The role of Chinese food in the American dining plan is often as a last-minute afterthought — delivery or takeout, complete with a dull cookie stuffed with lottery numbers and banality, all washed down with beer (certainly not fine wine).
Yet Chinese is one of the world’s greatest and most varied cuisines.
And that’s easy to see at Palmar, a 34-seat gem, which, with executive chef Raymond Li, cracked Bon Appetit’s annual list of America’s 50 best new restaurants (Palmar didn’t make the Hot 10, announced Aug. 14).
Because no matter your style of eating or dietary requirements, you can find your sweet spot with Chinese, whether you’re trying to cut fat or exploring your inner glutton. Whether you’re on a plant-based diet or indulging in pork. Whether you like your desserts sweet or savory, crunchy or creamy — even whether you want to scrimp or splurge.
The food is ‘remarkable’
“Veggie Eggroll” By #TheKitchenVanGogh @palmarmiami…Amazing by @mdoughw_eats • Cabbage 2 ways (Fermented-Charred), Shiso, Chinese Broocoli, Pistachio, Juniper Berry Jus ••• #progressivechinese #wynwood #palmar #chefrayjr #chinomayamero #foodstagram #foodgasm #instafood #instagood #foodie #foodlover #foodpic #cheflife
A post shared by Chef Raymond Li (@chefrayjr) on Jun 11, 2018 at 8:52am PDT
The food at Palmar is remarkable: creative, full of top-drawer ingredients, unmistakeably housemade. The menu follows the expected Chinese format, with dim sum, rice and noodle dishes, vegetables, mains and desserts, but just like at Alter, terrific ingredients are combined in ways you haven’t seen before.
And, just like at Alter, as well, some of the portions seem laughable for the price. Be sure to order a fried rice dish, which in proportion to other items is gigantic, and will ensure everyone gets enough to eat.
One fried rice is flecked with crabmeat, onions, peppers and mushrooms, and on top rests a lime wedge and a whole soft shell crab, fried light as a whisper. Another is studded with bits of cooked egg and has a 63-degree egg on top; break it up and let the rich yolk ooze umami throughout the bowl.
Egg noodles with rock shrimp, a festival of scallions, bits of fresh local corn (and another fat 63-degree egg) was a hit, the noodles unexpectedly and pleasantly al dente.
Dim sum is housemade
A post shared by Palmar (@palmarmiami) on Aug 5, 2018 at 8:03am PDT
All dim sum items are housemade. A pair of chicken gyozas jumped to life with cinnamon and cumin is served with toasted peanuts and cardamom oil.
Four chicken wings were succulent, glazed with citrus and Szechuan pepper, wok-fried, and braised for hours. The wings instantly slid off the bone.
Blue crab croquettes (lots of crabmeat here) came with a smoked and fermented scallion and fresno chile coulis and lemon oil. Rabbit shiso egg rolls wrap up Napa cabbage and braised rabbit, served with an Asian-Latin fusion aji amarillo oyster sauce.
A couple of fresh options are appropriate for summer.
Wild blue crabmeat with cucumber, honeycrisp apple, cabbage and a yuzu-plum vinaigrette stands in for your lunch salad. And the smashed cucumber with chili sesame oil “snow” was billed as a palate cleanser among the parade of dense delicacies — and did just that. The petite cucumbers crunched like pickles, briny with chili sesame powder.
Veggies are petite but delicious, particularly crispy Chinese eggplant, the small pieces of eggplant fried so deftly they wilt on the tongue into a hot, rich, savory eggplant puree.
There are three large plates on the menu.
We tried Mongolian beef, a Chinese classic that in the typical takeout features impossibly tough, chewy meat. Here, they use filet mignon, and the result is immaculately tender, the beef perfectly textured and juicy, the rich brown sauce warm and homey. Roast hoisin duck and pork ribs are available, too.
Drinks are pricey
Similar attention is paid to adult beverages.
The bright green building (very briefly a Wynwood outpost of Cake Thai before a falling out between the owners and Chef “Cake”) is dominated by separate floor-to-ceiling coolers for white wine and sake, and red wine.
If you’d studied those coolers — and the sticker shock-inducing wine list — you’d have realized you were in for a fine dining experience. The list has been carefully and thoughtfully curated, and it’s not just markup: Google a few bottles and you’ll find one creatively chosen, high-quality wine after another. (Those of you who want to drink and eat on the cheap can stick to beer.)
Chinese restaurants don’t spend much time thinking about desserts, in general. Here, the single best item we tried was a dessert: Chinese five-spice flavored egg custard with charcoal salt, coconut foam and yuzu-mango marmalade filled a petite cup atop an aggressively salted ginger crumble — a stunning byplay of savory and sweet. Chocolate spring rolls sound whimsical but are moreso just delicious, the compact fried treats piping hot but oozing with a cool hazelnut and black sesame ganache with roasted peanuts.
Lest you long for the expected Chinese experience on your trip to Palmar, not to worry: You can get takeout. But the containers are plain brown; no red and white cartons here.
Critics dine unannounced at Miami Herald expense.
Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ (Exceptional)
Address: 180 NW 29th St., Miami.
Contact: 305-573-5682, palmarmiami.com
Cost: Vegetables $7-9, dim sum $7-$16, rice and noodles $16-$25, mains $23-$59 (whole duck)
Hours: Noon to 4 p.m. Thursday-Sunday for lunch; 6-11 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday; closed Mondays.
FYI: Major credit cards, free parking lot, beer, sake and an eclectic wine list.
What the Stars Mean:
⭐️ 1/2 (Fair)
⭐️⭐️ 1/2 (Good)
⭐️⭐️⭐️ (Very Good)