Hangin' with Mr. and Ms. Cooper

I find it fitting that very few of Miami's top chefs and restaurateurs were actually born here. Even those chefs who embrace New World cuisine, the fare that has come to represent South Florida, hail from Texas, Illinois, New York, California -- anywhere but the region with which they have been identified for nearly a decade.

It's reverse irony, I suppose, that chef Neal Cooper and designer Mary Mass-Cooper, the husband-and-wife team that recently opened Neal's (previously Soren's Cafe) on Miami Gardens Drive in Aventura, boast some of the oldest regional pedigrees in the business. The Coopers are a formidable partnership. Both were born at Mount Sinai and grew up in the North Miami Beach and Hollywood areas. Native Miamians may recall the Luau on the 79th Street Causeway and the Betsy on Collins Avenue, two of the restaurants Mary's family ran. Loyal snowbirds might have visited one of the casual Italian restaurants where Neal began working at age fourteen. Many others are no doubt familiar with the Fisher Island Beach Club, the Culinary Institute of America graduate's previous post, or with Doral Resort & Country Club's Provare, where he also has worked. (He did put in some resume-building time outside Miami, too, as executive chef and general manager of the Chin-Chin and Louise's Trattoria chains in California.)

That both partners are such recognizable local figures might explain why a late Tuesday-night dinner at Neal's was preceded by a wait. The month-old eatery has 70 seats, an appealing polished wood floor, black wood tables, walls sponge-painted gold, sconces, gilded mirrors, and gallery pieces by local artists displayed on a rotating basis. Mary Mass-Cooper, who devised the restaurant's decor, says Neal's is already selling about 140 dinners per night, notwithstanding her assertion that so far advertising has been strictly word-of-mouth.

Neal Cooper's decision to eschew New World cuisine in favor of more traditional fare is a pleasant surprise. When he moved back to Florida from the West Coast, he turned down a sous chef position under Robbin Haas, who was running Turnberry resort's kitchen at the time. The menu at Neal's reflects Cooper's decision to stick with reinvented classics; Italian and Asian overtones add flair but don't overwhelm familiar-sounding, reasonably priced dishes.

We started with the soup of the day, a delicious puree of cantaloupe served a notch below room temperature. Enhanced with droplets of port and garnished with fresh chopped mint, the melon soup was neither too dry nor too sweet, an ideal beginning for an end-of-summer Continental meal.

We thought the soup might contrast oddly with "crispy coated calamari," but the mellow, creamy dipping sauce that accompanied the tender squid turned out to be complimentary. Concocted from Pommery mustard and red-pepper remoulade, it was gentler on the palate than an acidic marinara would have been. Battered in buttermilk and rice flour, the exquisitely crisp rings were superbly prepared.

Ditto for the homemade focaccia, a flattened, chewy version that's prepared at the restaurant's pizza station. Spangled with onions and sun-dried tomatoes, the bread was golden with olive oil and finished with a sprinkle of salt. A lusty whole-wheat sourdough, also in the bread basket, came courtesy of the Renaissance Bakery in North Miami, a two-month-old establishment that Biga devotees might want to visit.

For just under four dollars, the house salad was astonishing, a tossed mountain of lettuces -- including Belgian endive, frisee, mache, and a red-tinged leaf called lollo rossa -- dressed with an exceptionally smooth balsamic vinaigrette. All priced under ten dollars, entree-size pizzas were also appealing appetizers. We shared a version made with grilled vegetables, sun-dried tomatoes, goat cheese, and mozzarella, the cheeses working with the snappy thin crust for maximum juxtaposition.

Contrast was the operative word in the main course of "fragrant crispy duck breast." Before the boneless breast was sliced and arranged on the plate, it was dredged in water-chestnut flour and fried, which produced an ethereal crunch. A well-executed pan-fried noodle pancake, along with a stir-fry of shredded vegetables dominated by snow peas and scallions, was centered on the plate; an orange-zest sweet-and-sour dipping sauce completed the dish.

Won ton ravioli provided another sample of Neal's Asian touch. Stuffed with minced chicken, ginger, scallions, and green beans, the dozen noodle dumplings lay on the plate like shrouded ghosts. The green-onion pesto sauce was a little heavy on the coriander and ginger, but it added a marvelous aroma to the won tons, which are listed with the pastas on the menu. Marco Polo would have been tickled.

The fish of the day was a filling selection. A huge fillet of salmon, topped with a mixture of black olives, garlic, and breadcrumbs, covered an equally generous serving of mashed potatoes. The salmon, curling slightly at the edges, had been cooked a bit too much for my taste -- at its meatiest, the fish was still somewhat dry -- but the flavor combination was undeniably tempting. A handful of haricots verts lent the plate even more simple goodness. A double-cut pork chop, three inches thick and juicy, featured the same keep-it-simple mentality. It was accompanied by a couple of scoops of the aforementioned mashed potatoes, plus a serving of firm, spiced apples, a nice substitute for the cliched applesauce.

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