Tendril is the Night

A social couple will often look for another couple that enjoys the same entertainments -- dining out, an evening of music, a shared bottle of good wine. They play doubles' tennis, take vacations together. House keys are exchanged with favors (can you water the plants, will you baby-sit the children?). A love is born.

We've been fortunate to discover two such couples in Miami. Sometimes we dine en masse, a plate-sharing, ravenous group of six. That's not unusual, considering the origins of this party: The men met in school, discovering an obsessive-compulsive commonality they enjoyed in one another. And the women were linked by the guilty thrill of eating well and not having to chat about Dan Marino's throwing arm.

At this time last year we were three engaged couples, willing victims to the oldest racket in the world. We did corny things, like see Father of the Bride together (in the throes of registry I named every houseware in the movie and still envy the bride that elegant Waring blender). My husband and I were the first to grind glass under our heels.

Now it's their turn to amble down the aisle. By the New Year -- and within a week of each other -- both couples will marry. You can tell the jitters have come visiting like relatives. As the weddings approach, the brides eat less and less, the grooms lose more hair.

My husband and I can't help but want to make them more nervous. It's always been a great joy of ours (both of us being the youngest children in our respective families) to have someone else to tease. Which is why Soren's Food Among The Flowers, a romantic Coral Gables spot for dining a deux (or in our case, a six), was such an apropos choice for a recent evening's socializing. The combination of an intimate, floral-heavy setting and banquet-style service was for them a bit unsettling, a precursor of events to come. (Needless to say, perhaps, after this meal neither couple will discuss their wedding menus with me.)

For me it was deja vu. So many of the restaurant's key components remind me of a well-catered affair. Indeed, private parties utilize the rooms that adjoin the main dining area. And on Sundays, Food Among The Flowers opens exclusively for special occasions.

Even for nonbetrothed diners, an air of formal celebration pervades. The waiters, in chef whites, allocate dinner rolls to individual plates from baskets they carry on their arms. Ramekins of anchovy-garlic butter and strawberry-honey cream cheese (a spread I found too cloying to begin a meal, though it would fare well with a bagel) are placed strategically on the oversize oval table. Black olive and celery-stick relish trays wouldn't have been far-fetched; and I was half-hoping for a chocolate-and-vanilla ice cream parfait for dessert. (I should note that dessert, usually a forgone conclusion, is not in the realm of possibility when dining with two brides -- or their gowns may not be in the realm of possibility.)

But while relish trays are, I hope, a culinary abuse of the past, other cold starters are not. A creamy minced cucumber soup ($4.50) made the rounds of our table to the astonishment of other diners, who apparently didn't believe soup could be passed like a basketball from one person to another. I generally don't care for cold soups -- they usually depend on the additives of sugar and cream rather than the fruit or vegetable on which they're nominally based. In hot weather I make an exception for gazpacho, always refreshing. I was interested to discover that, even during the recent frosty front, at Food Among The Flowers a cold soup is still a viable option.

In fact, chef Soren Bredhal keeps many options open. Some might remember him from the original Food Among The Flowers, a restaurant situated in Miami's Design District. My in-laws claim they dined there eighteen years ago. This version of the eatery and lounge (former owner David Harrison sold the rights to the name) is celebrating its paper anniversary this month under owner/manager Maria Alvarado. Despite the change in management and location, Soren is still designing the gourmet-catering-type menu in the restaurant that bears his name.

He is not, however, designing the plates. Artistic-garnish kudos goes to Aboud Kobaitri, who arranges each entree differently. Nor is Soren responsible for the dining room layout, a scheme that complements his menu very well (for example, the Food Among The Flowers Salad, for $6.95, is tossed in a raspberry vinaigrette and topped with an edible flower). Alvarado tends this tropical rainforest that she had transplanted to the dining area. She also dresses the centerpiece of the room -- a stone fountain, musical with water -- in roses and other blooming "beasts" (though there were far fewer flowers and more greenery than we had anticipated, judging from the name). We found the drawbacks of all this vegetation to be significant. It not only looked like a rainforest, it smelled like one. The odor of mildew was stronger than the pepper duck Indiana Jones ($18.95), brushed with five kinds of pepper and a corn sauce, and certainly not as appetizing.

Nonetheless, the chicken macadamia ($16.95), folded around boursin cheese and sweetened with a side of crunchy rice noodles and strawberry sauce, disappeared from a prospective groom's plate at the rate of two bites per second. He did dispatch a taste in my direction, though, before it went the way of his bachelorhood. I only hope his married life will be as rich as this dish.

His w-w-w-wife-to-be (there are those prenuptial nerves again) also chose chicken, with pasta primavera ($15.95). Isn't that cute? They already think alike. Though it was not very innovative, an addition of baby vegetables propped the dish up a bit, and the preparation was excellent. The serving was also generous, affording us all a forkful. This woman mentioned later that she felt the staff and other clients had been watching us during dinner. By the way we fell on each other's food, it's no wonder she felt conspicuous.

The other bride and I shared as an appetizer the "Five Easy Pieces" ($6.95), tri-color Gorgonzola ravioli surrounding a mound of creamed spinach (if you think all these brides and grooms are confusing, try going to two bridal showers in one weekend, both of them surprise parties. I've forbidden them to have babies -- ugh -- at the same time).

To counteract the delicious fattiness of it, we split as an entree the "Food Among The Flowers Greenery Bowl" ($10.95), an immense portion of spinach, romaine, California baby greens, artichoke hearts and hearts of palm, tomatoes, and green beans, all mixed lightly with a vinaigrette. This meal goes along with the candy-bar/diet-soda theory of negation -- if you eat one while drinking the other, they cancel each other out. Actually, I adore baby lettuces, alternately sweet and nutty pretentious little weeds. This serving of them could have used a third hand, but not many were interested in salad when the honeysuckle duck ($17.95), with a Southern salsa and pecan gravy, tenderized the table.

Of course, because my own husband is perfect, his meal of nutty peach salmon ($20.95) was presented with equal perfection. The salmon scaloppine was encrusted with a layer of nuts, then bathed in a sweet-and-sour peach sauce and layered over linguine. The nut-and-fruit theme did start to seem familiar, but then the whole menu, from escargot puff ($7.25) to the filet mignon with a cabernet sauce ($23.95), was slightly worn. Baby vegetables, three-color pasta, little lettuces, even edible flowers have seen fresher days. Some chefs have vowed never to touch duck again, it's that poultry passe. But Soren has been around so long he just may have been the originator, at least in Miami, of gourmet food store cookery. And he has something the up-and-coming creative chefs, spit-shined from culinary school, lack: the experience to turn unfashionable ingredients into client-securing repasts. Delicious is always in.

SOREN'S FOOD AMONG THE FLOWERS 2728 Ponce de Leon Blvd., Coral Gables, 441-9393. Open for lunch Monday -- Friday 11:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. Open for dinner Monday -- Thursday 6:30 until 10:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6:30 p.m. until midnight. Closed Sundays (except for private parties).

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