Raleigh Once Again

This town has a special fondness for the Raleigh, a restored 1940s Art Deco landmark that offers some of the only deluxe accommodations on South Beach. I know people who recommend the hotel to overnight visitors just so they can join them for a cup of coffee in the lobby, a cocktail in the cozy bar, and a spot of sun in the distinctive pool area, which has been featured as a backdrop for Sports Illustrated's swimsuit models and designated by Life magazine as the most beautiful pool in America. (Other less ethical friends of mine attempt to enjoy these attractions without actually being acquainted with any of the Raleigh's guests.)

With the hotel's 1993 renovation/reopening, this appreciation extended to the Raleigh's restaurant, which debuted as Blue Star under New York transplant Kerry Simon. More than a year ago, when Simon made his highly publicized trek across the Beach to Debbie O'Hanian's Starfish (he's since moved on to Max's South Beach), his press pals and glam entourage followed. And yet, despite a difficult summer that saw reduced hours, I wouldn't say the Raleigh's dining room is suffering for Simon's absence as the season hits full stride.

Gilt-edged and linen-draped appearances aside, the Raleigh Restaurant & Bar seems less elitist than it was during Simon's tenure. (The place still attracts the same chic-to-the-point-of-pretentious crowd, though.) Executive chef Marc Lippman, whose culinary resume reads like a top ten list of the nation's best-known French restaurants, revamped the very American menu last fall, introducing a "supper fare" category that reflects the current fondness for return-to-basics items such as meat loaf, hamburgers, and macaroni and cheese. A "spa fare" section includes roasted halibut in a lemongrass broth and couscous with vegetables, naturals for the fashion industry-dominated clientele. Then there's the local stuff, Florida fishes and game doctored with tropical ingredients. In short, nowadays the Raleigh is casting a wider culinary net, exhibiting an elegant hominess -- right down to the burnt dinner rolls and the stray cat that, encouraged by the lack of appropriate lighting on the terrace, successfully begged for food during my most recent visit.

Being a fool for kitties, I wasn't too bothered by the uninvited guest (other patrons weren't so charitable). If only service had been as attentive as that cat. Our meal extended for three and a half hours, the intervals between the three courses stretching longer and longer as the night wore on and the place filled up. In general I don't mind waiting for complex, multi-ingredient dishes with elaborate garnishes. But Lippman's New American creations are simple, if pretty, concoctions. We also tapped our toes for 45 minutes before the appetizers -- three of which required little preparation Aarrived.

A large shallow bowl of chilled gazpacho was done C centsrdoba-style, a delicious puree of tomatoes, olive oil, and vinegar, topped with a pair of grilled jumbo shrimp curled as tightly as lovers. That delicate balance of flavors was equaled, if not eclipsed, by trout escabeche, another dish of Spanish origin. Two fillets of rainbow trout had been "cooked" in a marinade of onions, black olives, and red, yellow, and green peppers. We feared that the dish, which is traditionally prepared with an oily, hearty fish such as kingfish or shark, would be overwhelmed by the strong pickling flavors, but to our surprise and pleasure, the delicate, mellow trout was highlighted to wonderful effect.

The same held true for the lobster quesadilla. Though this crustacean's enigmatic flavor is easily lost, Lippman's light touch prevented mishap. Flattened flour tortillas and a layer of sharp cheese, almost lacy in texture, provided snappy crunch for the soft, buttery lobster meat inside, while a salsa of mango and chives played tart, flavorful counterpoint. The carefully balanced scale was tipped, however, by a salad of arugula, chickpeas, and baby artichokes. The produce was fantastically fresh, the peppery lettuce and halved steamed artichokes perfect. But a dressing of olive oil was too plain to hold this diverse crowd together; firm chickpeas were hard to pin down, rolling under both the leafy salad and the tines of the fork, and a scattering of juice-bearing pomegranate seeds, greens' newest trendy friend, were discovered only after the arugula had been consumed.

We had to employ a similar hunt-and-peck approach to an entree bowl of penne pasta with duck sausage, plum tomatoes, and fresh basil. The slices of sausage were so tender that the unevenly cooked, square-cut pasta and the watery sauce paled in comparison, rendering it impossible to appreciate the dish as a whole. Instead we were forced to consume them the way we did franks 'n' beans as kids: weenies first, then as much of the rest as we could remain interested in.

No compromise was necessary with the main course of grouper, a kitchen substitution for the red snapper listed on the menu. A thick white fillet was pan-fried to an outer crispness, then served over plum tomatoes and a pile of mild, sauteed fennel and chopped leek. Sadly, however, an exceptional fillet of salmon was undermined by the accompaniments upon which it perched. The fish, coated on one side with a thin, crisp mixture of polenta and white and black sesame seeds, was an excellent cut, retaining a delightfully moist, medium-rare center. But the "seasonal" vegetables arrayed underneath -- diced carrots and zucchini drowned in an oddly flavorless basil olive oil -- dragged the dish down with bland heaviness.

Properly prepared fish used to be the truest test of a chef's talents. But lately I've found pork to be, quite literally, the tougher of the two to cook. A "rack" of pork -- a misnomer -- was further proof of this thesis. In reality a single-cut pork chop, the overcooked white meat challenged both knife and jaw and was overwhelmed by an intense citrus-coriander sauce. A scoop of creamy mashed sweet potatoes and buttered leaf spinach added the only real finesse to the plate.

Despite the tiring duration of the meal, dessert was a necessity for two reasons: One of my dinner guests is a pastry chef, and the Raleigh tends to present, along with regulars such as cräme brulee and chocolate cake, innovative sweets such as almond cake with basil ice cream and pineapple soup with coconut sorbet. Bowing to my friend's curiosity, we ordered a citrus "terrine," which turned out to be a slice of layered gelatin mold that relied largely on grapefruit, accompanied by a wonderfully creamy, homemade passion-fruit sorbet. Even the diehard chocolate fans at the table (that would be me) admired the dessert's refreshing qualities.

A poolside stroll was a fine way to finish the meal. The courtly elegance of both building and landscape, joined together by balmy breezes, is sufficient reason to visit the Raleigh. On looks alone, it's understandable that the place provokes such loyalty; as for the Raleigh Restaurant & Bar, the cuisine is sometimes inspirational enough to do likewise.

Side Dish
Lately I've been doing some gourmet market research -- at a gas station. A "flagship" Shell station, to be precise, located on the corner of SW 27th Avenue and South Dixie Highway, right across the street from Metrorail's Coconut Grove stop. Not only does the filling station's attached food mart A which boasts more square footage than a small house -- stock the usual sodas, snacks, and toiletries, it also has a coffee counter where workers grind fresh beans, and a Subway Sandwich Shop. But the real attraction is the wine rack (there's a wine refrigerator, too, for chilled whites and champagne) and gourmet-goodies display. Tinned pate and smoked turkey, cheeses, exotic olive oils, jars of roasted red peppers and baby corn, flavored vinegars, even imported cookies and crackers -- all at prices that compare favorably with those of specialty shops and markets. Which means they're not cheap. But they are convenient, and if you're used to buying such products, the bill won't exactly induce a fainting spell.

With all due respect to E-Z Kwik Kuntry Grocery Store, the granddaddy of fine quick-shop cuisine and a perennial Best of Miami winner (2988 SW 27th Ave.), Shell's wines certainly are fine and thoughtfully chosen. For less than ten dollars, I purchased a 1989 Marques de Riscal rioja reserva, ideal for immediate consumption. So I immediately consumed it -- well, when I got home, anyway. Why should my car be the only one fully gassed?

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