The Mean Season

You wouldn't know it by the weather, but autumn is approaching. The biggest clue: the department stores and boutiques, which all feature "back-to-school" three-piece pinstripe woolens and nubbly mohair weaves, tempting consumers to replace their outdated, summertime wardrobes. For fashion-conscious folk in other parts of the country, where the first crisp hints of fall are more naturally announcing themselves, the stores provide the perfect light jacket for those apple-scented evenings, the right knit dress for the upcoming Indian Summer days. But South Floridians who bother shopping for fall fashions are faced with a frustrating choice: spiffy and sweaty, or dowdy and comfortable.

Dining out presents a similar dilemma. Restaurateurs are upscaling, downscaling, remodeling, sprucing up. South Beach eateries in particular are wearing a different look for fall, some showcasing back-to-basics steaks and chops and potatoes, others offering down-home pizzas and pastas -- Italian fare the way your mom makes it. Always interested in the next trend, South Beach diners want to sample the new restaurants now. But the temperatures still discourage dining on such heavy meals, so we're stuck with the same ol' sushi and salad standbys.

I thought I'd solved this quandary with Fig Leaf, a handsome, breezy Mediterranean restaurant on Washington Avenue. At six months of age, the restaurant is neither old nor new by South Beach standards. For the modest, heat-halted appetite, the menu features cooling salads and light pastas; for a heartier meal, grilled meats are available. And like the summer heat, Mediterranean cuisine (last year's trend) has yet to fade away. Fig Leaf seemed a perfect compromise, a cure for the end-of-summer doldrums. Unfortunately, "compromise" was the operative word when it came to the cuisine.

An antipasto for two was a pretty presentation, scarlet tomato wedges, briny kalamata olives, and cucumber slices garnishing an assortment of Middle Eastern appetizers. But the three stuffed grape leaves, filled with a mushy, undistinguished rice mixture, were as soft as canned spinach and tasted as if they came out of a jar. Tabbouleh, one of the salads featured on the platter, was green with too much chopped parsley that overwhelmed the bulgur; nor did we detect any of the expected flavors of tomato, lemon, or olive oil. Matters didn't improve with the hummus, an exceptionally bland version that, bereft of lemon and garlic, tasted as white as its appearance. On the other hand, baba ghannouj, a salad of minced roasted eggplant, had been prepared with so much garlic it zinged unpleasantly on the tongue. (Mixing the two yielded more palatable results.) A basket of what tasted like commercially made whole-wheat pita bread, cut into wedges and warm from the grill, accompanied the platter.

A disturbing pendulum swinging between lack and excess continued to mar the meal. Gazpacho, a dark, pureed version of the cold tomato soup, looked to have cucumber and onion in the mix, but the amount of garlic flavoring the soup prevented detection of individual ingredients. A marinated portobello mushroom was actually half a dozen grilled, greasy slices smelling vaguely of vinegar, the meaty mushroom pieces shrunken from too much fire. Roasted green and red peppers, a nice touch, complemented the portobello, which would have stood up to the grill better if it had been cooked whole.

An endive salad -- spears of the stalky, slightly bitter green surrounding fresh leaf spinach -- was the best of the appetizers. Chopped apples and pieces of tomato sweetened the salad; a lovely, almost creamy walnut vinaigrette, replete with nuts, was a tasty dressing.

Pastas are offered in appetizer-size portions or as main courses. We tried penne with eggplant, roasted garlic, and fresh tomato as an entree. The cubes of eggplant were juicy and supple, but the short pasta tubes were overcooked. The fresh tomato sauce was pleasant, but once again a heavy hand in the kitchen tipped in way too much garlic.

Burgeoning indigestion didn't prevent us from sampling an undistinguished version of chicken couscous, a pile of the fine-grained semolina topped with meaty but dry pieces of white and dark meat. Celery, carrots, and onions in a brown gravy provided some moisture, but like the chicken, the disintegrating produce had been stewed too long and proved inedible. Plump golden white raisins, bursting with wine-sweet flavor, provided the sole highlight.

Lamb shish kebab was the evening's finest preparation. Chunks of grilled lamb, some tender, others tough, were served medium rare and had an excellent flavor. Fragrant basmati rice, perfectly cooked and served plain, was a sturdy side dish, and pieces of roasted corn on the cob, brushed with butter and (for once) a modicum of garlic, reminded us that summertime, for all its harsh heat, has benefits.

A dessert of bread pudding, actually five cakelike slices of apple-and-raisin bread laid out on an aromatic vanilla sauce, was an interesting if not completely successful alternative to baklava. We would have appreciated it more with our coffee, which was served a good twenty minutes before the cake, but random service seemed to rule the evening; the soup and salad, for instance, arrived 45 minutes after the appetizer course.

A spacious, high-ceilinged room filled with potted palms, fans, and warm, polished wood tables, Fig Leaf promises a Mediterranean moment no matter what the season. Too bad the fare delivers a Maalox one.

 
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