Sarsaparilla Surprise

For those of you who don’t know, sarsaparilla is a soft drink, originally made from the Smilax regelii plant, that was popular in the United States in the 19th century. Confused yet? What that has to do with the new American dim sum restaurant at The Shelbourne hotel on South Beach, I have no idea. I also know that I don’t really care because this place is amazing. After a recent menu tasting, I’m signing up for a lifetime membership to The Sarsaparilla Club.

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Helmed by Chef McInnis (he’s back!) and Chef Janine Booth (a Top Chef season 11 standout), The Sarsaparilla Club is an innovative take on contemporary American cooking. It offers a modern style of service allowing guests a unique opportunity to experience a broad range of of cuisines, taking influences from both American comfort food and Cantonese dim sum, served either a la carte or from a dim sum carte.

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The a la carte menu is divided into two sections: Medium Plates, Salads & Sides and Large Plates. It’s a little hard to navigate to be honest, because it would lend you to believe that the dim sum menu would only consist of small plates. Spoiler alert: it’s not. In any case, your best bet is to ask your server roughly how many dishes is enough for your group size. It’s not an exact science, but it’s a start. You’ll probably end up ordering too much, but at The Sarsaparilla Club, that’s really not a bad thing.

Anyway, back to the food. From the a la carte menu, I tried one medium plate, one salad, and two large plates. The Shrimp & Bacon Stuffed Chicken Wings were a nice change to the typical wing. Now a staple on many menus (even in finer dining establishments), chicken wings are everywhere, but can’t say I’ve ever had a stuffed version before. These wings tasted like your traditional wing on the surface – tangy, spicy, and served with buttermilk ranch and celery hearts – but the shrimp and bacon brought a little bit of sweetness to the profile, with an almost dumpling filling-like quality.

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The Baby Butter Lettuce & Ribbon Salad is a nice salad, and, while beautiful, is essentially just a run-of-the-mill salad. Maybe it’s just me; I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a big salad orderer at restaurants, but somehow I keep trying. Anyway, if you’re into salads I’m sure you’ll like this one with its rainbow ribbons of roots, watermelon radish, tart apple and cucumber, heirloom tomatoes, yuzu saffron dressing, and cashews.
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From the large plates, I first tried the Short Rib Meat Loaf with rendang curry, pickled chilies, lemongrass, kaffir lime, and jasmine rice. This is a dish where the Asian influences overtake the American ones. There’s really no trace of meatloaf here, other than maybe the shape, but regardless this short rib is fire. The sauce, the simple jasmine rice, the tender beef…amazing stuff.
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The last dish to mention before we get into the dim sum menu is the Rock Shrimp Laksa. Laksa is a Chinese-Malaysian dish, kind of like a ramen, but thicker and heartier. Along with the rock shrimp, this version included a coconut turmeric broth, tofu, egg noodles, bean sprouts, cilantro, and lime. It’s a winner, but it will also fill you up big time. If you want it, share it. And go easy on the other a la carte dishes to ensure you can experience the dim sum items.
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Now, the dim sum menu. Holy cow is it good. If you’re so inclined, start here and eat everything. Then if you’re still hungry you can order off the a la carte menu. I have to say I did it backwards and really wasn’t planning on eating much off the dim sum carte, but I guess when Chef McInnis comes to your table and says “you’re eating this,” you don’t have much choice. P.S. thanks, Chef! I was supremely stuffed afterwards, but it was worth it.
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So, here’s what I ate:
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Beet & Short Rib Dumplings with somkey plaintain BBQ sauce and shaved scallions.
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Heirloom Tomatoes with homemade ricotta, tomato sorbet, basil, and crispy olive oil toast.
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Drunken Deviled Eggs with pickled roots and sunchoke chips.
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Pork Belly Bacon Steamed Buns with house-made bao, fish sauce caramel, and cilantro peanut slaw.
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Corn 4 Ways: grilled sweet corn, cornbread butter, cornbread crumbles, and lemon popcorn.

Well, believe it or not, after all that I still ordered dessert – #fatass. Similar to the regular menu, the desserts are divided between a la carte and dim sum. From the sweet tooth cart, I tried the Sarsaparilla Float with toffee ice cream and filthy cherries and the Banana Cream Cake with torched meringue. And, to top it all off, I ordered the “hot from the kitchen” Ricotta Fritters with bourbon salted caramel.

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Stick a fork in me, I’m done. Now, when can I go back?

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Mitch’s take: Ya dim some, ya lose some. Sorry, but The Sarsaparilla Club is a definite winner. It’s a strong homecoming for Jeff McInnis and with Janine Booth by his side their partnership is a perfect and most-welcome addition to the South Beach food scene.

Standout dishes: Dim sum all day. The a la carte menu is stellar, but the food coming off the Americanized dim sum cart is hard to beat. The bao, the corn, the deviled eggs. It’s all just so damn good.

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