A Clean, Well-lighted Plate

If the contents of a person's refrigerator provide a glimpse into his or her culinary mindset -- and I believe they do -- then it's also fair to say a restaurant's decor reveals a lot about its proprietor's predilections. Perhaps that's why I felt reassured by the mural painted near the kitchen of K.C. Cagney & Co., a recently opened West Kendall establishment. It's a still life of condiments: Worcestershire sauce, U-Bet chocolate syrup, Morton's salt, crowded together as if in the door of a fridge. A gigantic crossword puzzle on another wall takes food as its subject, and the floor tiles next to the specials board depict a smashed Heinz ketchup bottle, oozing everywhere.

Vintage table appointments such as Coca-Cola napkin dispensers may make you think chef-owners David and Ronnie Sigmond and their daughter Stacey were looking to evoke the mood of a New Jersey diner circa 1950. But the emphasis here isn't on nostalgia, it's on self-effacing humor. And though menu entries like "Eggplant Your Parmigiana on Pasta" and "Dem Bones, Dem Bones, Dem Beef Bones" might overshoot the mark, the irreverent approach is refreshing, a much-needed poke at an industry that takes itself far too seriously at times. (Consider the use of a wooden skewer threaded through a carrot slice and a radish as a garnish, an unmistakable bit of editorializing on the dining community's current preoccupation with fussy, architecturally inspired creations.) But make no mistake, this self-billed "most unusual eatery" takes quality seriously, serving some of the freshest fare in Dade County.

Even deep-fried foods were beautifully done. A bowl of "curly curls" A carrots planed lengthwise, then lightly battered and fried A retained their characteristic sweetness. Though it made the carrots a bit too oily, a dressing of potent garlic butter and a smattering of Parmesan cheese added spark. "Zucchini zips" were even more satisfying. Thin as dimes but with the circumference of silver dollars, the squash was crisp and greaseless, set off nicely by a ranch dressing that was unexceptional but agreeable, smooth and creamy.

To round out our fried first course, we munched from a "lotsa pasta" loaf, a huge heap of linguine more tangled than Medusa's hair. (Good thing we ordered "just a big loaf" rather than "a very big loaf.") Topped with an herby marinara sauce that smacked pleasurably of oregano, the flat-edged pasta retained just a hint of chewiness beneath the crunch.

We also tried a steaming cup of baked potato soup, a delicious, lumpy mixture spiked with bacon and chopped green onions. Those who monitor their cholesterol levels can start with "a righteous bowl of red," the eatery's signature chili.

Knowing how to handle a potato is de rigueur for any diner worth its salt, and I'm pleased to report that Cagney's succeeds admirably with spuds. Fries were crisp and well-done but were eclipsed by the mashed potatoes A stiff peaks that held a lake of burgundy-rich gravy in which fresh mushroom slices floated like lily pads. You can't possibly go wrong if you pair these ber tubers with "steak on the grass," a savory preparation of charbroiled Romanian skirt steak. Served medium-rare on a bed of barely sauteed leaf spinach, the steak is accompanied by sweet, pan-fried onions and slices of exceptionally large mushrooms.

Barbecue beef brisket, by contrast, was just like mother used to make -- dry and stringy. Draped on a crusty French roll, the portion was generous; too bad it didn't inspire us to finish it. But a Thai chicken sandwich presented on the same bread was truly a keeper. Incredibly meaty and tender, a boneless breast was layered with an Oriental vegetable salad of cabbage, snow peas, onions, and red peppers. Though the chicken was purportedly glazed with a spicy chili sauce, the evidence -- an abundance of honey -- didn't support that claim. Rather than quibble, on a second visit we ordered the Thai chicken as a main-course salad, which substituted chilled greens and fried noodles for the bread. The Asian influence carried through to the specials, including a "rice bowl" -- jasmine rice that lined a casserole dish containing a fillet of either dolphin or chicken, topped with an extremely flavorful sauce of black beans, grated ginger, and garlic, and graced with a set of chopsticks.

Shrimp salad made for another fine sandwich, chunks of shrimp, celery, and not too much mayonnaise served on a poppy-seed kaiser roll with shredded lettuce and sliced tomato. "The Cajun," similarly showcased by the kaiser, featured a boneless chicken breast basted with a mildly spiced, garlicky Cajun sauce that was pleasant if not overly powerful. This sandwich also can be prepared with a meat patty or a garden burger (a combination of vegetables, grains, and low-fat cheeses), as can any of the other 30 sandwich combinations that are offered.

Desserts, made on the premises by the owners (and one of the waitresses), were a strong, diner-worthy finish. Given the recent cold snap, we regretfully declined the pleasure of a classic ice cream sundae in favor of old-time cream pies. A too-salty crust contributed the only flaw to an otherwise exceptional banana cream, but a chocolate pudding pie garnished with peanuts managed to handle the assertive crumbs perfectly.

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