Let's Get Ready to Gumbo

Catfish was a lighter meal, if you don't count the broccoli (unfortunately soggy) and grilled tomato with lemony hollandaise sauce that accompanied it. The fillet was dusted with Cajun blackening spices but grilled rather than pan-fried, leaving the fish moist and succulent instead of oily and crisp on the outside. The generous fillet was delicious, a real Deep South treat not often seen in these saltwater parts.

A nicety on South Beach, all entrees are accompanied by a wonderfully fresh house salad. The assortment of mixed greens, ranging from radicchio to dandelion, also featured tomato, cucumber, and crisp, garlicky croutons. We found a balsamic vinaigrette nicely balanced, but a blue cheese dressing had a commercial, tinny taste. (Only the house dressing, a creamy Parmesan-peppercorn, is mixed on the premises.) Though the salads are hefty enough to suffice as starters, we couldn't resist a cup of gumbo, which added only $1.95 to the price of an entree. The bargain wasn't the only pleasure: A rich broth, which tasted a bit like sausage and had a hot peppery finish, was rife with tomatoes and okra, with an occasional shrimp. White rice thickened the soup to a stew.

The great debate at lunchtime consists of which po' boy to order. We ordered the fried-oyster variety, buttery shellfish cloaked in a seasoned batter, then layered on a French baguette with lettuce, juicy tomatoes, and mayonnaise. The muffuletta was a cold-cut sandwich, mild salami, boiled ham, and provolone stacked on the bread with lettuce and tomato. An olive relish spread that had been cured in oil accented the meats with more garlic than olive flavor, it seemed. Powerful stuff. All po' boys come with a bonus, a side of red beans and rice. Kidney beans, plump from the outrage of boiling and zingy from a good dose of Cajun seasoning, crown the ubiquitous white rice. This can also be ordered as a whole meal, as can lunch-priced portions of jambalaya, shrimp Creole, or etouffee. Also, the same bread-and-crab stuff (mostly bread) that was fashioned into crabcakes at dinner is offered as fritters for lunch. The half-dozen golf-ball-size nuggets were deep-fried, crunchy on the outside and soft inside. We liked the tangy red pepper remoulade that came along as a dip, though the thin consistency and sharp taste of vinegar made it seem like a salad dressing. (Next time I'll get that for my greens.)

Petunias has the requisite bananas Foster A but frozen rather than flaming. A crà#pe large enough to serve three was filled with vanilla ice cream, then covered with warm caramelized bananas. The soft fruit was a choice, mellow contrast to the ice cream. But the caramel sauce, comprising rum, brown sugar, and vanilla, was grainy from too much sugar ($8.00).

Petunias lacks hurricanes (beer and a short wine list suffice). I can forgive that, too. We don't need to drink 'em. The rainy season's just about here, and we'll be tracking 'em soon enough.

Petunias Restaurant
1321 Washington Ave, Miami Beach; 534-6883. Open daily from 11:30 a.m. until 11:00 p.m.

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