In 2008, just when it was beginning to look like Miami might not have much more to offer culinarily, city planners and entrepreneurs started debuting insta-neighborhoods like Midtown and Sunset Harbour. The latter, situated on South Beach’s west end, features condos, retail outlets, and a number of new restaurants, three from a single group of restaurateurs: Sergio Navarro, Jose Mendin and Andreas Schreiner. In November, 2010, they started with an Asian-influenced gastropub called Pubbelly before adding a sushi spot next door, and the Barcelonata tapas restaurant down the block. We of course opted for pubbelly, the concept with the clearest pork focus.
The space features a glass front, high ceiling, open kitchen, L-shaped bar, brick walls, blonde wood tables, a communal table in the center of the room, and one creepy glowing pig head logo.
The five of us worked our way through different menu categories, beginning with Dumplings… These were some expensive dumplings compared to the specimens of my adopted L.A. homeland, but it was still easy to like the rich Duck & Pumpkin ($10) discs that seemed especially apt on a long Thanksgiving weekend, topped with sweet orange and crunchy almonds, all partially submerged in a savory, cinnamon-tinged pool of soy brown butter.
It’s unclear what qualified the McBelly ($6) for the Plates… category, but the fat-streaked slabs of pork belly, sweet BBQ sauce, pungent kimchi and sweet roll all worked pretty well together. This is apparently a pubbelly signature dish, but we tried better plates throughout the course of our meal.
Fried Chicken ($9) approximated a classic style of Korean culinary construction called ssam, which involves wrapping protein, often in lettuce. In this case, they used butter lettuce as the vessel for thin-sheathed, boneless chicken thighs, along with kimchi, cilantro, crunchy pickled carrot and daikon, all dippable in mustard miso sauce., bibb lettuce wrap, along with pickled vegetables
The meal had a couple letdowns, including a cazuela of Salt & Pepper Squid ($11) that only had a few paltry sheets, which the chef didn’t leave in the fryer long enough. They sprinkled with shichimi, thin shavings of spicy Serrano and crispy garlic and presented with smoked soy dipping sauce.
The night’s biggest disappointment was Octopus a la Plancha ($18), which ruined a promising premise – crispy tentacles – by bombarding them with piquillo’d mayo, pasty chorizo and dried soy beans. Pubbelly’s owners clearly pride themselves on bold flavors, but in this case, more restraint would have been best.
Cochinillo ($19) surfaced more than once during my latest trip to Miami. Pubbelly presented a single crisp-skinned slab of juicy meat finished with Maldon sea salt. Sweet cippollini onions, crispy Brussels sprouts and sour diced apple tossed with cinnamon and soy jus accented the pork.
The only thing I wanted to order, but didn’t, was the Pubbelly ramen with pork belly, lemongrass broth and poached egg, since it wasn’t conducive to sharing.
Mofongo is a dish popular in the Caribbean that fuses plantains with pork and garlic. Pubbelly’s Mofongo Pork Belly ($6) wasn’t quite as dense, and appeared partially submerged in shoyu broth, with the belly up top and another sprinkling of Maldon. This was an untraditional mofongo preparation, but the bowl still had a good savory quotient.
Neither dessert was especially magical, but my favorite of the two involved a cazuela of sugar-dusted french toast ($6) squares with vanilla soft serve ice cream, firm pumpkin cubes, cinnamon, and pumpkin seeds, which displayed an understanding of the season and a range of textures.
There were aspects that could have been more compelling at Pubbelly, including a by-the-book craft beer list with no sense of place, plus dishes that would have been even better minus one or two ingredients, but as far as gastropubs go, Pubbelly was still a pretty good one, and it brought us to an emerging neighborhood that helps to tell the story of modern Miami.