Restaurant 101

My husband has a problem with our relatives receiving medical treatment from residents (doctors in training). So when there's an injury in our family -- something that occurs more than you might think, given the fact that we're all avid athletes -- we avoid teaching hospitals such as Jackson Memorial or Mount Sinai. "They're fine for other people," he notes, "but not for you." He always adds darkly, "I should know." And he should know -- he's a resident himself.

I used to feel the same way about practicum facilities, the restaurants run by culinary institutions. Okay for other folks to eat there, but not us. After all, why pay good money to have a cooking school student serve up mistakes when we could have an established chef prepare us a decent meal?

But after dining at Chef & Apprentice, the practicum facility at the Johnson & Wales University campus in North Miami, I changed my mind. The restaurant, which opened in 1993, allowed students to receive hands-on training in both the kitchen and the front of the house. Not only was their New World cuisine contemporary and vibrant, but the place was fun -- you never knew what might happen. Diners armed with a sense of understanding usually had a decent experience, even when a waiter dropped a dish or spilled some wine. We were guinea pigs willing to support the educational process. It was all for a good cause.

Despite its relative success, Chef & Apprentice closed in May 1997. The university needed the space for classrooms, so administrators began the process of moving the practicum facility off-campus. They found a perfect location across the causeway at the Bay Harbor Inn in Bay Harbor Islands. The spot, formerly occupied by the gourmet Chinese restaurant B.C. Chong's, had been vacant for some time; the inn's landlord, the United Church of Christ's Church by the Sea, wanted an easygoing tenant. In July 1997 Islands Cafe opened, and a couple of months later professional executive chef John Reed, who had supervised Chef & Apprentice, came onboard with his recipes.

Reed may have designed the fusion dishes, which exhibit Caribbean and Asian influences, but it's the trainees who cook them. Second-year Johnson & Wales culinary students choose between the practicum (a twelve-week course at Islands Cafe) or what's known as a "co-op" (an apprenticeship at a local restaurant, usually in a hotel or country club such as the Breakers or Turnberry Isle). For diners the twelve weeks can be a blessing or a curse. Visit Islands Cafe's "waterfront tavern," as it's billed on the restaurant's sign, toward the end of a student's training and you'll probably have an acceptable meal. Check in at the beginning, however, and you're more likely to want to check out, never to return.

The 120-seat indoor-outdoor eatery is a pretty and relaxing place, with light woods and white tile catching the light, abstract artwork that changes regularly, and Biscayne Bay lapping soothingly against an adjacent dock. A lunch buffet, available Wednesday to Friday (the restaurant is closed Monday and Tuesday, and serves a regular lunch menu on Saturday), is a fast and easy way for businesspeople to enjoy their midday breaks. Sunday brunch -- with pasta, sushi, salads, breakfast items, and desserts -- is a bargain at $15.95; it's also a terrific way to meet the students, who tend to the various brunch stations. Except for during this all-you-can-chow brunch buffet, the restaurant's waitstaff consists of hired help, and general manager Jerry Cohen keeps things running fairly smoothly. "We're constantly working to increase standards," he tells me. They need to. Guinea pigs or not, diners deserve to receive consistently good, if not necessarily great, meals. But right now they're not getting them.

Some of the problems we experienced surfaced in the appetizers. A tasty smoked fish dip, for instance, was served with carrot and celery sticks so rubbery we could bend them in half and they wouldn't break. A shrimp "martini" -- six plump boiled shrimp hanging from a martini glass, accompanied by bloody mary cocktail sauce and plantain chips -- arrived sans chips. Tricolor tortilla chips, dotted with bland black bean salsa, scallions, sour cream, and a graying guacamole, were stale. Seasoned French fries, which partner sandwiches, weren't seasoned. And the roasted vegetables that accompanied the plantain-crusted mahi-mahi entree, as well as the grilled vegetables that came with a New York strip, looked and tasted machine-cut and boiled, as if they'd been poured straight out of a Birds Eye bag. A stricter supervisory hand would ensure that dishes leave the kitchen as described on the menu.

Other difficulties stemmed from quality control. For example, three baby lamb chops, glazed with ancho chile barbecue sauce, were so riddled with fat we couldn't extract much meat from them. Ground beef was also overly fatty, as evidenced by a "Cuban sloppy Joe," a kaiser roll that was filled with green olive-studded picadillo, cheddar cheese, and fried onions. "It's pretty sloppy," our waitress warned. What she didn't tell us was that it would be slippery with grease. Calamari cocktail, an appetizer spiced with passion fruit mojito and roasted red peppers, was perhaps the worst dish, the breaded bands of squid more like the tiny rubber bands attached to dental braces than the tender rings they should have been. And the calamari was served with packaged crackers.

Then there were snarls in the execution. The aforementioned mahi-mahi was a glorified fish 'n' chips dinner, the deep-fried dolphin as brown as a weathered fisherman and as oily as a wet slicker, and it came topped with tartar sauce. A main course of seared salmon, served over garlic mashed potatoes, was as cold and pasty as Play-Doh, and the fried leeks sprinkled over it were soggy. A fruity mango-cucumber vinaigrette couldn't save the dish. Grilled tuna steak, garnished with piquant chorizo, was too well-done; it also was crosshatched with an unpleasant charring. On the other hand, a grilled sirloin was juicy and nicely complemented by tamarind ketchup and shoestring onions.

Subsequent meals at Islands Cafe proved the place has potential, provided the A students do the cooking. A pleasing crab quesadilla appetizer consisted of crisp flour tortillas stuffed with crab and jack cheese and topped with sour cream, chopped cilantro, and musky mango salsa. Terrific crisp dumplings, another appetizer, were lightly pan-fried pot stickers filled with fragrant minced pork. A barbecued portobello sandwich was excellent, the grilled jumbo mushroom cap melding with cheddar cheese, onion shoestrings, and ancho chile-flavored mayonnaise.

If in doubt, order salads. Where the tuna main course was overdone, the medallions of fish placed over a soothing soba noodle salad were beautifully pink, and the dish's soy-ginger dressing was subtle. A chopped salad comprising chunks of roasted turkey, hearts of palm, tomato, feta cheese, chickpeas, and citrus vinaigrette was fresh and delicious. Grilled jerk chicken salad was inventive, the greens decorated with diced apple, red onion, kidney beans, grilled rings of fresh pineapple, and a sweet brown sugar dressing.

The wine list offers a tempting selection of California and international vintages; the Markham sauvignon blanc we tried made for a smart choice at $20. Sweets also deserve good grades. The students whip up a fluffy chocolate mousse, a rich rum brownie, and a spicy carrot cake. Still, I must level a charge. I've been a teacher my entire adult life; as a result, I appreciate the intense challenges of the profession. I've also always resented intrusive nonprofessionals who judge the quality of teaching only by a student's performance. But after poking through what appeared to be frozen vegetables and boxed crackers, I have to ask: Just what are we teaching our kids these days?

Islands Cafe (in Bay Harbor Inn) 9601 E Bay Harbor Dr, Bay Harbor Islands; 305-868-4141. Lunch and dinner Wednesday to Saturday from 11:30 a.m. till 10:00 p.m; Sunday brunch from 11:00 a.m. till 3:00 p.m.

Dumplings
$4.75
Portobello sandwich
$6.00
Jerk chicken salad
$7.00
Plantain-crusted mahi-mahi
$14.00
Baby lamb chops
$18.50

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