Home Improvement

I love summer projects, and this year I've taken on a doozy: overhauling our restaurant capsules. Revisiting restaurants I haven't been to lately, checking out places that have undergone alterations in chef, menu, or management. I can't rewrite the capsule on every restaurant -- that would take years -- but I can make sure everything is absolutely up to date.

About once each month, as the renovation progresses (and my waistline expands), I'll share my findings. This time around, in recognition of the fact that I'll be spending a whole lot of the summer away from my house, I'm offering a roundup of establishments whose names refer to a dwelling, structure, or part thereof.

I'm pleased to report that in many of them, I felt right at home.

Siam Lotus Room
6388 S. Dixie Hwy., South Miami; 666-8134. Open daily from 11:30 a.m. until 10:30 p.m.

Everyone knows this place, at least by sight -- it's painted a blue-green so bright it makes your eyes ache. But the food at this pleasant, popular spot is as attention grabbing as the exterior.

A sauteed pork starter, nam sod, was delicious. Served warm over iceberg lettuce, the minced meat was tangy with lime juice, shredded fresh ginger, and sliced onion, with whole roasted peanuts scattered throughout. Crusty porpia tod (Thai egg rolls) were not as well balanced, filled with ground pork, celery, bean sprouts, and dried mushrooms, but tasting mostly of the chopped white cabbage that made up the bulk of the interior.

Pad Thai was a tasty, mild version, ground peanuts garnishing one side and crisp bean sprouts the other, as if the diner were expected to mix everything up at the table. Egg, pork, and whole shrimp finished the dish, which was plentiful. A curry called gang featured a thin, coconut milk-based sauce perfectly spiced with ginger, and suffered only from too-chewy beef that had been sauteed rather than stewed.

Royal Thai omelet, a main course, was deserving of its appellation. A delicate egg shell burst with a sweet-sour tomato sauce containing ground pork, onions, green peas, and ground peanuts. Over fragrant steamed white rice, this was a beautiful combination.

Harried service and a long pause between courses were marks against, but I wouldn't mind being sent to this room more often.

Shula's Steak House
1541 Miami Lakes Dr., Miami Lakes; 820-8102. Open daily from 6:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.

While rumors of a downtown Miami eatery haven't yet materialized, success has led the retired Dolphins coach to open a second steak house in Tampa. Meanwhile, the original restaurant at Don Shula's Golf Club in Miami Lakes remains, chilly as a mansion despite the warm wood trim and gleaming Dolphins souvenirs, plaques, and trophies.

The menu is a kick -- a football propped on each table bears a list of meat and fish dishes. But the real menu is a wheeled tea cart filled with ice, the vegetables of the day (broccoli and asparagus with hollandaise sauce on my most recent visit), lobster ($16.95 a pound, starting at three and a half pounds), and various cuts of meat wrapped in plastic, which the waitress recited in a fast monotone that left me breathless by the time she was done.

In general, the service was awful. We ate two baskets of warm sourdough bread before we were even greeted, and our waitress's "I'll be right with you" became a veritable mantra. The whole staff suffered from a lack of focus -- the gentleman grinding pepper on my salad while talking to a waitress had to be asked three times to please stop twisting his mill. Given the prices commanded here, the real question becomes, Is the food worth it?

Absolutely.
Caesar salad was fabulous, sweet pale-green romaine draped with a creamy blend of garlic, anchovies, and Parmesan cheese. The house mix, too, was a gorgeous presentation: chopped romaine topped with crumbled Gorgonzola, red onions, four beefy tomato slices, and a potent scallion-oregano vinaigrette reminiscent of a Greek dressing.

Cuts of beef range from cowboy (a flat-bone sirloin steak ) to Kansas City (a boneless sirloin) to filet mignon. I opted for "Don Shula's favorite," a 24-ounce porterhouse. The loin end of this steak was a bit chewy, but the filet portion was perfection, the overall flavor unbeatable.

Ordered medium rare, lamb chops came raw in the middle before reappearing as requested. Still, they were succulent and juicy, the two double-thick chops composing a huge, musky portion. Both dishes were accompanied by oversalted sauteed whole button mushrooms and more sensitively seasoned slices of sauteed red onion and red, yellow, and green peppers.

A la carte hash browns provided beef relief, the fried, shredded potato pancake big as a Frisbee. (The waitress may sneer when you ask for ketchup, but who cares?) Creamed spinach was not exactly healthy greenery, especially on top of all the red meat, but when the famous steak house vegetable is this tasty, underscored by a double blast of garlic and Parmesan, it's hard to be good.

