review: cork-covered rusticity…

Sardinia Ristorante

I was pretty set on taking the family to Talula for dinner on my last night in Miami. The main reason for that decision was that my mom, who turned 60 (and for whom the trip to Miami was taken), greatly prefers gentle, quiet, and linen-serviced restaurants to those that are more boisterous and lively, though they may have better food.


Moscardini

Talula seemed to be a slower pace than say, Sardinia Ristorante, where I really wanted to for my last dinner in Miami. But, I, her food-nerdy son, was feeling a tad guilty for having already dragged my parents all over Miami to the faster-paced places that I had wanted to visit. I thought I’d make our last night out together a little more peaceful. Talula was it.

In a surprising twist of events, both of my parents, and especially my mother, were so thrilled by my restaurants selections thus far – Michy’s and Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink – that my mother turned to me after dinner at Michael’s Genuine and asked, eagerly, “what’s for dinner tomorrow night?”


Sardinia Ristorante

Apparently, she and my father had found a new love for casual, slightly trendy-hip, family-style, communal, small-plates type of fare.

Seizing the opportunity, I briefly sketched out Sardinia for them, giving my mom a warning that it was probably going to be dark, loud, crowded and sans her precious white tablecloth. She said she didn’t care. She wanted good food, and my dad agreed. (I think my mom, in her autumn, has finally awakened to her gustatory senses. As long as I’ve known her, she’s been much more about ambience and convenience than actually good food. Either she gets dressed up for a quiet peaceful elegant setting with a view, or she’s happy with a hot dog from a street vendor between errands. Food has rarely been her number one priority.)

Sardinia Ristorante does not accept reservations. This made me nervous. Thankfully, our “retirement dining schedule” for the late-night Miami Beach folks, landed us a half-empty restaurant around 7.30pm, when we walked in.

The restaurant was dark – very dark. The restaurant was loud – very loud. The restaurant was crowded – very crowded. The food was fantastic, we were pleased and left very full.

I’ll spare you the details on the location, décor, etc – information that can easily be gleaned from their website. I’ll also skip detailed description of each dish – these can be read and the pictures of the food can be found on my flickr account.

We ordered liberally from both sides of the menu, which came in a cork-bound sleeve.


Salt-Baked Branzino

Minestrone
Insalate Cabras (Baby greens, celery hearts, heirloom tomatoes, and bottarga)
Insalate Finochiaccia (Arugula, shaved fennel, shaved radishes, baby artichokes, Pecorino)
Insalate Sarda (Arugula, shaved fennel, shaved radish, castelvetrano olives, and celery)
Animelle (Crispy sweetbreads with roasted cippolini and brussels sprouts)
Moscardini (Steamed baby octopi in a tomato stew with peas)
Salt-Baked Branzino
Roasted Baby Suckling Pig
Vegatali (Sides): Braised Fennel, Roasted Beets with Pancetta, and Broccolini
Fromaggio: Robiola de langue, Belfiore Pecorino Stagionata, and Pecorino Tartufo Fresco
de Mugello.
Strawberry Tiramisu

1. Strike number one: The ONE thing I wanted to try at the restaurant – the specialty for which they are known – was their carasatu flatbread. They had none available the night we were in. Our server, who had a charmingly heavy Italian accent, tried to convey something about a party the night before and them not having enough time to make another batch. Apparently, it’s a rather involved and lengthy process.

2. Strike number two: Our server told us about a special of the night – a whole oven-roasted sea bream stuffed with herbs and served over a bed of salad greens. He did a hard sell (not that he needed to) – opining that it was the only thing better than the salt-baked branzino, a personal favorite and what I wanted to order. So the sea bream was ordered. Two minutes later, he comes back and apologizes – no more sea bream. It wasn’t his fault, but after the carasatu let-down, it elicited a slight inner groan. This being said, the salt-baked branzino was excellent. Our server was tremendously deft in plating the filleted fish. The meat, which was drizzled table-side with fruity extra virgin olive oil, was moist and fluffy.

Yet, despite these two mis-fires at the beginning of our meal, we managed to settle in for a stellar experience:

3. I really did not object to their liberal use of very fruity and fresh extra virgin olive oil.

4. Their salads are wonderful – the Insalate Finochiaccia and Insalate Sarda are strikingly similar – both involve arugula, shaved radishes, and shaved fennel. While the Finochiaccia also featured raw sections of tender baby artichoke and shavings of Pecorino cheese, the Sarda was served with the addition of chopped celery and fat green, fleshy castelvetrano olives. Their greens are fresh, bright, and exceedingly flavorful. My favorite of the three salads we ordered, however, was the Insalate Cabras – a sea breeze mix of crisp baby lettuces, celery hearts, heirloom tomatoes, and a generous blanket of finely grated bottarga – it was definitely worth the $14.

5. Roasting everything in a blazing hot wood oven really makes everything taste 100% better.

6. The sweetbreads, “Animelle” on the menu, were very good – better than most I’ve had. Yet, the crispy charred Brussels sprouts and cipollini (which had gone silky inside) were even better. Everything on this plate looked burned, but in reality, was just coated in a patina of smoke. Underneath the thin crispy out layer of char hid a creamy/silky and molten interior.

7. Portions are large – especially the antipasti, many of which could have easily been eaten as a main course. But, the ones we ordered (Moscardini and Animelle) and the ones we spied at tables nearby were so heavy/rich that eating an entire one by oneself would have become a bit of a monotonous chore. They were perfect for sharing. The baby octopi were exquisite.

8. We ordered a trio of “vegetali” side dishes. All three were exceptional. The roasted beets were as sweet as candy. The braised fennel, however, were my favorite.

9. Dessert list looked a bit hackneyed – and pricey. Our strawberry tiramisu – served in an old-world tin gelato coppetta really didn’t deserve the $9 price tag. The other dessert options seemed rather boring, with the exception of the mille foglio.


“Animelle”

10. Service was good and bad in an old-world way: Good in that it was extremely informed, friendly, and – well, just gosh-darned Euro-charming. Bad in that the restaurant is so busy that it was often a little hard to flag servers down. Dishes were cleared somewhat haphazardly and utensils weren’t always replaced. We also got a non-English-speaking bus boy on his first night. The poor boy was so flustered, I wanted help him out. At one point, our server insisted on us not helping him, which I suppose, was in the boy’s best interest in the long run. The staff and management seemed to try their best to be patient with him, but at times, it was very clear that they were frustrated.

11. The Italian wine list was extraordinary. Pricing seemed a little high, but certainly acceptable for the local Miami going rate.


Fromaggio

12. I wanted to eat the entire cheese selection. Alas, if only I had four stomachs. The three we sampled (two which I have had before) were great. I want to know where they get their honey. I want some. It was loosely described as “Sardinian honey” on the description of one of the carasatu options – I’m guessing they use the same kind as an accompaniment to cheeses. I will have to investigate.

My parents confirmed, in the car one the way back to the hotel that Sardinia, in all of our estimations, ended up being the highlight of our three dinners, and indeed, the crown of all of our meals in Miami on this trip. The food was simple, honest and good: not over-fussed, hyper-conceptualized, or trying to be cute. Although our bill at Sardinia ended up the highest of our three dinners (by a few dollars), we deemed it to be the best value.

I left the restaurant plotting my next visit to Miami. It’s the kind of food that makes you want to drop your day job and move to Sardinia. I’m sure someone will hire me out there… I can herd goats, or something…

Again, photos of all of our food and my food-nerdy thoughts can be seen and read on my flickr account.

~ by ulterior epicure on November 10, 2007.

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