Prayer Ribs

Sometimes my relationships with restaurants are like the ones I have with my kid and husband. They require lots of work and involve those interminable growing pains, but both can bring great pleasure on a good day. That's kind of the way I feel about Bishop's. This six-month-old Southern-cuisine restaurant in Coconut Grove has been passing through some unfortunate early-life phases. While I feel genuine affection for, and an insane desire to nurture the place, I also want to shake some sense into it. You know, tough love.

Like many children, Bishop's is named for its progenitor, chef-proprietor Bishop Carlos L. Malone. Malone is the pastor of the Bethel Full Gospel Baptist Church, which has two locations. But he's wanted to deliver food as well as the word of God since he was a little boy (his parents ran an eatery). Over the years he frequently entertained big names like the Rev. Jesse Jackson in his home; he finally decided to expand his space with Bishop's this past October.

If you think Malone's first vocation spills over into the restaurant, you'd be correct. The church is advertised on the menu, along with color photos of Malone and his wife. The wine list carries a small sermon on the evils of drink, and is quick to remind customers they are eating in a Christian establishment. In general I prefer a little less organized religion with my dinner; I find it harder to swallow than Bishop's juicy, succulent, center-cut pork chops, grilled and glazed with Jack Daniel's and brown sugar.

The restaurant, located on the hard-to-know-it's-up-there fourth floor of the newly built shopping center on Commodore Plaza, makes a claim in its press release that rings only half-true: Bishop's is "the only African-American-owned fine dining establishment in Miami specializing in the authentic taste of Southern cuisine." Bishop's probably is the only upscale black establishment we've seen in recent years; the erstwhile Savannah on South Beach was the only other swank eatery I can recall that advertised itself the same way. And I'm glad to see that Malone, who could have opened in a neighborhood guaranteed to welcome the joint, chose to aim high and exploit a new market. But Malone needs to take a page from Savannah's book (though not the one about going out of business). If you call your restaurant fine dining -- African-American-owned, Southern, or otherwise -- it had better be.

First off that means ditch the microwave. On both occasions when I visited, almost every item we ordered had hot and cold spots. Much of the food, especially side dishes like the dried-out macaroni and cheese, seemed as if it had been preprepared and subsequently warmed up. Even the complementary corn muffins, rife with kernels of corn, had been treated to a dose of radiation, releasing clouds of steam when we broke them apart, and hardening like quick-set cement after they sat for a few minutes.

The second order of business would be to adjust the prices to match the fare. At this stage in its life, the restaurant is overpriced, demanding $10.95 for a bowl of seafood gumbo and $21.95 for barbecued ribs. A new menu currently in the works, which will feature more seafood entrees, will be offering shrimp and scallop fettuccine for $27.95 and seafood stew for $29.95. I understand this place is expensive real estate with high rent. But dishes such as the quartered Southern-fried chicken, greaseless, juicy, and cracklin' good (even when smothered with milky pan gravy), simply don't justify these tags. Clients might get turned off just looking at them.

Or maybe some of the fare should be upgraded to match the prices. Several side dishes (two come with every entree), including stewed black-eyed peas, green beans, and candied yams, tasted as if they came from the can and then were doctored. Ditto the barbecue sauce basting the ribs and chicken that reminded us of Open Pit. These items failed to convince us we were living to eat rather than eating to live.

On the other hand, like the mom I am, even as I work on improving my child's faults, I feel compelled to boast about Bishop's accomplishments. The restaurant's fried food, including catfish fingers for a starter and eight jumbo shrimp for a main course, were excellent, the seasoned batter so light and crisp it practically floated over the fish and seafood. (The catfish will be replaced by snapper when the new menu goes into effect, though only God and the Bishop know when that will be. I've been in the restaurant a couple of times over a six-week period and it still hasn't been instituted. Before deciding what to order, ask the waiter what's no longer available.) The meaty oxtail soup and short ribs of beef both benefited from a heavy hand; vegetables flavored the broth and gravy, and the short ribs especially were tender as a newborn's skin.

Desserts were more down-home than fine-dining, but difficult to fault regardless. Banana pudding was thick and creamy, rich with sliced fruit and whipped cream, and topped with Nilla wafers. Sweet potato pie featured a flaky crust and a nutmeg-enhanced filling. Just as sweet is the service: It's wonderful -- I've never felt so welcome in a place. The hostess takes pains to chat up customers so she might remember them for future visits; it makes you want to remember to come back.

In fact the homey atmosphere created by the waiters and the cooking is almost contradictory to the upscale setting. These trappings, however, are pretty nice. The rooftop dining room, filled with starched linens and mirrored walls, leads out to one of the most pleasant wrought iron-trimmed balconies in the Grove, set with about ten tables. A superb sound system plays gospel, R&B, and instrumental jazz tunes, and a baby grand allows Bishop's to hire live entertainment, though I have yet to witness any. Business, it appears from the looks of things, has been so slow that "extras" such as live music and bulked up menus are equally tardy.

Yet Bishop's is caught in a quandary. The restaurant has great potential, which could remain untapped without enough customers to encourage it. But in the end I don't doubt improvement of some sort is on the way, however long it takes. These folks seem committed to learning the trade and doing the job till it's well done. At that point I'm sure I'll find myself beaming like a proud parent. Until then, spare the rod, spoil the restaurant.

Bishop's.
3138 Commodore Plaza, Coconut Grove; 305-774-6911. Dinner Wednesday and Thursday from 5:00 till 10:00 p.m.; Friday and Saturday from 5:00 p.m. till midnight. Sunday from 1:00 till 10:0 p.m.

Oxtail soup $7.95
Catfish fingers $7.95
Fried chicken with gravy $15.95
Short ribs $18.95
Banana pudding $7.

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