over a cherry-studded rice that is as comforting as a cashmere sweater on a chilly day. 

Other dishes labor a bit from a heavy hand in the kitchen. An al dente bucatini with monster hunks of cured meat had more sauce than necessary, but the rich and tangy sauce with three golf ball-size meatballs made for a tasty and filling starter. 

Salads include some of the most gorgeous greens I have had the pleasure of seeing this summer, with jewel-like flower petals, carrots and tomatoes. However, a touch too much oil and salt made for some problems on the plate. 

Potato rosti oozed extra grease and too much cheese, although a golden crab cake was camera ready. It was loaded with plenty of crabmeat but seemed as if it had been overhandled with corn and red pepper and too much mayonnaisey binding to make it competitive in a crowded field.

In all cases, the locally sourced ingredients are breathtakingly beautiful. Everything from Maryland soft-shell crabs to greens from Little Haiti seem to leap off the plate with life. 

Desserts walk the line between fancy and homemade. An interesting if slightly overwrought Persian sundae includes the subtlest sigh of saffron and rosewater-infused gelato that is crowded out with chunks of Medjool dates, toasted pistachios, pomegranate molasses, shredded halva and pellets of Valrhona chocolate.

A simpler sweet is the passion fruit and Key lime tart served with tiny puffs of whipped cream.

Like Fooq himself, there is nothing phony or self-conscious about this place. And when looking for a spot to eat in downtown Miami, I pick Fooq’s.

Critics dine anonymously at the Miami Herald’s expense. Follow @VictoriaPesceE.