Feeling like trying something different, we ventured to Linoln Road (not exactly a culinary mecca lately) to try Enso, a new restaurant that's opened up down toward the east end between Drexel and Washington Ave. (almost directly across from Paul). The advance press indicated the chefs had trained with Ferran Adria and were bringing alta cocina to Lincoln Road. And sushi. Because apparently it is a Miami Beach zoning requirement that all restaurants on Lincoln Road, other than those serving generic Italian cuisine, must serve sushi. (For those serving generic Italian cuisine, it is optional).
The indoor area is quite nice looking, with zebra wood on the floors, a long bar along one side, some low-slung loungy red couches for seating along the other side, and an upstairs area which I'm not sure whether it had additional seating or was just a prep area. There's also a little cooking station set up in a window box along the entranceway though I didn't see that it was being used for anything. They also have outdoor seating, which is where we chose to sit. Regretfully, the restaurant is right next door to some schlocky clothing store which is absolutely convinced that blaring '70s disco music into the street is the ideal way to lure in customers, the quality of which is only improved by hearing it simultaneously with the restaurant's music.
You know you're in for an experience when the server, upon bringing out the menus, gives an apologetic look, opens the menu for you, and starts off saying "I know the menu looks somewhat confusing..." Well, yeah. It actually looks a lot like the chart that Dr. Lester has on his wall in "Being John Malkovich," with lots of arrows pointing in various directions, clocks showing when you can order from certain sections, and lengthy essays interspersed throughout. But the server patiently explains that there are basically 4 sections - in the top left is a group of "studies" on specific themes or ingredients (surf & turf, hamachi, tuna, vegetarian, each with 4 variations on the theme, mostly priced in the $20s); top right is a short list of main courses supposedly inspired by famous artists (Van Gogh cheese fondue, Toulouse Lautrec lobster l'americaine ...); bottom left is sushi (your standard nigiri options, several "specialty" rolls, as well as a number of ceviches and tiraditos); bottom right are several kushiyaki (5 skewers of your choice for $15).
OK. We had "studies" of hamachi and surf & turf, along with 5 skewers. One listed on the menu was calling out my name - "heart, liver and tripe" (OK, my nickname, not my given name) - but regretfully they didn't have it. We ordered baby octopus, tuna, beef, shrimp, and eggplant.
The "study of hamachi" consisted of (1) thin slivers of fish crispy fried and served w/ a glass of cold clear "consomme" of gazpacho; (2) hamachi meatballs; (3) hamachi "ravioli" of raw fish w/ a soy gel and a basil foam; and (4) little hamachi dumplings topped with a thin sheet of dried apple and a sprig of dill. The thin crispy fish was reminiscent of the fish in the "crispy fish onion salad" at Yakko-San if you've ever had it, but lacking the contrast of the other ingredients - though the consomme had nice bright flavor, it was tough to get the two to meet. The meatballs just weren't doing it for me in any way. The ravioli was pretty good, and the dumplings with the apple sheet were interesting, these two also being the only variations that seemed in any way to actually pay attention to, rather than obscure, the nature of the fish itself.
The "study of surf & turf" had (1) tongue (cooked sous-vide) and octopus; (2) raw thinly sliced scallops over a chicken skin cracker topped w/ fish roe; (3) crispy shrimp with a chicken stuffing; and (4) beef with a seaweed foam. Best in show was probably the shrimp, which had curry flavors to it and a bit of chutney for dipping. The tongue and octopus combo was OK, more interesting on the texture front than for the flavors. Mrs. F didn't like the taste of the chicken skin cracker, which I also thought was somewhat bitter and greasy. And the beef with seawood foam (studded with some baby squash) just didn't really do that much for me flavorwise.
They bring out a hibachi grill to DIY for the kushiyaki (the waitstaff are going to have arms like Popeye, between hauling around the hibachi and the big heavy platters they use to plate 4 dishes for the "studies") which they bring out "partly cooked" and put on the grill to finish for a few minutes. Now here's a basic food safety issue - the plate which they bring the skewered foods out on before putting them on the grill is then put out and left on the diners' table (along with some lettuce tomato and the like on the plate). If the skewers really are not fully cooked when they are brought out, then that is a real food sanitation no-no. (We didn't re-use the plate).
The presentation of the kushiyaki is a real cross-cultural mish-mash. They come with flour tortillas, aji amarillo sauce, and a bowl of rice (which was almost inedibly stiff). They're anticucho-fajita-yakis! The beef was very tough, but the others were all reasonably good, and were not just "food on a stick" but seemed to have been given some spicing or marinating in advance. We were given zucchini & yellow squash instead of eggplant, but they were all right.
We did not try the sushi because I have a general rule against eating sushi at any place where the concept is "_______ & Sushi." There may be exceptions to this rule, but I wasn't willing to break it here just yet.
The wine list is international in scope but pretty pedestrian as far as choices, basic big-circulation names for the most part. We did find a nice S.A. Prum Reisling Spatlese for about $50. Our server was great, bringing out a few different bottles to make sure we were getting the right one (I am completely sympathetic with anyone who struggles wading their way through a German wine label).
I don't quite know what to make of this place. I appreciate that it's not yet another generic Italian place on Lincoln Road and not another steakhouse, but I can't really make sense of what the goal is with the mash-up menu. I suppose the concept of the "studies" is interesting, but despite the sometimes interesting techniques, the flavor in several of them was lacking. Given that they've just opened and are trying something different, I'm eager to give them the benefit of the doubt. But I hope they spend some time trying to better figure out exactly what they're trying to accomplish, and in doing so pay attention to the most important thing about any restaurant - putting something delicious on the plate.