Sweet Spot: Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill
By Lee Brian Schrager
FROM LEFT: Chef Timon Balloo in the main dining room of Sugarcane; the bar area at Sugarcane
Savoring a cocktail at Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill is much like contemplating a fine piece of art—its freshly muddled concoctions (available in pitcher portions to encourage sharing) offer sweet, savory and spicy experiences of a truly unique caliber, a trend that the restaurant carries through to its culinary creations, as well.
Developed by the creators of SushiSamba, Sugarcane is located in the heart of Miami’s growing Midtown district, and its laid-back, family-style serving philosophy has already made it a local hot spot. Executive chef Timon Balloo ensures that international flavors and a South American spirit permeate the dishes created in any of the restaurant’s three prep centers. There’s a traditional hot kitchen, a seemingly endless raw bar featuring items such as Florida snapper and young amberjack, and the robata (which translates from Japanese to “by the fireside”), where dishes like Korean-style beef short ribs are prepared over bincho-tan charcoal. Balloo’s daily blackboard specials are inspired by seasonal, local ingredients, including whole roasted chicken served with truffle fingerling potatoes and shiitake mushrooms. Tapas—from veal meatballs with Manchego to Brussels sprouts with orange and house-made sweet soy—underscore the restaurant’s overall concept of creating a communal dining experience, although you may be less inclined to share after the first bite.
OCEAN DRIVE: Your name is unique. Where does it come from?
TIMON BALLOO: Balloo is from my father, an Indian from Trinidad. Timon is from the Bible. He was a guard who used to steal food and feed Jewish prisoners.
You are Caribbean?
Yes. My mother is Chinese, also from Trinidad. We ate a lot of Asian-Caribbean cuisine growing up. My mother, whose grandfather was a chef, started a catering company out of our house. It was Chinese party food, and I’d help with the spring rolls all the time. She cooked a lot of Caribbean-style Chinese and Indian.
What has been the biggest surprise since Sugarcane opened in January?
The locals. People keep coming back—it’s an honor when they have an attachment like this to your institution.
Describe the most popular dish at Sugarcane.
The bacon-wrapped dates, which are stuffed with linguiça, cream cheese and Manchego and then fried until golden-brown.
Tell me about the roasted chicken.
It’s a hormone-free, natural chicken. We don’t manipulate it too much. Coming from Asian and Caribbean roots, my mother would always marinate food. I grind the chicken to ensure that it will never be dry. We do that 24 hours earlier and inject a little water so the breast is always moist.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: From Sugarcane’s robata grill: octopus with aji panca; kampacho crudo with pickled hon-shimeji, serrano pepper and house soy; the Jardin del Mar cocktail is made with fresh cucumber juice, Rain cucumber vodka, Junmai sake and a rim of robata-smoked sea salt; chocolate-peanut-butter-caramel bar with marshmallows and caramel-popcorn ice cream; free-range whole roasted chicken with fingerling potatoes and shiitake mushrooms; Hamachi hako roll with wasabi tobiko and aji amarillo chilies
The short ribs are also great.
Yes—I love Korean barbecue, and these are very thinly sliced.
People really seem to enjoy your small plates.
It’s the neighborhood feel and the idea of noshing on food with one another. Friends are laughing, drinking and sharing, and we’re bringing people together.
What is your favorite dish that people aren’t ordering enough?
The one I love is the tripe with wok-charred Brussels sprouts and kimchi.
The desserts are amazing.
We have a great pastry chef named Vera Tong. She has a whimsical way with her desserts, such as the torrejas, which incorporates French toast.
Tell me about your bar offerings.
All the fresh muddled juices are taken from the SushiSamba philosophy. For a good cocktail, we use the real thing—like cucumber and citrus juices—and squeeze everything fresh. We feature rum from every country that produces sugarcane, really nice vintages and small distilleries, and do a couple of infusions, such as banana and pineapple. Our beverage program is ever-changing.
I know you’re a fan of restaurants by Michelle Bernstein, Robbin Haas, Allen Susser and Michael Schwartz. Where else do you like to eat?
I go for dim sum once a week, to an ethnic hole-in-the-wall in Kendall. Tropical Chinese is great, but I also go across the street to Kon Chau. You need to see the culture and eat the cuisine, and that is how you’ll get into its soul; otherwise you’re not doing it justice.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY GARY JAMES