By Zachary Fagenson
By Bill Citara
By Laine Doss
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By Carina Ost
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By Hannah Sentenac
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Europeans like to gripe about a lot of things in America. Especially about dining out, about how all those waiters hover at your table chattering about nothing. They'd be driven right back across the Atlantic after eating at Sweet Donna's Country Store, where we were greeted by not one, but four employees in our first five minutes in the place.
"Hey, how are you guys doing? How is everything so far? Is this your first visit to Sweet Donna's?" a rosy-cheeked man in a crisp white button-down shirt quizzed us. These were more or less the same questions we heard from the other employees as we walked into the new eatery in the Shops at Sunset Place on a not-so-busy Wednesday night. Okay, so it was well-rehearsed shtick; but Americans sometimes prefer to be treated well rather than not at all. And the food served at this Disneyesque restaurant was exceptional.
"I bet that's the best cornbread you ever had in your life," said our newfound friend, who had sidled up to our table for a neighborly chat. "We went all the way to France to find the baker."
"I didn't know they made cornbread in France," my husband joked. Gabrielle Gonzalez, the store's purchasing manager, didn't catch the humor. He went on to recite the virtues of the restaurant's executive chef, Pascal Oudin, another Frenchman, who came from the former Grand Bay Cafe, a five-star restaurant. "He traveled all over the country for six months to get ideas and recipes."
That's a twist: French chefs copying American cooking. It was bound to happen and the results are fantastic. To experience it, however, you've got to get over the kitschy decor of what will no doubt become another successful concept restaurant in Brad Weiser's growing empire, which so far includes five Cafe Tu Tu Tangos.
Named after his wife, Sweet Donna's is one of those places where the waiters gather together to blow whistles and bang pans before singing "Happy Birthday." The whole place is decorated like a gentrified country store: bushels of candies, jellies, and jams and racks of trinkets fill the entryway; the aroma of fresh-baked breads, cakes, and cookies wafts from the bakery counter; mismatched cane chairs and distressed wooden tables are scattered throughout a half-dozen dining rooms; sugar packets are piled in Mason jars and the smiley blond hostess even wears pigtails.
Despite the attempt to look like a good-old-fashioned diner, it would be hard to mistake this for some greasy spoon. No country store I visited ever had a wine list that included wine flights. In this case there are fourteen selections offering a tasting of four wines of a particular style. I tried the "fruity, yet dry" selection. Quarter glasses of four Italian whites were described thoughtfully by the wine specialist who brought them to our table. It was a great way to sample several of their many good wines. The full bar also offers specialty cocktails, beers from around the world, as well as milkshakes, floats, counter sodas, fresh juices, and smoothies.
As Gabrielle suggested, the moist and slightly chewy cornbread was delicious. In fact all the breads we sampled in the generous basket were great. There were slices of light and crusty baguettes as well as thick hunks of Italian bread with a thin and crispy crust. Slathered with the sweet butter, which actually tasted as if it had been freshly churned, the breads could have been a meal by themselves.
But make sure you don't let them be. Although many of the dishes were described as unpretentious American classics, most rose beyond our expectations.
The appetizer menu includes favorites such as chopped salad, ribs, cheese fritters, fried chicken, and potato pie. You'll see several Mediterranean specialties, too, like baked Brie, rustic pate, steamed mussels, and focaccia. Some are disguised as poor country cousins when in fact they are quite regal. One of the soups, for example, is called a Baked Georgia Onion Soup, a concoction I'd never heard of, but which turned out to be an outstanding rendition of the French classic. Slices of onion were caramelized, stewed in a hearty beef broth, and topped with a perfectly melted, sharp Provolone cheese.
The Best of Donna's, a huge appetizer platter of barbecued ribs, cheese fritters, and fried chicken is, like most of the menu items, meant to be shared by at least two or three. But if you are a fan of ribs, as I am, it may be difficult to give up any of the incredibly succulent St. Louis-style beef to someone else. Permeated with a sweet and tangy molasses-color sauce, the pale meat literally fell of the bone and seemed to melt in my mouth. The chicken, too, was exemplary. Large pieces of tender white meat were coated in a thin blanket of seasoned crumbs and fried just enough to create a crispy but not the least bit greasy crust. Potato-cheese fritters were just fine, though I found the bread to be tastier and more interesting than these doughy fillers.
Another starter, the New England clam chowder, was even better than its traditional version. Sweet Donna's snowy white variation was flavored with a distinct dose of tarragon and plenty of seafood. Chunks of potatoes and seafood were chopped so uniformly and floated in a creamy but not floury broth that fans of the heartier, chunkier style might be disappointed. I wasn't.
Main courses were, with one exception, uniformly good. Pan-seared salmon hash was more elegant than it sounds. Two slender medallions as big around as compact discs rested on a mound of white bean and lentil salad. Although one of the cakes was a bit scorched, the crisp blackened crust was a delicious contrast alongside the refreshing bits of red pepper, onion, and green pepper garnish.
I laughed out loud at the dumbed-down description of a French classic, a fillet of fish en papillote, called "local fish in a bag." One of only a very few low-calorie dishes on the menu, this was the least satisfying thing we sampled. Although our waiter told us the fish was dolphin, it tasted more like overcooked grouper. A medley of miniature yellow squash, broccoli, and zucchini arrived crisp and tasty even though the fillet, which was cooked in the same bag, was rubbery and dry. Thankfully the fish, like many other main dishes, came with a choice of two side dishes: cheese fritters, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, fries, creamed spinach, tomato and squash ragout, steamed beets, or a selection of steamed vegetables.
None was better than the garlic mashed potatoes, which were flavored with a delicate herb and roasted-garlic essence. These dense and creamy spuds were simply perfect. Creamed spinach is also worth a try. The spinach was creamy without being overly heavy or buttery. It had perhaps a bit too much nutmeg for my taste, but was still irresistible. Macaroni and cheese was also satisfying, but not particularly noteworthy.
All the portions are enormous -- on par with those at a Cheesecake Factory or an Outback Steakhouse. We watched in awe as a petite woman at the table next to us finished off a potpie the size of a toaster oven. The waiters do warn you if you are about to order too much food. We did anyway.
Even after such a filling meal we had to try a few of the desserts we'd spied in the bakery case on the way in. Our favorite was the pecan pie crammed with toasted tender nuts and served in a delicate and buttery crust. Carrot cake was also moist and rich without being cloying.
On our way out, loaded down with white paper bags of leftovers, I felt very full, very much like a regular, and very American.
Sweet Donna's Country Store/Restaurant and Bakery
5701 Sunset Dr, South Miami; 305-740-9322. Open Sundays through Thursdays from 11:00 a.m. till 11:00 p.m and Fridays and Saturdays until midnight.
New England clam chowder $2.95/cup
Best of Donna's: fried chicken, barbecued ribs, and cheese fritters $18.95
Local fish in a bag $19.95
Pecan pie $4.95