Med Fly in the Ointment

To say that Mark Militello's closing of his landmark North Miami restaurant was a surprise would be fair. Though his publicist Barbara Raichlen told me he had been thinking for two years about giving up the place, his decision -- announced to his employees on a Thursday last month, appearing in the media the following day, and acted upon the day after that -- seemed abrupt at the very least.

To say Militello's move was a bad business decision might also be just. The James Beard Award-winning chef renovated his ten-year-old restaurant only six months ago, sinking a quarter of a million bucks into the building and parking lot. And though whispers about the possibility of Mark's Place being for sale may have preceded the closure, the restaurant served its last meal without a buyer having been lined up.

But to say Militello's actions amounted to a desertion, as I have heard some whisper, would be a trifle harsh. Sure, I feel proprietary about the man's talents; when people ask me about the dining scene in Miami, his name always elicits nods of recognition. Yes, I am disappointed that I'll have to travel to the Las Olas location to savor his unique New American style. I regret, too, that some of my most formative dining experiences in Miami are now a part of the culinary past rather than the present.

Fact is, we've lost a number of bright young chefs over the years. Nuevo cubano pioneer Douglas Rodriguez left ages ago to crunch into the Big Apple (and now Puerto Rico). New World guru Robbin Haas took off for Mark Miller's venture in San Francisco, though rumor has it he's back in town; Kerry Simon

quit Denis Max's now-defunct Mercury for Jean-Georges Vongerichten's (JoJo, Vong, and Jean-Georges in New York City) hot property in Hong Kong. Two others remain in the area but have temporarily vacated the kitchen scene: Scott Howard, who is now consulting, and Jake Klein, who is working on getting himself a new restaurant (both served as executive chefs at the erstwhile Lure).

Despair not, I say to myself -- count the Jonathan Eismann, Michael Schwartz, Allen Susser, Norman Van Aken, and Johnny Vinczencz blessings we have left. And don't fear change. For every Rodriguez, there's a Claude Troisgros (coming to the Delano this summer); for every Haas a Doug Riess (Grove Isle); for every Simon a Frank Randazzo (new exec chef at the Heights in Coral Gables, which was formerly Jonathan Eismann's Pacific Heights).

And to compensate for the loss of Mark's Place in North Miami, welcome chef Marilyn Frobuccino and partner Linda Rosell to Regions.

At least that's what I told myself before I went out for two meals at the posh four-month-old spot in the Promenade Shops on Biscayne Boulevard in Aventura.

A graduate of New York Restaurant School's eighteen-week program and a veteran of two summers cooking in Lyon, France, Frobuccino made a Mediterranean splash as the executive chef at Mimosa in NYC, when she was written up in Gourmet and asked to cook at the James Beard House. Before that, she headed the kitchen at the Southwestern restaurant Arizona 206, after working as a sous chef for three years at Arcadia. Her impressive credentials -- which are framed on the wall at Regions -- led me to expect a wondrous eating experience.

Unfortunately, I was merely left wondering. The partners have produced a beautiful 80-seat dining room -- terra cotta-color keystone floors, a bar inlaid with chips of blue and green tile, patterned blue banquettes and metallic chairs, butter-yellow walls, and burnished sconces. But an oddly matched selection of paintings and sculpture has the eye stumbling: Modernism vies with classical influences, realism with surrealism.

The disjunction carries over to the menu. Describing her formula as "21st-century Mediterranean cuisine," Frobuccino gleans ingredients and recipes from the diverse regions (hence the name) that border the Mediterranean Sea. Thus spaghetti with ricotta salata and daily risottos are featured entrees, along with lamb and artichoke daube and fideua (seafood paella made with vermicelli rather than rice). But while the fare is inventive for this well-worn century, none of it speaks to the one to come. Unless we're talking a decrease in the literacy rate, as evidenced by innumerable typos on the wine list and the repeated insistence upon spelling napoleon napolean.

Restaurateurship is an admirable undertaking, the quest for excellence at a high level even more so. But in the face of uninspired execution, intentions easily become pretensions. On top of all that, we were left standing at the reservations desk for long minutes, and then lingered without drinks, menus, or even a how-do-you-do once we were seated. Though Regions has been open since March, management seems to be having a hard time predicting the evening crowd; on each of my two visits, the service was knowledgeable but harried.

I wondered whether the kitchen was short-staffed as well. That might explain why half the dishes, so promising in description and appearance, suffered from easily correctable errors. Starting with the complimentary white bean puree: Rimmed by a house-made olive oil tinged with chives, basil, and parsley and served with three different kinds of fresh-baked bread (focaccia, pita chips, and Parmesan toast), this was a delightful garlicky spread one night but a pasty, bland lump the next.

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