You Can Go Home Again

So you're an inventive, creative chef, tops in your field. You finally run your own place, and you're doing fusion things with regional ingredients no one in South Florida has ever seen before. You're booked to the max every night with reservations. Your patrons adore you. The media, local and national, laud you. The awards come pouring in. Your pride and pleasure in your restaurant is a longboard, and you surf this wave for several years before you take a look around and realize ... there's another wave beyond the first one. And one beyond that, and they look bigger and better than the one that's been giving you such a steady ride.

So you open a second restaurant in a more competitive arena. This one's got glamour, sophistication, and a big chunk of dough invested in its interior design. But you don't worry. You have a waiting list nightly. Your new customers admire you, and the critics, for the most part, are raving. One or two express some doubts about your dwindling attention to your first child, but the waves beckon, and you heed them.

So in between fundraisers and trips out of town, you open a third restaurant in an exclusive locale. And suddenly the critics are not so kind. It's taking too long for this kitchen to get it together, they say. You're spread too thin, doing more managing than cooking. And the clientele is whispering that the first restaurant, the one that started it all, is in decline. Rumors fly.

So the ocean has gone flat, and you need to generate a wave. You take stock. What has gone wrong? You turn back to your first project, notice a patina of what might be neglect and age, like a sheen of grease on an old kitchen wall. You recall what it was like to spend twelve hours a day there, inspecting produce, writing new recipes, building your reputation. You close down that first restaurant, shocking the food-biz cognoscenti. For renovations, you say. But people love to talk about you, and doubt you. They think certain predictions have come to pass. You quietly go on with your project, getting a little carried away. What started as a face-lift becomes a total overhaul as you tear up floors, knock down walls, redo the kitchen -- even resurface the parking lot. You get back behind the line and design a new menu. You make your name all over again: Mark Militello.

New and improved, Mark's Place in North Miami reopened the week before Christmas after having been closed for almost three months. Apparently not everyone knows yet. On a recent Friday evening, I had no trouble getting a reservation, and the restaurant had free tables (though the staff initially tried to seat our party in the bar area, for what purpose I'm not sure). And not everybody might expect the sight to which I was treated -- a clearly rededicated Mark Militello in his chef's whites, in charge of his flagship kitchen.

"Settled back into" and "refocusing" were among the phrases Militello used when I called later and asked him to describe his return to the 110-seat restaurant, now a slightly less formal, more inviting dining room with warm woods, etched glass, and secluded tables. He has simplified menu items -- at least in terms of their descriptions -- and is trying to introduce more salad plates. Most important, he told me, he wants to keep prices down, and so is avoiding "that airplane thing," flying in only some poultry (duck and quail) from California and wild mushrooms from the Pacific Northwest. For the rest he's depending on local vendors to supply even the out-of-state stuff. Though he's always been rather publicly and protectively ferocious about his use of regional and seasonal products, Militello seems to have backed off that bone for the time being and is taking the best of what he can get. That might have sounded questionable had I not already eaten a very good meal at the restaurant.

I'm not sure how successful he is at the pricing game, though, when one is expected to pay fourteen dollars for an appetizer composed of two smallish blue spot prawns, freshwater shrimp from Sweetwater, Texas. But I'll tell you what Militello is great at: cooking these babies. Succulent and lobsterlike, the prawns were laid out on a bed of creamed potatoes that exuded the aroma of the seafood. A potato crisp lidded the pair, providing the crackling crust that gives this dish its imaginative name: shrimp brulee.

The restaurant had run out of cracked Bahamian conch with black bean-mango relish and vanilla-rum sauce, so we opted for a starter similar in texture. Squid stuffed with artichoke, fennel, and creamy mascarpone was masterly, the white mollusk fork-tender. A black olive-pesto vinaigrette was a salty-herby concoction and an ideal complement to the mild mascarpone, keeping it from blandness. We did find the service of this dish odd, however: Half of it (two pieces) came out with our other appetizers, with the news that the rest of it was "on the way." Two minutes later the other half appeared on the table.

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