Heat Resistant

The costliest real estate is that which sits vacant, unleased, or unsold, generating no income for its owner. No one knows that fact of life better than the city of Miami, landlords of Firehouse Four restaurant. Government officials took four long years to approve new tenants for the empty eatery (it went out of business in 1994), rejecting applicants who it determined lacked sufficient financial backing to keep the 11,500-square-foot space from figuratively going down in flames. Such prudence seemed to make sense: Why rent to a restaurateur who might not be able to meet the monthly payments? But meanwhile the building -- a real firehouse that dates from the Twenties -- grew shabby, and renovation costs began to mount. In other words, all the red tape created an enormous white elephant.

New Firehouse Four proprietors Tom Richardson and Gus Vidaurreta apparently had enough cash to satisfy the bureaucrats. Several months ago they invested $1.5 million to revitalize the two-story downtown building, located on South Miami Avenue near Brickell. The backers, joined by third partner and general manager Amador Fernandez, weren't necessarily motivated by an altruistic desire to preserve the historic building; rather, they were nostalgic for happy hour. The previous incarnation of Firehouse Four hosted the most riotous Friday-afternoon drinking fest of the early Nineties. Crowds of tipsy yuppies spilled out over its patio and into the street like a pina colada from a blender; they downed screwdrivers with as much vigor as they pounded the numbers of their cell phones. A good time was had by all (who can remember it, that is).

To start, the trio hired interior designer Diana Joyce to rehab the place. She preserved the poles that firemen once slid down (they're blocked off by Plexiglas to prevent some drunken customer's inevitable attempt to play Batman twirling down into the Batcave) but redid just about everything else. The upstairs dining room now features a polished blond wood floor and connects to a rooftop terrace -- a pleasant, breezy place to booze it up at an outdoor bar or snack at a dozen or so tables. The first floor, publike with a cherry-color wood bar and glossy tables, is now carpeted with a flower-patterned cranberry rug; the adjoining patio is set up with a half-dozen portable bars every day from 5:00 to 7:00 to serve the happy-hour hedonists. Stereo speakers booming disco music compete with softer, jazzier tones emanating from the roof. Like Miami itself, the new Firehouse Four is a restaurant with multiple personalities.

And since Richardson and Vidaurreta have reopened the place, the hedonists have come. About 3500 of them, every Friday, a plague so thick that off-duty cops are hired as security guards and the sidewalk area is fenced off. That's about 3499 too many people in one place for me, so I decided to visit for dinner instead.

"They serve food?" a companion questioned, astonished, when I told her where our party of three would be eating. The fact that Firehouse Four is more than just a happy-hour venue comes as a surprise to some people, not that the owners make a secret of executive chef John J. Foley's inventive, upscale American-Caribbean fare. For now, though, some of the menu items should remain on the back burner, because while the happy hour may be hot, the quality of the food is decidedly lukewarm.

Literally lukewarm, too. Our entrees, which took an hour to appear, arrived at room temperature. All of our food was barely warm, but a whole snapper ($15.00) entree was the biggest culprit. At our server's suggestion, this crispy critter had been deboned in the kitchen rather than served complete. We were dining on the terrace, you see, and couldn't get our oil lamp to stay lighted: We wouldn't have been able to spot all the tiny bones. But the battered and fried snapper, generously fleshed, must have sat around awhile, because it came to our table unappealingly cool. Piled on a bed of watercress, the fish was flavored with a tart tingle of citrus juices that could have used an oil or creamy balancing agent.

We had a similar temperature problem with an appetizer called "Havanas" ($6.95), two cigar-shape pastries filled with savory chopped chicken and chorizo. Not only did the crust ooze cold grease, congealing from its wait in the kitchen, but the burnt orange-shallot barbecue sauce that was painted in a design on the plate had actually hardened. We peeled it off like Shrinky-Dinks from wax paper. The cigars were accompanied by miniature jicama "matchsticks," tied together in a tidy little bundle. We thought these were clever, if a bit Lilliputian compared to the length and breadth of the Havanas.

The kitchen was kind enough to split an eggless caesar salad ($8.50) three ways, but none of us could finish our portion. Although pungent shaved Parmesan helped to cut the potency somewhat, the garlic in the dressing was powerful enough to cure ten colds.

On the other hand, a cream of boniato and leek soup ($3.50) was perfectly balanced. The sweet root vegetable, pureed with mild leeks, was both tasty and hearty. We scooped up the slightly too thick mixture with homemade boniato chips, a nice touch. Grilled chicken breast adobo ($14.00), a main course, was delicious as well. The juicy poultry, luxuriously rubbed with ground spices, was flavorful but not zingy. The bone-in chicken was served with fresh, sauteed Swiss chard and a somewhat gluey boniato mash.

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