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I've been married for a while now, but I still remember the combination of expectation and dread brought on by a blind date. The opening of the door to a complete stranger with whom your mother, neighbor, or colleague set you up. The visual assessment, ranging from "hot stuff" to "he'll do" to "help me, Lord." The lengthier examination of his personality, if he has one. If he doesn't, then the pointed glance at the watch, the headache plea, the aversion of the face from the proffered goodnight kiss.
Of course, not all blind dates end in cliched disaster. Some folks like their dates enough to test their mutual chemistry in the bedroom that very evening, then forget about each other until they desperately need to bring a guest to the office Christmas party. Others are a love match that leads to a relationship that eventually crumbles. A statistical few even get married. My parents met on a blind date. (They weren't out with each other, though; it was a double date, with my dad paired with my mom's best friend at the time, and my mother matched with my dad's navy mate.) And my newly engaged friends Howie and Susie, frequent dinner companions of mine, were set up by their mothers -- a doubly tough inspection to pass.
I've reviewed restaurants for a while now, but I still find eating dinner at a sight-unseen restaurant to be a lot like a blind date: a combination of expectation and dread. The same opening of the door to a complete stranger. The same visual assessment. The same lengthier examination, all too often leading to the same hasty retreat.
Of course, I like some restaurants enough to gorge myself that very evening, though I probably wouldn't return unless I was in the neighborhood. Others turn out to be a love match, with me becoming a regular before I eventually take my business elsewhere. And a very few become all-time favorites, places I might even take my mother. (A tough inspection to pass.)
Like some dates, some restaurants fall into that nebulous category: worth a second look ... maybe. A few characteristics you enjoy, a couple you could do without. Or the visuals worked for you but the inner workings somehow didn't, though you're willing to give it another whirl.
I guess you could say I'm sometimes a sucker for a pretty face, because I'm willing to give Balans, the chic three-month-old restaurant on Lincoln Road, another chance to prove there's more inside than interior design.
Quintessentially South Beach, this outpost of a British restaurant mini-chain (there are two others in London) features ceilings and walls painted with blocks of primary colors and bearing animal prints, gleaming chrome stools, a stunning mirrored bar, and nearly translucent bathroom doors. The prices are reasonable, the boisterous atmosphere appealing, vibrant and warm despite the metallic coolness of the decor. But the acoustics are a little too bright -- clanging cutlery and dropped dishes (there were a few accidents the night we visited) echo as if you're dining in a cave. And service, unfortunately, is also typically Beach, with long lapses between courses and staffers who can't pronounce those really difficult words. Like "boniato."
The presence of a Caribbean vegetable on a British menu warrants, I think, a digression: I'm sick to death of hearing that English cuisine is nasty, all boiled meats and lumpy starches. That might have been true in Victorian times (though even then it was a generalization), and yes, Sunday roasts, shepherd's pie, and dense puddings do tend to dominate the menus at pubs and some countryside inns. But London has been a cosmopolitan city longer than any of its American counterparts, so it stands to reason that the culinary revolution that took place here in the mid-Eighties also occurred internationally, and the cultural influences that have come to roost -- or roast -- in London are as varied as the ones in Miami. The menu at Balans reflects this phenomenon, though the dishes, which borrow Mediterranean, Asian, and Middle Eastern elements, don't always succeed.
Tom yam gung, a Thai soup, could have used a little help from lemon grass. The clear broth, adequately stocked with pink shrimp and straw mushrooms, had the spice but not the sour to balance it. And linguine with pork and Japanese eggplant, a good-size entree we shared as an appetizer, would have been better with a chewier Thai or Vietnamese rice noodle rather than with the Italian stuff, which was overcooked. The flavor of the dish was pleasant, with tomatoes providing plummy sweetness, but the ground pork and barely there eggplant made this pasta seem like an Asian version of Hamburger Helper.
A roast tomato and thyme tart, on the other hand, was an example of how well the kitchen can cook when the idea isn't too complicated. The tomatoes were slow-cooked to peak flavor, accented by the aromatic herb and arrayed over a delicate pastry crust. A handful of fresh, peppery arugula thrown over the top and a savory herb aioli garnish finished the dish handily.
Specials may take intriguing directions other than toward Europe or Asia. The Caribbean made an appearance in an appetizer of shrimp-plantain cakes napped with pineapple salsa. The kitchen's effort here, borne out in a stacked presentation, was slightly more involved, and we were receptive, remarking on the plump shrimp sandwiched between the two outwardly crisp, inwardly moist pancakes. The salsa too was excellent, slightly pickled red onions and chopped red bell peppers softened by sugary pineapple and intensified by cilantro.
Another special, a main course, wasn't as successful. Lamb chops were overdone, not the medium-rare we'd ordered. Stuck like feathers into delicious chipotle mashed potatoes, they were so small and shriveled that they looked like toy versions of the real thing. (Now that's stereotypically British.) Too bad, really, because these had a nice musky aroma and would have been tasty had they not been overcooked.
In contrast, a sirloin steak was served too rare; we'd requested medium. After a few more minutes on the fire, the balsamic vinegar-glazed meat was returned unevenly grilled, with some parts still bloody and others well-done. But the beef was juicy, and enormous sprigs of fragrant rosemary enlivened the side dish of lentils that accompanied it.
Though the menu has a "brunch" section, its contents can be ordered at any time of day. A lobster club sandwich sounded like the most interesting dish in this category (perhaps unfairly competing against your standard eggs Benedict and pancakes). And it might have been, too, if the toasted onion bread hadn't been burnt, the billed bacon missing, and the lobster too briny. I'd rather have my salt come from the cured pork that was supposed to garnish the club along with the lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise that dressed the bread. In terms of sheer quantity, however, the lobster was impressive, and the pile of field greens that partnered the sandwich was an unexpected pleasure. Made well, this is the kind of dish that would be a regular choice for me.
As would a beautiful fillet of grouper, arranged squarely over a scoop of mashed boniato. Call it compensation or just plain wonderful: Hearty yet delicate, the gleaming white fish, topped by lump blue crabmeat, fell off the architecturally constructed pile in supple flakes. The boniato, accented by roasted garlic, was also delicious.
Desserts were an extension of the seesawing that marked the rest of the meal. Baked chocolate cheesecake with creme fraiche florets had a smooth texture but was oddly sour. "Banoffi" pie, though, was outstanding: banana cream layered over toffee, which in turn sat on a crumbly pie crust. (Get it? Banana + toffee.) So rich that my husband and I fought off Howie and Susie for the last bite. For the record, I have to say that diamond of hers can do some damage. Or maybe it was the pitcher of that British beverage classic, Pimms Cup, that made us all so aggressive.
Balans needs to find its balance. And it probably will, as it grows into its role as one of the more sociable restaurants for locals on Lincoln Road. Meanwhile, I'm dressing for a follow-up date, eager to retest the scales.
Service is typically Beach, with long lapses and staffers who can't pronounce those really difficult words. Like "boniato."
1022 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach; 534-9191. Open daily from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 a.m.; Friday and Saturday until 2:00 a.m.
Roast tomato and thyme tart
Tom yam gung
Lobster club sandwich