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Friday, February 24, 2012

neMesis: Let the fun-shine in!

“In another moment down went Alice after it, never once considering how in the world she was to get out again.”
               ~Charles Lutwidge Dodgson under the pseudonym, Lewis Carroll

         My personal experiences at neMesis have left me feeling a bit like Alice staggering through the rabbithole.  While the surrounding area might be a bit decrepit and questionable (minus the recent addition of the Corner), from the moment you walk in the door you've entered a completely different realm.  Multicolored umbrellas hang overhead, fragmented mirror bits grace the bar's surface like a million tiny stars, whilst neckties strain to break free from the pack as art on the walls.  It's whimsical, quirky, eclectic and playful!
     The front bears the inscription: "Those lacking imagination and a sense of humor are not welcome at neMesis. Please return from whence you came, and do not darken our door again!"  And they do mean it.  This is not the kind of place you should come and order an entree with tons of changes and substitutions, as the menu is is carefully constructed and lovingly imagined, to create the optimal combinations of ingredients, and to provide a delicate balance of textures and flavors.  The restaurant is all about enjoying yourself, and being willing to try dishes you might not have had before, nor had you ever thought to.  I'll admit I had experienced a bit of trepidation after hearing that the chef could be a bit temperamental.  Let me just say that couldn't be further from the woman I've met.
     Chef Micah Edelstein is a friendly woman, with a genuine interest in explaining the ingredients and a passion for the cuisine that is just infectious.  She kind and vivacious, and it's expressed in her cooking, which is truly one-of-a-kind and just plain fun.  As South African native, she creates several dishes influenced by her home, and you'd be hardpressed to find anything quite like them anywhere else in Miami.  Also, her adorable daughter Matilda is often present, bringing over snacks of cheese bread and sometimes showing you her latest crayon masterpieces.  It really makes you feel like you're part of the neMesis family in a way that other restaurants lack completely.
     When you're ready to start the meal, it can be a tough decision whether to begin with a "cool couple" or a "sexy nibble."  Let me assure you you really can't go wrong no matter which direction you choose! 
     The Fig-Elicious Braised Duck Potstickers, are beautiful little purses, filled with a tender and flavorful meat.  Although they are good on their own, the guava cardamom dipping sauce only makes them better, adding a dulcet dimension of flavor that doesn't overshadow the duck meat.  I don't think I've ever come to Nemesis and resisted the temptation.
Also, my more recent discovery (and my now favorite dish) is the P4, so named for being the quadruple "P"s of Purple Peruvian Pignoli Pancakes, which are served with their own housemade apple chicken sage sausage and crisp sage leaves.  The smoky little pinwheels and juicy links of sausage are incredibly flavorful, and the addition of  hibiscus syrup and maple granules adds the perfect contrasting touch of sweetness.  I should admit my dining partner disliked the sugary flavors and thought it was too much for her, but I personally really enjoyed that aspect and thought it balanced things out.
The lamb sosaties is served with apricots and a minty yogurt.  Apparently, sosaties this is a typical South African dish of skewered mutton or lamb (for those that are ignorant like me and do not have wikipedia handy) which are threaded with fruit such as apricots, and then pan-fried, grilled, or cooked outside on a braai (BBQ).  Also, the rich meat is often marinated in a tamarind marinade, which is how Chef Micah prepares it.  We wolfed these down in no time as the combination of fruit, creamy sauce and tender meat proved too delicious to resist.  Even better, our inner children had quite a bit of fun using the leftover sticks as makeshift swords for a tableside duel (this might have been partially encouraged after consumption of some of their refreshing beers).
If you don't fill up on all the irresistible starters, there is plenty of creativity in the entrees too.  The lamb ragout agnolotti served with a "cowardly" (no it) pesto and aged parmigiano reggiano.  It was nothing like I would picture a traditional agnolotti to be, and yet I really enjoyed this dish.  It was an incredible amalgamation of flavors, with the thickness of the pasta being a bit chewy and plenty of tender meat adding to the overall experience.
Another stellar hit for me is their Maya Nut Piri Piri Bison.  A far cry from your average meat and potatoes dish, they manage to knock this one out of the park.  While bison conjures up images from my hunting days on Oregon Trail, I've found it pretty uncommon on many menus.  Furthermore, it takes a lot of skill to get it right in actual execution since  there is a huge possibility that it will be a tough, gamey meat, and others tend to have missed the mark.  In spite of this potential pitfall, at neMesis, it is nothing short of splendorous.  Like a perfectly toasted marshmallow, the outside maintains a nice char, whilst the inner portion remains juicy.  There was a slight kick from the piri piri peppers, but thankfully, nothing too extreme.  Despite the addition of a huckleberry dark chocolate sauce to the meat, I found the glaze to taste more savory than I had expected.  Instead, the sweetness in the dish actually came from the butternut sage hash.  Little cubes of a delectable squash (which I assume must be maple glazed) were a great contrast to the smokiness of the meat.
I admit I tend to be completely heat intolerant, so I'm always worried that peppers will numb my mouth to the extent that I can't taste anything else.  As Chef Micah kindly explained, the trick with piri piri is that is adds a smoky flavor but doesn't actually burn your throat.  Success for one type of pepper I can handle!  I was still a bit curious so she even brought me over some to get a better look and then generously gifted me a few (wrapped in Saran Wrap) for me to take home!  In case you're wondering, this is what they look like:
To be totally honest, my gauge for a good restaurant is typically their dessert menu.  It begins with a little game of, is it going to be inventive and unique or will I find your average cheesecake, key lime pie, chocolate cake?  I've found that typically the more staid desserts menus tend to have equally unambitious and adequate but unexciting food.  neMesis did not disappoint on this front, and as a fan of Amarula ever since I discovered the creamy, caramely, fruity liquor during a cruise trip in undergrad, I went with the Warm Malva Pudding.  If you've ever had a traditional British sticky toffee pudding, this this is much more similar to that than the American notions of thick liquid pudding.  Instead, you receive a little block of moist and spongy cake, that tasted like a fall pumpkin bread, and had a bit of extra kick from more of those wonderful piri piri peppers.  Together with the smooth Amarula, it was the perfect balance of spice and caramel, cream and cake.

If it isn't already blatantly obvious, I think the food is completely exceptional and well worth checking out.  This is not your cookie-cutter restaurant and really feels like an extension of Chef Micah's home.  Her personality is evident is every aspect of the place, and it really feels like a grownup culinary playground.  I highly recommend making reservations in advance as it can get very packed.  This is a true neighborhood gem and a very welcome addition to an area in need of some revamping.  To check it out for yourself:        
     1035 North Miami Avenue  Miami, FL 33136
     (305) 415-9911
You can also follow neMesis on twitter for their specials or upcoming events @neMesisbistro
NeMesis Urban Bistro on Urbanspoon

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