By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
By Bill Wisser
By Dana De Greff
By Laine Doss
By Zachary Fagenson
It was, perhaps, deliberately ironic that we were debating identity over dinner at Doc Dammers. The 100-seat restaurant, located in the lobby of the Omni Colonnade Hotel in Coral Gables, used to be an American-style meatery complete with a rolling cart filled with cuts of beef. But business was falling off, and management felt the place was too high-end. So a year ago executive chef Mark Dekrines was brought on-board to tailor the restaurant to the Gables's Latin community. Now, while you can still tear apart a sirloin burger or grilled steak sandwich for lunch, "Miami nueva cuisine" is the order of the night.
Dekrines, who worked under Allen Susser at Chef Allen's, has some interesting ideas about borrowing influences from South American and Caribbean nations. But many of his dishes sound better on paper than they actually taste on the plate; the two times I visited, execution was off. What's more, the Latin vibe seems altogether wrong for this place. Edward E. "Doc" Dammers, from whom the restaurant appropriated its name, was an American land baron who parceled out the swampy pieces of Coral Gables in 1910 (preceding George Merrick's development of the "City Beautiful"). Authentic black-and-white photos of Dammers, dedicated to Dammers, or otherwise somehow related to Dammers hang on the walls of the high-ceiling, white-tiled dining room, which features clubby dark wood and green marble accents and looks like an extension of the hotel lobby. If Doc Dammers were to claim a past for itself, gaslights and continental cuisine might better reflect the early decades of this century. Or perhaps more rustic decor to round off the Miami-as-frontier theme. The menu notwithstanding, this restaurant is about as Latin American/Caribbean as Dadeland, and dining here is a somewhat dysfunctional culinary experience.
The waitstaff doesn't help. Though the switch has been in place for a year, servers still seem baffled; one waiter glibly volunteered the information that the menu was "turn-of-the-century cooking." When I asked what that meant, he stumbled around a bit before coming up with this pearl of wisdom: "Well, it's a primitive style -- you know, when people used to cook on hot slabs of rock. We've updated by using grills but kept the essence."
An appetizer like blue crabcake with lobster beurre blanc and crisp "rainbow" fries hardly seemed antediluvian (or even turn of the century, for that matter). More like New World. And second-rate: The "rainbow" was a salty and greasy pile of yam and boniato shoestrings hiding a pair of crabcakes that were tasty but could have used a bit longer in the pan to tighten them up and give them some crunch. The beurre blanc was flavorful but sugary, leaving an impression of artificial sweetness on the palate, and a menu-billed apple-banana garnish was absent.
Spicy Florida rock shrimp with pineapple mint relish, grilled radicchio, and a jicama salad sounded promising, and the juicy flavors of the salsa and salad were indeed refreshing. But the dish was marred by tiny, briny chunks of rock shrimp. Pan-seared fresh jumbo sea scallops were a vast improvement, succulent and tender. Warm pickled black beans, whole and ideally cooked, dotted the scallop seascape, though perfection eluded this dish as well: The triangles of pastry that decorated the recipe were brown and hard.
Beans again -- in a smoky Chilean bean chowder with chorizo that was decent despite being served lukewarm. Navy and pinto beans, along with chunks of chorizo that tasted more like tame ham, had been stewed with carrots and celery. Request a twist of fresh black pepper to give this some much-needed heat.
Pungency returned in the form of a ravioli starter. This was one long sheet of pasta, more like a lasagna noodle than a dumpling, covering a filling of duck and crumbled chorizo that was robust but dried out. On top, herb-seared wild mushrooms contributed salty appeal, but a Brazilian orange sauce was rife with enough garlic to scare away Anne Rice.
A few appetizers -- the scallops and the crabcakes, as well as a South American bouillabaisse -- reappear as entrees, a practice (often found on hotel room-service menus) that makes the selection of entrees look longer and more interesting than it actually is. Among the other main courses, a fillet of black grouper baked in a fufu (mashed plantain) crust was bland and overcooked, and accented with an unappealingly brownish papaya guacamole. ("Insipid," declared my companion Pau-Llosa.) The chef's rice pilaf tasted like soy sauce and gave the dish an ill-suited Asian tang.