By David Minsky
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By Bill Wisser
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But hardly anyone will expect the calm, intimate oasis that is Empeek Cheke, the resort's signature restaurant.
Romantically lighted (read: dim), the restaurant décor shimmers with tans and sparkly golds, colors reminiscent of the actual River of Grass that lies just beyond the complex. Cane-back captains' chairs provide comfortable seating, and a solicitous staff that can be just a touch overeager is quick to offer white-linen service. It's pretty difficult not to feel pampered from the get-go.
500 Southwest 177th Ave.
West Dade, FL 33194
Alligator tail Provençal $8.95
Caesar salad for two $10.95
Baked Florida grouper $22.95
Venison tenderloin $37.95
Of course you'll pay for the privilege. Primarily a steak house, Empeek Cheke ranks right up there with the Morton's of Chicago and The Capital Grilles of the world. An eight-ounce filet mignon goes for $31.95; the veal chop with herbed shallot sauce comes in at $32.95; the rib eye "cowboy" cut takes you for $35.95; and the 22-ounce porterhouse robs you blind at $42.95. Having experienced the restaurant in the old section of the center, the one right next to the bingo room where you can get a steak and lobster-tail special for $5.95, the prices downright shocked me. I expected upscale. I didn't anticipate off-the-scale.
Still several items (aside from the restaurant's location on the southeastern edge of the Everglades, where you risk crossing an alligator's path if you park too far away. I suggest using the valet) set this steak house apart from the overpriced chains in Miami-Dade proper. For one thing the wine list is affordable and interesting, yielding a Chilean Iron Horse Cellars sparkling wine for only $22. For another Empeek Cheke offers "native" cuisine: appetizers such as frog legs pan-fried in a parsley-butter sauce or gator tail prepared Provençal style. The latter inspired our server to get a little carried away -- he insisted he would go out and wrestle the alligator himself -- but he was justified in his enthusiasm. The large pieces of alligator, cut a little thicker than we usually see, were extremely tender and mild, complemented by a garlicky olive oil sauce rife with chopped tomatoes.
When I say "native" cuisine, however, I don't necessarily mean Miccosukee native cuisine. Or even Seminole cuisine. Rather the delicacies that fall into this category are gleaned from all over North America. Which explains the wild boar sausage appetizer: It's been a long time, if ever, that we've seen feral, red-eyed pigs rooting around the streets of Homestead. Regardless the grilled sausage, featuring a strong, smoky flavor not for the timid, was delicious. Hardly greasy and certainly not weighed down with fat and other byproducts generally used in sausage-making, the crisp sections were accompanied by grilled Parmesan polenta.
Don't expect local deer, which are endangered, as the venison main course. Instead count on two things: that the venison loin will be tender and mild, and that the price ($37.95) will require asthma sufferers to grab their inhalers. As an alternative consider the buffalo steak main course. Leaner than beef but just as juicy and succulent, the grilled buffalo was marvelously textured, and costs you a more comfortable 24 bucks.
The restaurant's advertisements and press releases list seared snook with a champagne-cream sauce among the native cuisine entrées, a boast that would be more truthful if we lived in Africa where snook is more common. Resembling pike and favoring tropical seas, the snook is so rarely used in this country (even in Florida, where the water is warm and flat as leftover soda) that the glossaries of my reference tomes, such as Jane Brody's Good Seafood Book, don't even list it. We considered trying it even though the waiter was dead-set against it, as he couldn't guarantee its freshness. After all the menu featured Dover sole, Maryland lump crabcakes, and whole Maine lobster, all of which have to be shipped in as well. But in the end we heeded his advice, settling for a baked Florida grouper that tasted more pan-fried, given its crisp, breadcrumb coating.
Every entrée has some sort of sauce, served in ramekins alongside. The grouper was paired with lobster-shrimp sauce, which tasted like a congealing, sherried Newburg, and the venison was accented by a Cumberland sauce, a British fave comprising red currant jelly, port, orange and lemon zests, and mustard, the last two ingredients being the only discernible tastes at Empeek Cheke. The mango-bourbon sauce partnered with the buffalo steak performed best, counterpointing the pungent meat with sweet-tangy notes.
The main courses also come with a choice of two side dishes, which include baked potatoes, steak fries, baked sweet potatoes, basmati rice, steamed asparagus, and sautéed mushrooms. Although the sides were carefully prepared, the kitchen got a little confused, forgetting one order of basmati rice and substituting steak fries instead.
The service of dinner also showed a lack of expertise: The plates, which were domed and wheeled to the table on a cart, had been placed in the wrong order, so each of us wound up with something different from what we'd ordered. A caesar salad, toted on the menu as being prepared tableside, was brought out from the kitchen already composed with a commercial-tasting dressing and croutons from a box. And clearly no one, including a manager who happened to be at the table at the time, knew what to do when an ant crawled out from under my venison loin. All I received in compensation was a shrug that said, "Well hey, you're in the Everglades."
Native desserts aren't offered, unless you count key lime pie. I've had so much key lime pie in my career I'm considering banning it from my diet the way I did tiramisu during that dessert's reign a few years ago. Regardless of your whim, however, the generous portions almost preclude stuffing down a sweet afterward. Best to get a little exercise covering twenty boards at the bingo tables before attempting it.
Nevertheless Empeek Cheke could go the distance by offering not only a Miccosukee-style dessert, but by serving fried bread, as the restaurant advertises. While we weren't too bummed by the buttery, flaky biscuits that were brought to us at the beginning of the meal, I had looked forward to the flat, fried bread that Native American writer Sherman Alexie so romanticizes in his poetry and movies.
The other problem with consuming such a heavy meal (and be warned, these game dishes are filling) is that it makes diners unwilling to face the long drive home. I recommend taking advantage of the "Indian Summer Daydream." Until September 30 (better hurry!), you can stay in the brand spankin' new hotel, sleeping on 280-threadcount Egyptian sheets and feather pillows and drying off with 22-pound, 100 percent-cotton towels for only $69 per couple (including breakfast). Make a weekend of it by visiting the local Miccosukee village the next day, or taking an airboat ride, or shooting your favorite gun at the range across the street. Just don't expect to play blackjack, roulette, or craps. Aside from bingo and poker, the only game not endangered at the Miccosukee Resort & Convention Center is video slots.