By Eve Zibart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 29, 2005
Restaurants want to be liked (well, except maybe for those overly expensive ones that prefer to be feared). In fact, most general-audience eateries pretty much have to play the personality card to position themselves, especially those in the booming Metro-centric neighborhoods such as Clarendon that suddenly look like inside-out shopping malls with chain-store window displays and menu boards lined up side by side and where nary a trend has been left unturned. So you get the sporty types, the cute ones, the experts -- we're talking about the staff, not the decor, though it's often related -- the button-downers, the black shirts, the moonlighting artists and so on.
This is not just happenstance; restaurateurs know the sort of employees they want. So the relative ebullience of the waiters and bartenders is a fair indication of the energy level at which the management has set the ambiance thermometer.
Clarendon's SoBe Seafood Co., by that calculation, is as South Beach Miami as its name suggests, at least the fantasy version. The staff is hospitable, sometimes a little chatty; the patrons get a little giddy when the sun is strong on the patio; and the bar crowd is a mix of youth and beauty and middle-age aficionados of the latter virtues. The walls are painted with nocturnal and marine murals that suggest LeRoy Neiman set designs for "Miami Vice." The drinks are good, and the wine list is not large but rather imaginative. (The fumes, viogniers and sauvignons outnumber the chardonnays.)
And to top it off, the food is pretty good -- not great, but ambitious, a little unpredictable and with an unobtrusive attention to detail. In fact, that's the odd thing: SoBe needs to sweat the obvious stuff just a little more.
For instance, the jerk firecracker shrimp makes for a hearty appetizer -- three substantial shrimp, commendably tender, served atop a steakhouse portion of (good) mashed potatoes and skewered high, but one gets no kick from that cane; the seasoning offers barely a tickle. The chili lime crab cakes, which supposedly get their punch from a chipotle aioli, are virtuous enough in concept -- lump meat bound in part by backfin and carefully broiled to the just-crusted stage -- and the black bean-corn salsa is nice and fresh, but the overall seasoning, particularly the sauce, was tentative.
At least one recent evening, there were only three smallish scallops atop the entree-size Caesar salad, and they seemed a little lost. Pot stickers were doughy and completely drenched in soy sauce, but the filling was good. And an otherwise generous serving of sesame seed-crusted grilled tuna, whose reticent ginger marinade was actually welcome, was not only not rare as ordered but unseared and gray. These are relatively simple adjustments to make, however -- these, and the undercooked rolls -- and the kitchen has easily enough smarts to make them.
On the successful side, the crab-encrusted salmon is a moist, perfectly cooked steak topped with a layer not of crab-cake filling but something of a pleasantly grainy texture like a crab-flavored couscous. (A little more oomph there wouldn't hurt, though.) The pan-seared scallops, though few, were just-stiffened and muscular; and the Caesar dressing, though not the true raw-egg original, was a better imitation than many. (The scallops can also be ordered over pasta, with shrimp and so on.) The fried calamari had a moderately thick batter but was crunchy and still tender, and its chili-spiked dip would have done the crab cakes or the firecracker shrimp proud. The baked artichoke and spinach dip was the greenest and least cream-cheesy in memory. (Just don't let the waiter tell you the appetizers are modest in size.)
A mixed grill of shrimp, pork chop and chicken breast had been timed almost perfectly, and the shrimp were as well cooked as before. Side dishes and accompaniments are unusually deft here: mashed potatoes light on the garlic and salt, sweet potatoes with real texture and a hint of orange zest (and maybe a little grated apple), beautifully fried leeks and good sauteed mixed squash.
SoBe is an ingratiating place on its way to being completely and reliably likable. It just needs to get past all that styling and into a little spice.
Note that the SoBe entrance is from the courtyard side of the complex. If you take the subway, at the top of the escalator walk back toward the elevator and look to the left.