Diners along the upper 8000 blocks of Biscayne Boulevard, in what you could call Shorecrest or El Portal or Miami Shores or Miami, depending almost on what side of the street you’re on, must be pinching themselves these days: Fine dining is here.
Open about three months in the old Biscayne Diner space at 87th and Biscayne, Pinch Kitchen is the handiwork of chef-partners John Gallo and Rene Reyes, who honed their culinary chops with the umami gang at Pubbelly Group after first meeting in the tony kitchen of Casa Tua.
The place — just 35 seats — feels warm and cozy like Grandma’s house, with sensible wooden tables and homey hutches holding assorted glassware, soft lighting and the diner’s original checkered floor and tiled bar fronting the small open kitchen.
That kitchen is the repository for an impressive array of quality ingredients assembled into the creative dishes that populate the simple menus, each of which includes maybe a dozen items. Specials are available every day, and if they’re popular, they stick around.
We tried one special on each visit, and they will stick around. Vegan parsnip soup (there is always at least one vegan special) is a simple delight, a puree of boiled parsnip with shallot and garlic. Seasoning is limited to salt and a swirl of sumac and a pinch (sorry) of oregano, allowing the parsnips’ natural earthy sweetness to shine through.
A polenta special served at Pinch’s feast of a weekend brunch is a round of classic Italian polenta made with chicken stock, then seared on the griddle at pickup with mixed greens and a barely fried organic egg oozing all over everything. Tiny beech mushrooms (think enoki) add texture and — having been pickled — dots of sweetness against the savory dish.
The Pinch salad is a must-order. Hot new “It” lettuce Salanova, with crunchy, deeply flavored red and green leaves, is paired with thinly sliced Chinese daikon “watermelon” radish, thin strips of organic carrot, shaved fennel and a light cucumber-oregano vinaigrette. Salted hard ricotta cheese is grated fresh on top, providing an initial bite that’s aggressively salty and easing into the cool dressing. Share this huge salad at the table and on Instagram.
More vegetable goodness with organic carrots, roasted just to crunchiness and served in a bowl with Greek tzatziki (cucumber, mint, parsley, lemon juice) coating the base. Toasted almonds on top provide texture, and pimenton adds smokiness.
Spanish octopus, slow-cooked then finished on the grill, is tender and smoky, with soft, sweet medallions of sherry-honey-seared Japanese eggplant, a few beluga lentils and a puddle of hummus and shaved fennel rounding out this intriguing dish. There isn’t a whole lot of octopus, but there are a lot of other things going on, and they work well together.
For Pinch’s 8-ounce burger, the chefs order a proprietary ground meat mix that they won’t divulge here. We can assume, though, that this mix contains plenty of fat, for the burger is top-flight juicy with a strong, beefy flavor. House mayo is smeared on the toasted brioche bun, plus there’s melted Swiss cheese, caramelized onions, lettuce and sliced plum tomato.
At brunch, the burger gets an egg, and if you get the optional bacon, they’ll need a wheelbarrow to haul you home. Particularly if you eat all the hand-cut fries, twice-fried for a fresh, hot crunch.
A dozen Rhode Island Blue mussels, bigger and meatier than the Prince Edward Island variety, bathe in a homemade shellfish broth with shaved celery, shallots sautéed with buttons of spicy andouille and sofrito. Sourdoughy homemade focaccia, baked with rosemary, salt and olive oil, is provided for welcome dipping.
Organic half-chicken is slow-cooked and quick-roasted in the oven upon order, drizzled on the plate with homemade mushroom chicken stock and served with whatever the best green on hand is; this time pleasantly bitter Swiss chard.
Pork “secreto” is, literally, a secret cut of pork that your butcher can find where the shoulder meets the belly. Deeply marbled, it resembles beef skirt steak in texture and intensity of flavor. Our generous 8-ounce portion was grilled, smoked a bit on the robata, sliced and drizzled with a homemade romesco sauce.
Food bloggers rave about the flavor and texture of pork secreto, but this version — tasty as it was — had off-putting chewiness, as if overcooked. Saving the day was the marvelous Pinch Creamy Potato, a “cup” formed with crispy potato and filled with creamy potato foam, potato two ways in one bite.
The classic French Baba au Rhum cake, moist and sublime, gets a creative twist with two scoops of vanilla gelato infused with a pinch (last one) of thyme. Enjoy it with one of the town’s best cortaditos or a selection from the list of 22 craft beers or the limited but pleasing wine list. And you’ll be back.
Critics dine unannounced at the Miami Herald’s expense. Kendall Hamersly: 305-376-3667, @khamersly