Ditto the chocolate-fudge layer cake, a slice almost as rich as the spinach and just slightly smaller than a steak.

Dab Haus
852 Alton Rd., Miami Beach; 534-9557. Open Sunday - Thursday from 4:00 to 11:00 p.m.; until midnight Friday and Saturday.

Located at the decidedly unfashionable Miami Beach crossroad of Alton Road and Ninth Street, this slightly rounded dining room is a cozy, checkered-tablecloth kind of place where the authentic German food is topped only by the fragrant, yeasty beer.

A honey-garlic Brie starter served with crunchy French bread was delectable, a miniature Brie melting like lava in a pool of hot, lightly spiced honey. (It's wise to wait a few minutes for this to cool down before digging in.) This seemed to be every customer's favorite, not just mine, as I watched plate after steaming plate being taken from the kitchen.

A mixed-plate main course contained some of the other appetizer options: bratwurst, garlicwurst, and veal loaf. The bratwurst (pork sausage) and garlicwurst (beef-and-pork sausage) were thick and juicy, their outside skins crackling, interiors meaty and not at all fatty. The veal loaf was delicious too, a flat slice of cured, seasoned pork that tasted much like a frankfurter. A dollop of whipped potatoes and a bed of sauerkraut provided mellow accents, as did side condiments of brown mustard and curry-flavored ketchup.

We gave Wiener schnitzel the knife test and Dab Haus passed, the utensil sliding cleanly between the tender veal paillard and the puffy, bubbled breading. A squeeze of lemon and a mixed salad of iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, and kernels of yellow corn lent some acidity to the plate, while mashed potatoes gave it a base. My favorite dish, kn”del mit Pilzsauce, I could barely pronounce, even when teasingly challenged to do so by the waiter. But I can describe it: bread dumplings, roasted and sliced into supple sections; burgundy sauce replete with mushrooms; a side salad of the lettuce, corn, and tomatoes. An extremely satisfying vegetarian plate.

Cinnamon-heavy apple strudel reached the same volcanic temperature as the Brie. I loved the crust, like a crepe folded around apples, with a dollop of fluffy homemade whipped cream melting off one side.

Punjab Palace
11780 N. Kendall Dr.; 274-1300. Open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.

The color scheme takes the royal route, featuring comfy red banquettes and pink tablecloths, and the turbaned Sikh waiters, who appear immediately bearing pappadum (lentil crackers) and a potent onion chutney, are deferential and extremely polite. Though the dishware (compartmentalized metal trays) may make you feel as if you've landed in a mess tent, this touch of inelegance doesn't detract from the meal. At Punjab Palace, the customer is clearly king.

The easiest way to eat like a king is to order the combination platters, vegetarian or otherwise, known as thali. Both the vegetable and meat thali included a fabulous vegetable samosa A flaky, delicate pastry stuffed with potatoes and peas and served with a dark and tangy tamarind sauce. Steamy, pull-apart nan, baked to order in the clay oven and dripping with butter, was also present on both, as was a rice pilaf flavored with almonds, cashews, peas, and cumin seed.

From there the platters diverged. Vegetable thali featured three main courses, all fairly spicy (here "medium" translates to "pretty hot"). Dal makhni was a hearty dish of lentils stewed with tomatoes and onions; garden vegetable curry, a bit too salty, was fresh with cauliflower, potatoes, and peas; chana masala contained chickpeas flavored with bits of green pepper.

With the meat tray, meanwhile, came a choice of two entrees from a list of several: tandoori chicken, and chicken, lamb, beef, or goat curry. I chose the tandoori chicken, marinated in spices and roasted in the clay oven to optimum flavor, and lamb curry, a small portion of boneless cubes in a piquant brown sauce, a bit tough but tasty nonetheless. Raita, a delicious yogurt dip flavored with cucumber, cooled down the palate.

A dessert of gulab jamun (pastry balls soaked in honey syrup) accompanied main courses as they would have had this been a TV dinner, and I ignored it, the way I always did when I was a kid and my mother gave us TV dinners. It didn't matter; I didn't need to eat any more.

Casa Juancho
2436 SW Eighth St.; 642-2452. Open Sunday A Thursday from noon to midnight; until 1:00 a.m. Friday and Saturday.

This quintessential Spanish eatery is a cool, tiled hall plied by strolling guitarists and very professional waiters. But don't let the ambiance and Casa Juancho's reputation as a tourist spot turn you off; the high quality of the food makes it worth your while to wait for a table.

