Tales from the Grille

When a restaurant we love goes out of business, we may mourn its passing. We might long for a certain favorite dish. But we hardly ever wonder what became of the staff, how they survived the loss of their livelihoods, where they found other work. If the executive chef is good enough and visible enough, we'll undoubtedly hear from her or him again. As for the rest of them, we think -- if we think about it at all -- that sudden unemployment is the nature of the business.

Some of these staff members, particularly those from the kitchen, are worth following. Hidden by the fame of their mentors, talented sous chefs often benefit from the closings or sales of their restaurants because it forces them to seek out other, greater opportunities. Take, for example, Chef Scott Howard. A sous chef under Norman Van Aken at the original a Mano, he is now, thanks to a Mano's abrupt transition, executive chef at the new Gus' Grille, a fine-dining waterfront restaurant located within the luxurious enclave of the Key Largo Bay Beach Resort.

At Mile Marker 103.5, the Key Largo Bay Beach Resort is an upscale, all-inclusive-type hotel that opened this past July (Gus' Grille opened October 15). Restaurant manager Melissa Coupal calls it a "little paradise," different from anything Key Largo has to offer. If your idea of paradise is a wave pool and access to a chef from a Mano, then I guess that would be a fair assessment.

To match the resort, Gus' Grille isn't the typical conch shack. But this tri-floor restaurant, though enormous, is actually difficult to find. We drove around for a while before stopping at the information booth for directions, feeling as if we were circling inside a Boca Pointe development because of the lack of distinguishing landmarks.

Once we had it pegged, though, we wondered how we could have missed it. A building unto itself, Gus' Grille can seat upward of 250 on the second and third floors alone. The first floor, which boaters will be happy to note will have dockside dining, has not been opened for service yet. But if the thought of climbing one or two flights of stairs distresses you, fear not -- there's an elevator.

As always with a restaurant this size, our concern was the fare -- would it be detailed and intimate, or would it be mass-produced? Our worries were at first escalated by the menu. Categories from which diners make their meal choices include "this and that" (appetizers), dinner specialties with a Cuban-Caribbean flair, pizzas from the wood-burning oven, pastas, salads, sandwiches and sides. On entrees alone, you can choose from more than 30. This sounds like TGI Friday's overkill. But this menu had been written with just enough imagination and skill to make everything sound delicious, and just enough restraint to make it readable. Now, I'm practiced at menus. Usually I glance at one for a bare minute before deciding not only what I want, but also predicting what my guests will eat. This is the first time in many months I've been in a dining quandary, and I wasn't alone. None of us could decide on one meal; we all wanted four or five.

Fortunately, our indecision posed no problem to the waiter. He was dealing with his own dilemmas, having been newly trained in using the computer. We actually didn't mind his inexperience. It's more reassuring to know your waiter is new than to assume he's incompetent, and to tip accordingly. At one point, though, service was so slow we were convinced he had gone downstairs to put in our order and just kept right on going, out the door and into the warm Keys night. But oh, right, this is Key Largo. Think of dinner as a mini-vacation and relax. Your food will arrive when it arrives. And when it does, the sheer artistry of the presentation will settle your big-city anxieties about why it took the length of the hour's car ride from Miami to appear.

We decided on appetizers that spoke of the Keys. They also spoke volumes about the talent in the kitchen. Conch fritters were succulent and moist with the additions of mango, black beans, and pineapple to the batter. The oversize plate had been oiled with annatto and a honey mustard drizzle, resulting in a glazed look. A Caribbean vegetable chow chow was a fire-and-ice condiment, initially cool, ultimately hot (though we blamed the mustard for the spice).

Lump crab cakes, another familiar offering, were finely minced crab patties, pan-fried, and served on scrolls of Key lime butter sauce and cilantro aioli. A papaya (this kitchen loves its fruta bomba) and black bean salsa topped these outstanding delicacies, simply the best I've had.

The dishes thankfully weren't the outlandish creations one might expect from an a Mano graduate, but they were creative -- and delicious -- nonetheless. The sizes of the plates, on the other hand, were excessive. A bowl of Bahamian chowder was practically big enough to swim in. Don't drink with dinner or you might fall forward and drown in this tomato-based soup. It was filling, too: Chunks of red and green peppers, onions, bacon, and new potatoes stood out of the broth, propping up the garnish of puffy, buttery toast.

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