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Simple elegance reflects in Miro District's food and setting

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Our very efficient and eloquent server at Miro District Food & Drink would do well to turn in his apron and pursue a career in politics. A glib presenter, he opened with a joke: "Good evening. Have you dined at Watermark before?" he asked, referring to the sister restaurant of the newly opened Miro. "Well, this is nothing like that, so I don't know why I asked."

Ba-dump-bump.

More importantly, he delivered a successful crossover message that simultaneously appealed to our most refined and well-traveled tastes ("This is the food you'd find in Southern France, Southern Spain and Western Italy...") while reaching out to our no-nonsense cravings for simplicity ("...as it would be prepared by working-class families in those places.") With such a broad platform, I half-expected him to offer an appetizer of universal health care with an across-the-board tax cut as an entrée.

Of course, any reference to working-class families is poetic lip service at Miro District, where martinis clock in at $15 and a grilled peach sells for $14.

But, oh, what a peach.

Since the restaurant's debut this summer, diners have been buzzing about the appetizer of luscious grilled peaches wrapped in salty, paper-thin prosciutto and served with candied walnuts, local honey and cool curds of fluffy homemade ricotta. An equation that balances sweet and salty, cool and warm, soft and crunchy, it's an elegantly simple combination that typifies the culinary style underlying Miro's menu.

Chef Dean Robb, a disciple of Birmingham restaurant don Frank Stitt and an alumnus of Stitt's Bottega restaurant, has put forth a roster of European-style cuisine that relies heavily on local and seasonal produce and best-of-the-best products, such as Italian-style cured meats from Molinari's and dried pasta from Manicretti's, both in San Francisco. The challenge for this dining showplace will be to make of those simple, satisfying ingredients something consistently extraordinary enough to pique culinary curiosity and merit top-dollar prices.

A meal at Miro starts out with a plate of warm breads and a bowl of olive oil. The ever-changing selection often includes focaccia, sourdough and a Pugliese loaf with the texture of pound cake and the subdued sweetness of brioche—baked fresh by pastry chef Sam Tucker. Don't fill up on the seductive baked goods, because chances are more fresh bread is coming at some point in the meal, either in a sandwich or flatbread or as a vehicle for the baked cheese.

The most successful of our appetizers proved the axiom that excellent ingredients prepared simply and combined thoughtfully should make excellent dishes. In addition to the grilled peaches, we marveled at the Capri salad. The bountiful medley of every conceivable tomato from Barnes Produce at the Farmers Market—tossed lightly in olive oil and topped with a tussle of fried onion threads—shone like a pile of cabochon gems in jewel tones of orange, red, green, purple and yellow. If the heirloom tomato salad disappears with the arrival of fall, mark your calendar for next summer when it—and the grilled peaches—returns.

Tomatoes also took center stage in the baked formaggio, for which a bed of Barnes' grape tomatoes was blistered—or "melted"—until the skins split, releasing orange liquor into soft salty curds of baked feta. Strewn with wilted leaves of pungent basil, the molten combination came with fluffy fingers of lightly toasted focaccia, which absorbed the rich liquid and added a sweet balance to the salty tang. (The formula of blistered fruit with cheese has a gorgeous counterpart on the dessert menu, where concord grapes sautéed in olive oil with rosemary and sugar accompany a cool, ethereally light vanilla bean panna cotta. Had we known about this dish before the dessert menu arrived, we would happily have ordered it as a sweet appetizer.)

Thinly sliced and faintly cooked disks of George's Bank scallops arrived with tangles of frisée, chewy hunks of diced bacon and lobster mushrooms, a delicate combination that allowed the buttery seafood to stand out. Four house-made ravioli stuffed with mashed potato, ricotta, lemon zest and thyme made a pillowy canvas for a pile of sweet lump crab meat, bits of pancetta and kernels of fresh corn, and made an easy appetizer for sharing.

While we heard several rave reviews about the flatbreads, especially the mushroom version, we had consistently disappointing experiences with the pizza-like appetizers. On two occasions they had the consistency of cardboard, with little in the way of toppings to enliven the base. Similarly, bland tomato soup went virtually uneaten at our table.

As is too often the case, alas, the appetizers at Miro outshone the main dishes, which in general favored sturdiness over creativity. We most enjoyed the simple, hardy delivery of sautéed trout scattered with capers and pancetta. (The dish will soon be replaced by a sole with fried capers, lemon-butter sauce and breadcrumbs.) While the straightforward and generous linguini al forno allowed tender shrimp, clams and spicy sausage to speak for themselves on a bed of noodles with subtle broth, it didn't bring anything exceptional enough to the table to merit the $27 price tag.

Although the pesto-encrusted lamb loin (served with mashed potatoes and a chunky ratatouille of red peppers, tomatoes, onions and eggplant, and garnished with a thick, smoky romesco) was given a vibrant autumnal presentation, the gray meat was more fully cooked than we would have asked for—had anyone asked our preference. Similarly, we would have preferred the grilled tuna on a bed of toothy risotto with chanterelles to have been less fully cooked. The pale gray tiles of fish made a bland visual impression fanned across a creamy canvas of rice. That said, our disappointment might owe more to the fact that seared tuna has become the ubiquitous norm on menus, and our expectations of jewel-colored purple fish were unfounded.

The clash between style and substance is mirrored in Miro's physical layout. The ground floor showplace of the Adelicia high-rise condominiums, Miro opens with a splendid foyer and main dining room. With an august mirrored bar and black-and-white-clad servers clicking across tiled floors, the mise-en-scène hints at classic bustling bistros in Europe. But the lower back room and the mezzanine lack the charisma of the front dining room, where a large central table blooms with bright sunflowers and is ringed by loaves of fresh bread. Rather than dine in dreary exile, request a table in the festive front room when making a reservation.

Unlike Watermark, which opened in The Gulch three years ago and serves dinner only, Miro serves lunch. The noontime meal is an excellent—and more affordable—opportunity to explore chef Robb's light touch with fresh ingredients. Many of the appetizers are available during the day and are ample food for a meal. We particularly enjoyed the sandwich of grilled triggerfish, served on rosemary focaccia with watercress aioli, arugula, fried onion threads and a drizzle of olive oil and plated with a pile of paper-thin house-made potato chips.

Since opening, Robb says he has seen demand for lighter lunch fare, and he is responding by adding more sandwiches and salads to the roster. One new dish that sounds particularly enticing is the piadina—blistered tomatoes, pancetta, apple-smoked bacon, arugula and romaine folded inside a grilled pizza crust and served, as Robb says, "like a big salad sandwich."

In addition to sharing executive chef Robb, Watermark and Miro also share pastry chef Sam Tucker, who delivers a knockout dessert menu. Miro's simultaneously rich and light tiramisu, made with polenta in lieu of ladyfingers, is the improbably beautiful love child of the Italian espresso-laced dessert and good old fashioned cornbread. A flourless chocolate torte riddled with crisp homemade puffed rice and bathed in zabaglione melted across the tongue in a cool, sweet whisper. The pièce de résistance was a crème brûlée delivered inside a roasted gourd, topped with local fig preserves and garnished with a nugget of pumpkin-seed brittle.

While we had our criticisms of our meals, we did see over three visits that Robb & Co. are actively altering the menu as they assess the Midtown appetite. Such attention to their customers gives reason to expect things at Miro to continue to improve. But even now, there are enough stunning aspects of the food—including the baked formaggio, Capri salad, blistered concord grapes and the stunning desserts—to make Miro an instant landmark on the dining skyline.

Miro serves lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday and dinner from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Sunday.

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