By Emily Codik
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In a recent article titled "Why I Disapprove of What I Do," New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl reflects on a piece of advice given to her in the Seventies by the late M.F.K. Fisher. To be a restaurant critic, Fisher told her, you have to be "one of those ambitious sorts, willing to walk on your grandmother's grave." Reichl, at that time a Berkeley cook with a hankering for health food and liberal politics, was writing a restaurant column for a small alternative publication. She wasn't exactly cultivating a killer instinct along with a taste for collard greens, though A she wasn't reimbursed for her meals and didn't receive a salary. She satisfied her political leanings at the same time, deliberately reviewing cooperative restaurants, tiny ethnic places, anywhere she could criticize not the food itself but the public's perception of how to view such food.
"But reviewing was fun, so much fun that when mainstream publishers started paying me for my opinions, I didn't do the decent thing and refuse," writes Reichl, adding that before long she'd given up cooking altogether in favor of "[writing about] $100 meals when half the world is hungry," a decision tantamount to joining the establishment. And she'd come to realize what Fisher seemed to mean: The restaurant critic must be so committed to improving the quality of chefs and restaurateurs that she refuses to allow room for personal politics. Ruth, in other words, had to get in touch with her own ruthlessness. The discomfort of critiquing a miserable meal one week would be compensated by the pleasure of reviewing a great one the next, but it would never be completely canceled out. Her alter ego, Reichl admits, still whispers every once in a while: "How could you?"
I didn't come of age in the late Sixties. I don't have much of a political agenda. I never met M.F.K. Fisher, or for that matter Ruth Reichl, two women whose work I really admire. But although I do feel a touch traitorous when I write a bad review, I have the sort of ambition that allows me to go on. And I also have a voice in my head, one that demands to be obeyed. It whispers, "Where do we get to eat next?"
2911 Grand Ave.
Coconut Grove, FL 33133
Region: South Dade
That sussuration became absolutely clamorous not long ago, when I heard chef Anthony Sindaco had moved to yet another restaurant. "Let's go!" the voice shouted. But after visiting Sindaco for the third time in as many years, this time at the Mayfair Grill in Coconut Grove's Mayfair House, I have to wonder why my alter ego is so insistent upon following this admittedly talented guy from place to place.
Sindaco migrated to South Florida with the rest of the culinary herd four or five years ago, when this area was being hailed by the industry as the Promised Land. We saw an influx of chefs and restaurateurs, a few critically acclaimed in their previous positions, most hoping to be bigger fish in the subtropical pond. All with as much optimism as talent. After a few quixotic seasons, much of that optimism is gone, the talent having migrated back north and west. And those who stayed despite disappointment, such as the 37-year-old Sindaco, have been on the move almost constantly, looking less and less for appreciative audiences and more and more for an appreciative boss.
Sindaco wasn't completely unaware of the challenges he faced here; stints at places like the Doral Resort in Telluride prepared him for the whims of touristville. But no amount of wind-chill factor could have readied him for Hurricane Andrew, which effectively (if temporarily) shut down the Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo. The place was sold to club members, and after only six months, Sindaco was out of a job. His search took him into the realm of non-resort establishments, a new route for him. A position at the now-defunct Langosta Beach, which brought him his first favorable reviews from New Times and the Herald, lasted four months. Next he forayed into Fort Lauderdale, turning the former Casa Vecchia into Go Fish, a success for almost eighteen months before the owner sold. Ditto his effect at South Beach's Casablanca, though I had to visit twice before I was convinced Sindaco had settled in; he departed after only a year. And then, this past December, he returned to hotels, via the Mayfair Grill and its new owners, Lennar Developers.
An awesome task was at hand. The Grill had been without a chef for six months; Sindaco and food and beverage manager Jean Marc Maltrait were hired simultaneously in the middle of banquet season. The tropical menu instituted by previous chefs, they found, was too difficult for sous chefs to present properly without supervision. And there was no pastry chef (there still isn't).
In short, Sindaco says, he "inherited a big mess."
Little sign of that mess was evident on my first visit. Bread was brought immediately, with molded butter in a chilled serving dish. Lemons were dropped into water glasses from silver tongs. A pianist pounded out dinner music to the receptive crowd that half-filled the 130-seat dining room.