Eat Your Heart Out

Just recently I was sipping a martini at the Deco Bar in the National Hotel during happy hour when a woman approached me, crossing over from the other side of the room to do so.

"Is that your baby?" she asked.
"Yes," I answered with a smile, full of justifiable pride. After all, my daughter Zoe had just had a bottle. She was content and gurgling. She's also the cutest baby I know -- possibly the best-looking infant ever in the history of babydom. I fully expected this stranger to compliment my three-month-old daughter's incredible beauty.

"Well," she said, "this is a completely inappropriate place for a baby. The music's too much for her sensitive eardrums, and the secondhand smoke isn't good for her either."

She walked away before I could say anything else, and my husband held me back from going over and telling her off. Not surprisingly I spent the rest of the night composing scathing responses in my head, retorts that would demonstrate my complete maternal devotion, despite my fondness for martinis. In the end, though, I had to concede that the woman was partly correct: While the room wasn't all that smoky, the disco music being played got louder and louder as happy hour got, well, happier and happier. We soon left.

I did some real soul-searching before I decided to have a child. One of the conclusions I came to was that I wouldn't let a baby turn me into a boring hausfrau. A depressed mom is a bad mom. But I didn't want to leave her at home all the time with a baby sitter, so when I go out to bars and restaurants I take her with me. As long as Zoe is well-behaved and cheerful, I don't see a problem with this, especially while she's still in that portable stage. But others apparently do not share my opinion.

The two-month-old Palm Grill, for instance, located in North Miami on the site formerly occupied by Amber Bistro, doesn't want children younger than twelve. I know because I called to check, before showing up with a babe in arms. Back when Palm Grill was located in Key West -- where partners (in life as well as in business) Wayne King and Michael Gallagher ran it for nine years before closing the place (as well as shutting down a sibling restaurant called Isle of Bones, which they operated for almost two years) and moving to Miami -- I had wanted to dine there with my two-year-old nephew. No go, I was told when I phoned for a reservation. No high chair + no kids' menu = adults only, in their minds. We went instead to the very elegant Cafe Marquesa. There, no high chair + no kids' menu = a grilled cheese sandwich made with Gouda and focaccia, and a delighted aunt and nephew.

Now that the 100-seat Palm Grill has moved to Biscayne Boulevard, in an area rife with families, I thought the proprietors might have reconsidered their policy regarding kids. But over the phone the hostess insinuated that a child, even an infant, would ruin the ambiance of the place and disturb diners. Personally, I think such an anti-kid attitude is a bit outmoded; when both parents work, families wind up eating out a lot, and not always at a Chuck E. Cheese. As a food professional, however, I respect the owners' wishes to run a certain type of restaurant. They did divide the bar from the rest of the restaurant with frosted glass to cut back on noise. I wouldn't wear ripped jeans and a tank top to Norman's. I wouldn't walk into a fast-food restaurant with no shoes or shirt (though I bet it would get me some attention). And I wouldn't take a baby to Palm Grill to spit up on the freshly installed carpet and to fling baby food at the bright murals of palm trees and tropical scenes.

Kind of ironic then that a two-year-old was snacking hungrily -- and relatively quietly -- the night we dined there. I can only imagine what he thought of the eatery's "muse," a portrait of a bare-breasted woman. King discovered the painting in Paris when he worked at a restaurant there in the early Seventies. An inside joke, she's been hung on the walls of King and Gallagher's eateries ever since. The pair even had postcards made up of her pair. "It gives people something interesting to talk about," King shrugs. "Even the ladies love her."

That risque sense of humor extends to the menu. "We were thinking of offering French fries with caviar, a current favorite food of ours," King admits. "But we settled for a special called 'crab on a raft.' It's lump crabmeat on an onion waffle with key lime creme fraiche and caviar."

Crab on a raft wasn't around the night we were, so we went with the amusing "Big Ass" fried conch won tons, a signature appetizer, and a delicious one. The minced conch, vegetables, and seasoning in these two crisp dumplings were nubby but not chewy. "Spinach cracklin'" (thin leaves of flash-fried spinach) and a potent oyster sauce complemented the won tons. As a finishing touch the words Big Ass were written on the rim of the plate in a spicy kim chee-style sauce.

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.

Palm Grill
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
$6.50
Big Ass won tons
$6.95
Cuban pork Wellington
$17.95
Key West pink shrimp tempura
$18.25
Triple vanilla cheesecake brulee
$5.

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