Burnin' Desires

I'm a freak for heat. Not the kind we South Floridians are far too familiar with. I'm talking about the fire that makes you sweat from the inside out.

I'm talking about chili peppers.
I'm not as bad as some, like our copy editor Ann, who drizzles Tabasco sauce on her barbecue potato chips. Or my father, who won't declare a dish delicious until it brings sweat to his forehead. But I do love the reeling wallop that a good chili pepper packs. Sure, it can be painful. But eating chilies is somewhat like getting a tattoo -- the endorphins get you high. You couldn't ask for more from your food.

So I was just a tiny bit disappointed with the Delta Blues Cafe and Catering Company, a new establishment whose Cajun, southwestern, and down-home southern fare was tasty, at times even terrific, but far too tame overall. Even an appetizer of stuffed jalape*os, which featured five fresh peppers filled with cheddar cheese, dipped in beaten egg and flour, and then deep-fried, were bites with no bite. We enjoyed them anyway; thanks to the crunchy exterior and melty interior, they tasted like baked stuffed potatoes. And the salsa, made with chopped tomatoes and cilantro, was refreshing. But the jalapenos were as mild as bell peppers, a state of affairs that proved representative of the cafe's cuisine.

I'd attribute the lack of spice to the kitchen's having removed the peppers' seeds, which carry most of the tongue-tingling zing. My editor would blame the chili pepper people, who (he claims) are breeding their product to appeal to the mass market now that salsa has surpassed ketchup as America's condiment numero uno. Our forthcoming and friendly waitress said that some of the restaurant's clientele were finding the food too fiery; 38-year-old Deborah Cross, a Miami native who owns the cafe with her partner (and fiance) Ray Lozano concurred, but added that others expect the food to be as hot as it would be in the French Quarter. The resulting compromise between vision and demand is somewhat bland because, in her words, "It's easier to add than it is to take away." My suggestion: Ask for your food "nuclear" if you like it that way. Cross, who cooks alongside her executive chef Paul Ghertson (formerly a sous chef at the Grand Cafe), is happy to doctor her dishes with the sauces and spices she imports from New Orleans. As for the jalapenos, she feels that Friday's and Bennigan's have a lock on them in suburbia, and she'll soon replace the appetizer with something more evocative of wrought-iron balconies and French doors. Something like crawfish in a white-wine-and-cream sauce served on toast points.

That said, there's no real reason not to sample Delta Blues Cafe's high-quality goods. A 50-seat, four-month-old establishment tucked away in a North Kendall Drive strip mall just east of 107th Avenue, the cafe is reminiscent of a tasteful N'Awlins eatery (and it's cleaner). Walls are a restful shade of blue overlaid with gold sponged paint; gilded frames highlight period portraits and landscapes; gilt and crystal chandeliers dangle from the high ceiling (the space was a warehouse before Cross took it over). White tablecloths contribute another formal touch, though the prices are anything but -- the average entree runs about ten dollars. And Cross, who saw room for yet another market in Kendall, just added live jazz and blues lineups on Friday and Saturday nights and is actively seeking performers.

What we liked best, however, were the homey touches -- dried flowers tucked away in corners of the dining room, delicious homemade peach sauce to spread on complimentary buttermilk biscuits. In fact, we thought the house salad, served with every main course, could have benefited from some of that southern comfort; though exceedingly fresh, the mix of romaine lettuce and sliced plum tomatoes was a bit boring, the accompanying vinaigrette oily and uninteresting. A smattering of, say, honey-roasted pecans, or even a few rings of Vidalia onions, both southern crops in keeping with the cafe's themes, might spark it up.

A bowl of black seafood gumbo needed no other spark besides a speck of salt. A roux-based stock, the tantalizing soup was as dark as Cuban black bean soup and enhanced with a good amount of sliced sausage, shrimp, and rice, while a hint of okra and a floating bay leaf or two strengthened the broth. On the southwestern side, a queso-wrapped shrimp appetizer was equally as hearty and appealing. Two soft flour tortillas rolled like cràpes encased the chopped crustaceans, and a fabulous cream sauce burst from the tortillas with every cut of the fork and knife.

A New Mexico grilled chicken entree with four-pepper cream sauce was not as rich as we'd anticipated. Tangled up in ancho and jalape*o as well as red and green bell peppers, a grilled boneless breast had great flavor but was too dry, the light cream sauce neither saving the poultry nor making a very memorable impression on its own.

A twelve-ounce sirloin didn't suffer from this problem. The inch-thick steak was cooked to a juicy medium-rare and accented with a garlic herb butter. At $11.25 it represented one of the Delta's better bargains. Not to dwell on minutiae, but the steak knife that was served at the appropriate time (i.e., with the meal) was a pleasure. And the service was warm and sweet as the peach sauce throughout our visit.

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