Review: Mezzes dominate but don't dazzle at Cleo in South Beach

Dinner is simply the precursor to a night out on the town for some, obligatory fuel to soak up liquid fun. For forward-thinking clubbers, there is now Cleo.

The 7-month-old restaurant inside The Redbury boutique hotel, 1776 Collins Ave., in Miami Beach is an affordable first-stop option, with a light, Mediterranean menu and a young, stiletto-clad bar crowd eager to get the party started.

In case you’ve forgotten that you’re in the heart of South Beach, rowdy diners who sporadically scream and sing along to classic rock music are there to remind you, while bartenders in neon suspenders shake up fancy cocktails.

Replacing Lorenzo, the Italian restaurant that lasted nine months on the hotel’s ground floor, Cleo drips with Middle Eastern glam. The two-tiered dining room is layered with Moroccan lanterns, Moorish chandeliers and Turkish rugs. Ornate-framed Hollywood studio photos of actresses portraying Cleopatra, the eatery’s namesake, share the walls with old China plates.

Brown leather booths rim the space, with apothecary jars full of spices framing the open kitchen to the side. With the exception of an overwhelmed hostess stand, service from a staff sporting black ties and long black aprons is brisk and perceptive. 

Following Los Angeles and Las Vegas, this is the third Cleo outpost for SBE hospitality group and corporate chef Danny Elmaleh, who draws upon his Moroccan and Japanese heritage, as well as his Israeli birthplace, to create a worldly menu that emphasizes sharing small plates.

A half-dozen dips, ranging from babaganoush to labneh yogurt with feta, are accompanied by one of Cleo’s most alluring qualities: pie-size, warm, chewy laffa, charred from a wood-burning oven, topped with herbs and brought to the table in puffy, brown bags. Combined with our favorite dip — a simple combo of cool cucumbers and yogurt, with fresh dill and red peppercorns — the starter will leave you peering into the bag for more bread.

Mezzes dominate the choices but don’t always dazzle. Artichoke and Niçoise olives were hard and flavorless. A pork belly kebab was essentially all fat and no meat. It lacked crustiness, but was saved by a spicy paprika sauce and dollop of cool yogurt. 

Airy spinach ricotta dumplings charmed, swimming in a creamy broth with fresh parmesan shavings. The lamb shawarma — spit-roasted lamb strips with caramelized onions and harissa-spiked labneh — also was delicious, but the grilled laffa it came in was barely bigger than a silver dollar. Three of us were left to slice off slivers of the bite-size dish like fairytale characters pretending to feast on a single scrap of meat.

Budget-minded diners may want to avoid paying a pharaoh’s ransom for parking and seek out one of Miami Beach’s parking decks or find alternative transportation. Valet parking at the hotel costs the equivalent of three small plates.

If you want to fill up before a night of debauchery, carbs are the way to go here, with seven types of flatbread topped by your choice of mushrooms, arugula, artichokes, clams, kale or eggplant with various cheeses.

The tagine dish we anticipated with relish from a selection of three — meatball, lamb or chicken — was a disappointment. Our chicken was lukewarm. The saffron rice was hard and dry. Promised preserved lemons were conspicuously absent. It was as if the meal had been microwaved, then spooned into the cookware to charm (i.e. fool) the table, which did not finish the dish.

Sugar heads will appreciate over-the-top sweets at the end, including a gooey, flourless chocolate cake swimming in a puddle of pistachio gelato, and a mini-Bundt cake with butterscotch caramel sauce and vanilla gelato billed as sticky toffee pudding. 

Lunch, designed for hotel guests, offers a limited sandwich-and-salad menu that includes a decent lamb burger on focaccia with aioli spread, raw vegetables with lemony hummus, salty French fries — and an empty dining room barely reminiscent of the nighttime scene.

To avoid an evening as tragic as Cleopatra’s story, snap on your party hat (or heels), make Cleo the beginning of a long night of fun, and save your real appetite for later. 

Critics dine anonymously at the Miami Herald’s expense.