There are some bright spots in Miami Beach’s ethnic food scene, but Middle Eastern cuisine is not so shiny. Upscale Turkish restaurants hardly exist here, although the beloved Mandolin Aegean Bistro will soon have an outpost at Soho Beach House.
Turkish cuisine is deliciously diverse, owing to the nation’s placement between Asia and Europe. And it’s worth exploring at the new Babylon Turkish Restaurant in South Beach, where a glimmer of light peeks out.
Outside Babylon, the turnstile of a “cursed” space on the corner of Sixth Street and Washington Avenue, the stunning garden, cozy wicker furniture and twinkly lanterns make the patio feel like a romantic heaven, complete with strains of Sufi music. Inside, despite slightly threadbare upholstering, the dining room retains an island-chic feel with aqua walls and mosaic chandeliers.
A decent wine list — minus vintages — could include more Turkish labels. As it is, the rustic Yakut Kavaklidere from Anatolia made primarily of Öküzgözü and Carignan grapes is worth a taste for those who want to know what Turkey’s most popular red tastes like. A bottle goes for $40, about four times retail.
The menu has all the usual suspects, plus a few obscure choices. A traditional and colorful meze platter brought seven dips — generous, but a bit dizzying to the taste buds. Favorites included a briny, creamsicle-color taramasalata, popping with fresh fish roe, and the super-creamy, whipped hummus.
While all the cooking was competent, for every dish we had that garnered oohs we had another that elicited ho-hums.
Standouts included a lovely tavuk sis, or chicken kebab with tender thigh meat that had been marinated for hours, seasoned well with herbs and then grilled to a golden tan. A simple, gorgeously scorched tentacle of octopus was as flavorful and delicate as I have tasted.
Rustic zucchini pancakes with feta and dill — fried a minute too long until a few shades darker than antique bronze — are served with a mild garlic yogurt sauce that could have used more zing.
Icli kofte, like kibbeh, are torpedo-shape balls of ground meat in a bulgur coating. These were dry and served with a lackluster red-pepper sauce over a few brown-edged lettuce leaves that looked as if they had been fished from the bottom of the produce drawer.
Though the menu offers several seafood preparations, including sea bream, salmon, bass and shrimp casserole, a waiter warned me off, saying, “The last thing you want to order is fish in a Turkish restaurant.”
So, lamb it was. Indeed, four tiny chops made a satisfying meal as they were perfectly seasoned and grilled to still-juicy pink in the center. The chef had clearly not been introduced to local farmers. Because instead of this season’s gorgeous bounty of heirloom-tomato wonders from Homestead, he used plasticky pale-pink slices that were as absent of flavor as the restaurant was of other guests.
Tomatoes also posed a problem in the shepherd salad; this time, they were soggy as if soaked in dressing for hours. A buttery pilaf was irresistibly light as linen but with a nutty, earthy confidence.
While slender lozenges of flaky baklava satisfied with their sticky sweetness and crumbly nuts, other dessert options fell short. The waiter pushed the kazandibi, a favorite milk- and rice-flour pudding from Istanbul, named for caramelized skin that forms from the burnt bottom of the pot. However, here the fridge-weary, smear of caramelized custard on a cold plate had a distinct taste of garlic as if it was stored uncovered next to the caçik (tzatziki). A sprinkling of crushed toasty pistachios helped.
Little details like this detract from what could be fine, fine dining. Bablyon could glow, but for now, the tinder has yet to ignite.
Critics dine anonymously at the Miami Herald’s expense. Follow Victoria Pesce Elliott on Twitter and Instagram: @VictoriaPesceE.