To start, gazpacho andaluz was an ideal puree, a smooth, pale tomato base blended with olive oil and tasting of onions and celery, served with a garnish of cucumber, onion, green pepper, and bread crumbs. Another terrific way to begin a meal, ensalada mixta, consisted of romaine, watercress, radicchio, and Belgian endive topped with juicy tomatoes and white asparagus, dressed with a sharp vinaigrette spiked with marinated onions and peppers.

Main courses were huge, garnished with string beans in a sweet tomato sauce, buttered carrots, and buttered white potatoes with onions. (Just the side dishes could fill you up.) Filete de pargo "Casa Juancho," a red snapper fillet grilled with butter, was crunchy on the outside and tender in the middle, topped with Spanish ham, sauteed mushrooms, and shrimp -- and too big to finish. But the snapper had nothing on the cochinillo segoviano (roast suckling pig). Three gigantic pieces generous with steamy, succulent meat were flavored with garlic and topped with skin so crisp that it cracked like brittle, and melted in your mouth like brittle, too.

For dessert an order of torrijas (Spanish French toast) provided yet further indulgence. A slice of white bread soaked in milk, eggs, and white wine had been deep-fried and then dunked in an anisette-flavored syrup. Though well prepared, this was served cold; I've always preferred it warm, just out of the fryer.

Thai House II Restaurant and O-Chin Japanese Sushi Bar
2250 NE 163rd St., North Miami Beach; 940-6075. Lunch Monday - Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner nightly from 5:00 to 10:30 p.m.

Almost a year ago, this Thai restaurant added on something called the O-Chin Japanese Sushi Bar, because, our waiter informed us, "sushi popular." Though one may sit in either restaurant and order both cuisines, the two places look different: The Thai dining room contains carved teak tables and wall hangings, while the Japanese section incorporates screens and bamboo.

A starter of tom kar gai, rich coconut milk soup flavored with tangy galangal (ginger root), lime juice, and lemongrass, was superb, boasting succulent white-meat chicken in a complex mix of spices. Japanese green salad, a cooler choice for summer, comprised chilled iceberg lettuce, shredded carrots and cucumbers, and a superb ginger-carrot dressing.

Only a heavy layer of oil marred a tofu massaman curry, an assortment of fried bean curd, avocado, and sweet potato. The chunks of tofu were hot and juicy, the avocado contributing a mellowness to the spice, but the coconut milk sauce was too thin under all that oil. More enjoyable was a combination platter of sashimi, sushi, and tempura from the O-Chin side: Tuna, salmon, and hamachi sashimi were delicate and lacy, kept cold by a miniature ice boat. A tekka (tuna) roll was eight bite-size pieces; tuna, salmon, and shrimp nigiri rounded out the raw fish selection. Shrimp and vegetable tempura included two jumbo shrimp, sweet potatoes, onions, and broccoli all dipped in a light batter, cooked until crisp, and just a bit too greasy.

The waitstaff is well versed in the service game -- everyone wants to know if you're interested in dessert. Though peanut butter cream pie and Oreo cheesecake vied with more traditional Thai desserts such as banana delight and pumpkin custard, we weren't.

Taurus Steak House
3540 Main Hwy., Coconut Grove; 448-0633. Lunch Monday A Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.; dinner nightly from 5:00 to 10:30 p.m.

Not much like home; more like home on the range. If you can bear to eat steak and chops under the glazed eyes of various animal-head trophies (including a rabbit with antlers and a bear with spectacles), then this is your kind of place. Lodgelike, creaking, and blotched with ancient water stains on the walls, Taurus nevertheless exudes a three-martini-lunch charm.

Appetizers were few and insignificant -- a shrimp cocktail was flavorless, the five shrimp watery as if just thawed. A cup of lentil soup well stocked with the legumes proved to be too salty, with no other vegetables to provide texture or color relief.

Nor did a sirloin burger look promising, perched on an onion roll that featured only three dots of onion, ruffled potato chips, a tomato slice, lettuce, and a pickle on the side. But evidently one mustn't judge a burger by the company it keeps. This was a prime, juicy example of the American classic, cooked to order medium-rare.

Taurus features a different lunch special each day, which means that if you go with your gut set on meat loaf or turkey with all the trimmings, you might have to settle for beef stew. Not to worry: Accompanied by white rice, the stew was hot and perfectly done, chunks of beef tender and free of fat. Carrots, potatoes, and an occasional piece of broccoli dotted the meaty landscape. Good stuff, if a bit heavy for lunch.

Speaking of heavy, I haven't had the courage to step on the scale lately. But I can tell by the way my jeans fit (i.e., they don't button) what next year's summer project will be: picking up the pace on that treadmill.

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