Here Comes the Neighborhood

South Beach neighborhoods are not born. They're made. Witness the latest area to catch developers' fancy: The triangle of land wedged west of Alton Road, north of the Venetian Causeway, and east of Biscayne Bay is quite literally on the rise. One condominium building and some townhouses have already been completed, and more are planned. A new Publix is under construction after years of controversy, and several blocks away a multiscreen movie theater is going up. In a matter of months this commercial district (most businesses are now automotive in nature) will be completely transformed.

One restaurant is already giving residents a taste of what the area will be like: Joe Allen, an upscale but informal neighborhood place without much of a neighborhood. Yet. The quietness of the buzz about the eatery, which launched without fanfare in February, is a little remarkable given the restaurant's pedigree. Named for its proprietor, Joe Allen originally opened in New York City in 1965, later adding branches in London and Paris. Joe Allen the man also owns Orso, an Italian restaurant with outposts in New York, Los Angeles, and London (with another planned for Paris), plus Orsino in London. Superstar chefs such as Bobby Flay claim Joe Allen as a mentor.

Joe Allen's reputation as a haven for celebrities and for neighborhood folks sounds strange, but it's justified; it's one of those places everyone -- high-profile, low-profile, or no-profile -- frequents for its laid-back atmosphere. No doubt our Joe Allen, secreted on Purdy Avenue, will soon be patronized by stars and their entourages. Then tourists will discover it as the place where people like Madonna dine. At that point metered parking, which is plentiful at the moment, and last-minute dinner reservations, which are currently available, will be as hard to come by as a chubby model.

For now, though, Joe Allen is unusual for South Beach. It seems to shun attention. The tucked-away location was a deliberate choice, and the single-story exterior is marked only by a small neon sign. Customers enter through the side, as if they are walking into someone's home, checking all pretensions at the door. I was impressed not only by the courteous staff, but also by the way patrons treated each other. One party even got up to change tables to accommodate another group with an infant. I think I remember this South Beach from before the clubs, the gangs, and, of course, the tourists.

The fare reflects Allen's philosophy: Keep snotty attitudes down and lift spirits up. Dishes draw on influences from all over the world, but the menu isn't a pan-everything, multicultural mix of cuisines. Rather, customers might make this stuff for themselves if they had the time or inclination to cook; or it's what they would be eating if Mom were still fixing their meals. Certainly she'd approve of entrees such as the grilled chicken. A plump half-bird, bone in and skin on, tasted as if it had just come off a back-yard grill. A hint of smokiness and charcoal flavor complemented the poultry, which ranks with the freshest and juiciest I've had in a long time. A garden-crisp melange of sauteed spinach, tomatoes, and eggplant was strewn around the chicken.

You can't get any homier than calf's liver or meatloaf, both offered as entrees. The single sturdy slice, topped with beef gravy, was not overly bread-filled, and it was accompanied by slightly lumpy mashed potatoes and leaf spinach sauteed with garlic; plain, maybe, but also satisfying. The meatloaf was preceded by a soothing soup of the day -- a dark, thick, tomato-y vegetable puree touched with pesto.

The comfort-food motif continued with hamburgers, cheeseburgers, and bacon cheeseburgers, all served with fries. But other sandwiches -- grilled vegetables with melted Muenster cheese, for instance -- are more elaborate and thoughtfully put together. We appreciated the one that tasted like a compact Thanksgiving dinner: roast turkey, mortadella, and arugula on country bread that had been spread with a berry and pistachio compote. A generous side salad comprising a variety of butter lettuces and radicchio was leafy, green, young, and sweet.

Joe Allen's decor, with its metallic but not industrial sheen -- copper-painted chairs, a galvanized sheet-metal bar, chrome fans mounted on one wall (as opposed to the ceiling) and tiny silver figurines riding pastel surfboards attached to the other -- contributes to a more sophisticated South Beach ambiance. But service can be downright family-style. Bussers plop carafes of ice water in the middle of the tables so you can pour for yourself, and wine is ordered not by the glass but by the quarter-liter. Our server felt free to comment on our dinner choices, pulling a face when we ordered a grilled vegetable risotto. "It's boring," he noted. "Two bites and you're done with it." He recommended instead a tilapia fillet, dipped in egg and flour and roasted to a delicate crunch. I always think of tilapia as a throwaway fish, appealing to nonfish lovers because of its mild flavor and soft, snapperlike texture. This fillet was exceptional; I was delighted to be proved wrong. A pungent puttanesca (black olives, tomatoes, and capers) sauce edged the fish, along with some overly charred pencil asparagus.

Olives also figured in a chopped cucumber salad appetizer. The pitted kalamatas added ripe pungency to the refreshing blend of cucumbers, juicy tomatoes, bright mint, and crumbled feta cheese. Despite the feta, which can be rich, this was a lovely and light way to begin the meal. It is possible, however, to max out your week's dairy requirement on other, more indulgent starters, such as the tasty (but not quite steamy enough) quesadilla. Stuffed with gorgonzola, provolone, and mozzarella, the flaky flour tortilla was garnished with a zesty tomatillo/red onion salsa. Combinations of cheeses also top personal-size pizzas. Gorgonzola melded smoothly with mozzarella over a crisp, thin crust; sun-dried tomatoes and nutty oven-roasted garlic added punch to the pizza.

We ignored our server's advice about dessert and ordered banana cream pie anyway. A mistake. It was bland, the custard flavorless and too loose. Tollhouse cookies with vanilla ice cream might have been a better choice.

SoBe purists are usually justified in bemoaning the loss of Art Deco buildings (no matter how decrepit) and original character (no matter how seedy) in neighborhoods such as SoFi (south of Fifth Street) and the blocks north and south of Lincoln Road. But I doubt anyone will be lobbying commissioners about changes in the area where Joe Allen has set up shop. Any sort of makeover would have been an improvement. If the neighborhood continues to develop in the vein Joe Allen has hinted at, the sophisticated homebodies who live on the Beach will probably approve -- at least until the tourists arrive.

Joe Allen
1787 Purdy Ave, Miami Beach; 531-7077. Dinner nightly from 4:00 p.m. to midnight. Brunch Saturday and Sunday from noon to 4:00 p.m.

Cucumber salad
$5.50

Roast turkey sandwich
$9.75

Meatloaf
$10.00

Grilled chicken
$13.00

Banana cream pie
$5.00

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