By Miami Herald
Dining doesn’t get any more waterfront than at Kiki on the River, which literally is on the Miami River. Get lucky enough to score a coveted dockside table and you could hit the side of a passing cargo ship — and there are many — with a tennis ball. Bougainvillea and lush vines festoon the expansive Christmas-tree-lighted outdoor deck, the center of which is a bustling bar.
The setting couldn’t be more charmingly Miami.
The place is a high-end restaurant with ambitious and authentic Greek food, yet it has elements of a nightclub. This isn’t surprising because one partner is Roman Jones, who in a previous life was the club king who founded South Beach’s Opium Group and once opened a nightspot that featured beds.
Clubby features include a popular all-day Sunday party that will remind South Beach veterans of the Sunday Soiree at the Raleigh Hotel back in the day — including the $17 signature cocktails and a lenient outdoor smoking policy. We say this because on one of our visits, one slick fellow had ladies on either arm, and all three were smoking cigars. Management was apologetic over our obvious discomfort, but we have to say that if you’re going to blow cigar smoke into our Greek salad, you’d better be prepared to pay for it.
When it opened in April, Kiki joined next-door neighbor Seaspice as waterside dens of decadence where you can arrive by yacht. LeBron James hosted an entourage here during his much-ballyhooed Miami nostalgia tour this summer. You might spot a “Real Housewives of Miami” alumni on any given night, and the check will really catch the attention of all but the highest of rollers, particularly if your party is drinking.
The outdoor setting and proximity to the river isn’t all glory and greatness, however. In the summer, it’s hot, and the ample fans buzzing throughout the deck don’t really do the job. If you sit in the eclectic indoor dining room at night, with its leather Chesterfield sofas and seashell chandeliers, you’ll feel like you’re in an over-air-conditioned parlor, cozy but dark and lonely compared to the euphoric scene outside. If it’s a rainy night, they might decide to close the restaurant altogether, which happened on a recent Tuesday (well, it was Tuesday).
The menu is the purview of executive chef Steve Rhee, who opened another tony Greek restaurant, Estiatorio Milos, in Miami Beach a few years back. It is heavily focused on appetizers, with which you can build a sumptuous meal without ever considering an entree — perfect for sharing things. There’s also a raw bar that features a $229 seafood tower.
Fresh bread is passed with good olive oil, but you’ll want to go slow and start with the tomato salad. It features fat, juicy, ruby red tomato quarters, crisp cucumber, red onion, kalamata olives, oregano, red wine vinegar and olive oil and a big block of feta cheese, which you crumble yourself as you go. Big enough to split, this is a must-get.
Deliciously salty kefalograviera cheese is lightly floured and pan-fried to make a classic saganaki, a dense appetizer that you will want to share lest you fill up 15 minutes into the meal. Keftedakia are Greek-style meatballs served with a sharp ladolemono sauce, olive oil, lemon, mustard and the inevitable Greek touch of oregano. The sauce is the perfect foil to the garlicky, beefy (if dryish) meatballs.
The hits keep coming. Our chicken souvlaki skewers were served hot and curling with steam, the rich tzatziki and ladolemeno sauces spot on. An ample serving of charred octopus, braized in olive oil, gets welcome jolts from fried capers and red onions, with a sprinkle of parsley adding more color. The octopus was tender and deeply flavorful. Crab cakes are straight-ahead Maryland Eastern Shore, with Old Bay seasoning aioli a nice touch (on one visit, our crab cake arrived tepid). You can try a single grilled sea scallop ($7) or jumbo shrimp ($6), if you just want a taste, and both are done well.
Entrees include a generous serving of expertly grilled lamb chops, a perfectly grilled half-chicken and a trio of fish grilled whole. Our lavraki, Mediterranean sea bass, was delicate, drizzled with olive oil and herbs, served with standard lemon potatoes (they’re available as a side dish, but we say go for the horta, sauteed spinach).
One clever way to try Kiki is to come at lunch, when every day but Sunday there is a $24.99 fixed price menu including starter, entree, and dessert. Much of this menu is repurposed from the dinner menu, but one thing that is not is the seafood salad, the best item we tried here. It’s a typical mix of octopus, calamari, shrimp and not-so-typical conch, but then the fun begins: You get shaved asparagus, quinoa, a preserved lemon vinaigrette, a bit of chili oil and POW! salty-briny giant caper berries with their stems.
Tuna tartare is another great one, elevated by Fresno peppers and an avocado puree, with sambol and crispy shallots. Grilled scallops as a lunch entree are for the lighter eater, as there are only two, but they’re big and well seasoned. Toasted couscous is the go-along, with ladolemono as the finisher.
Baklava is a good finish, served with mixed berries, but in the interest of prolonging the party, you’ll want to get s’mores. They’ll bring a tabletop firepot, a batch of marshmallows, thick chocolate sauce and Graham crackers, and you do the work — toasting the marshmallows and building your classic s’mores at this new classic on the Miami River.