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Wood-roasted portobello "bear claw," another wonderfully pixilated starter, comprised layers of the juicy mushroom cap and pungent Montrachet goat cheese. A charred tomatillo salsa was a tangy accompaniment. Perhaps the most successful invention, though, was a Cuban pork Wellington main course. An inches-thick pork loin, medium-rare and succulent, was smeared with mojo-flavored black bean páte and encased in puff pastry. Pickled "really red pearl onions" and caramelized plantains accessorized the Wellington perfectly.
Sometimes the culinary playfulness doesn't quite work. Lamb lasagna, a special that evening, was offered as either an appetizer or an entree. We chose to start with it, and were glad we hadn't ordered the bigger version, as the dish didn't quite work. A shredded lamb stew tasting overwhelmingly of mint mingled with broad lasagna noodles in an untidy pile; underneath, mixed greens with a citrusy vinaigrette merely added to the confusion.
King, who worked as the maitre d' at New York City's Quilted Giraffe for fifteen years, was originally the chef at Palm Grill. Two years ago he hired chef Willis Loughhead to take over. "We always had the Chinese influence, but now the menu is more pan-Asian," King explains. This more expansive approach comes delightfully into play with a Japanese-inspired Key West pink shrimp main course. A half-dozen huge shrimp were dipped in a ginger beer tempura batter and fried. Greaseless, the long curls were enhanced by two dipping sauces: one a vibrant wasabi creme fra”che, the other a more sedate wasabi-sake glaze.
Loughhead taps the Asian mainland for a Bangkok green papaya street salad, topped with smaller pink shrimp than the ones in the Key West entree. Dozens of pastel shrimp and shreds of green papaya were tossed with cilantro, burdock root, candied lime, and a hoisin-flavored vinaigrette. The appetizer was garnished with two "salmon crickets," rice crackers topped with salty salmon roe. The effect of all these robust, competing flavors was too intense, though, and overwhelmed the palate.
Pitting strong elements against one another worked much more successfully in the mahogany-lacquered, house-smoked duck entree. Served over applewood-cured bacon mashed potatoes and a slightly grainy pear puree, this half of a game bird was moist and meaty. And another main course, wood-roasted sea bass, was wisely paired with a bacalao-brandade-stuffed tomato. The minced, salted fish-and-potato stuffing was toned down by the subtle sea bass.
The menu offers side dishes such as a mashed potato tasting (three different varieties), but the generous main-course portions made side dishes superfluous. Still, on a whim we ordered a basket of onion naan, which was disappointing; the bread appeared to be caraway-flavored pita instead, and was stale to boot. Dessert, on the other hand, is necessary, especially for creme brulee lovers. The Palm Grill version is a combination of silky vanilla cheesecake and custard, iced with a burnt-sugar crust and candied violets. That alone could satisfy any customer, particularly one younger than twelve.
Speaking of which, I've made happy hour at the Deco Bar in the National Hotel a weekly sojourn. And yes, I take my daughter with me. Only now when the music reaches dance-floor levels, I put plugs in her ears. As for whether I'll drag her to Palm Grill, I guess that decision can wait until she starts eating solids. For now maybe I'll just use the proprietors' preferences as an excuse to leave her home once in a while.
16145 Biscayne Blvd, North Miami; 305-949-8448. Dinner Tuesday through Thursday from 6:00 till 10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday till 11:00 p.m.
Portobello bear claw
Big Ass won tons
Cuban pork Wellington
Key West pink shrimp tempura
Triple vanilla cheesecake brulee