Dish

Still Standing

Two months ago my husband and I were madly in love. Eight weeks later we've lost the romance.

The brief affair was with mangoes. Our new house used to be part of a mango plantation, and we have a veritable grove of the fruit trees. Eleven, to be exact. Not all of them are fertile this year, but most have produced a crop so abundant that the pair of avocado trees, which haven't bloomed yet, seem to droop in jealously. In fact we're currently collecting a crop of 50 mangos per day, which has reduced me to begging folks like Norman Van Aken and Jonathan Eismann and Willis Loughhead -- any chefs I know who use the fruit in their cuisine -- to take them off my hands.

For the most part, these guys laugh when they see me bearing the weight of several dozen mangoes whose varieties I can't even identify, and then they make mango coulis or mango salsa or mangospacho (gazpacho with mangos). But I couldn't figure out why I particularly amused Allen Susser, chef-proprietor of Chef Allen's in Aventura, until I stopped in to interview him one day. Me: carrying two Publix bags of back-yard Miami Shores mangoes. Him: displaying several types of the more exotic Asian varieties on his bar. The difference? As big as the one between Guess? and Gucci, I imagine.

Turns out Chef Allen is working on the Great Mango Book for Ten Speed Press, a companion piece of sorts to his late-Nineties tome on citrus fruit. The new book, due to be published in the spring of 2001, right before the start of the South Florida mango season, when the fruit on the trees will be hard to enough to rattle like beans in a gourd, will contain recipes for both ripe and unripe fruit. Right now Chef Allen is deep in the process of “testing, tasting, and doing photography,” he says.

Which seems to answer one question that's been on the minds of local gastronomes lately: What's up with Chef Allen?

Apparently the chef, a cherubic teddy-bear kind of guy you want to hug and call Daddy, has been the victim of such speculation that even he's heard the rumors. Some of them began after his gourmet market-cum-eatery, Allen's 2 Go, went going, going, gone after “the cost of doing chef-cuisine in there became prohibitive,” he sighs. Others began when he lost some key employees to Mark's South Beach. I've personally been told several things: He's almost out of business, he's filing for bankruptcy, he's moving to Coral Gables.

“Coral Gables? I heard I was going to Boca Raton,” he quips. “No, it's true. I go out to a function and I meet other chefs and they say things like, “I hear you're going to be in our neck of the woods pretty soon.' And I say, “Oh yeah? Where am I supposed to be opening now?'”

The truth appears to be that Chef Allen's, now in its fifteenth year of business in the same location, is a little too stable for the salacious salivary glands of resident foodies. The restaurant-management-trained Susser, who took his schooling and chef training at New York City Tech and Florida International University, has no partners save for his wife, Judy. He's never really remodeled the space he leases opposite Loehmann's Plaza, though he did expand once and took down the strips of neon lighting after the Miami Vice influence wore off the city. In short Chef Allen's has succeeded for far too long in one place. There's no hype about the place, no buzz. How could he possibly be avoiding culinary stasis?

“It is a challenge to keep it fresh,” Susser admits. “That's why I've changed the style of the menu. I've loosened the focus on New World cuisine. It was limiting. After a decade of New World, I would wake up thinking, How am I going to reuse boniato today? I still love boniato. I just don't want to have to use it all the time.”

Pardon me, but did I tape him correctly? Chef Allen, innovator of New World cuisine and author of a New World cookbook, is no longer presenting his landmark style of fare at his namesake eatery?

Indeed Susser has mixed elements from Europe and Southeast Asia into his fusion dishes. “I like the sweet spices and warm spices of India especially,” he offers. “And then, of course, there's my French background and training.” It makes sense to him. “It's the Internet. We have access to ingredients and information we didn't have before. We have new trade routes,” referring to the fact that New World cuisine was based on the triangular trade routes that led from Asia to the Caribbean to the Americas.

He's even coined a new term for what he's doing: New Era cuisine. And likely, after the Great Mango Book is put to bed, he'll begin working on a more globally oriented cookbook for Doubleday (which published his New World bible). “The customers love it. It adds a new dimension.” As far as those customers go, Chef Allen's retains its loyal fans who are, admittedly, fifteen years older than they were when they first discovered the restaurant. “We see our regulars about two to three times a month. But we're still a special-occasion restaurant,” he explains. “We don't have as much of the younger generation [of diners]. Hence the new cuisine.” In fact he's making a deliberate attempt to intrigue the newer residents of Aventura, who have dropped in average age as housing has become more varied and reasonably priced. He now collects e-mail addresses of his customers and sends them flyers. And he's installed a chef's table just outside the open kitchen, to which he personally tends. “It's like a private dinner party with Chef Allen,” he says.

He's also licensed his homemade products, such as mango ketchup, to Gold's Foods, which means much wider distribution. Now in addition to specialty stores, local supermarkets will soon be carrying Chef Allen's good stuff. He's working on a Website so people can order his products internationally. In addition he continues to host events such as Share Our Strength's Taste of the Nation and appear in national magazines.

Yet even with such tweaking, fans in the restaurant business wonder how long Susser can hold out. Said one industry insider who didn't want to be named: “I will say that I love Chef Allen's. I respect the man and his previous work. And that means previous. What has happened there lately? I can't see anything but laxness. What, if anything, can you say that Chef Allen had a hand in to originate something that's close to being exciting?”

So while his restaurant, like it or not, has been an unquestionable success in the past, the old recipe may no longer work. Indeed Susser says he can't promise he'll stay in Aventura. “I've seen Loehmann's go from a good to weak project. The roadways around here are also not a happy place,” he scowls, referring to ongoing construction on Biscayne Boulevard. “People don't want to drive.” Then there are the chain restaurants, such as P.F. Chang's, Houston's, and Morton's of Chicago, lined up in a row on the approach to Chef Allen's and featuring a collective 2000 seats, he estimates. “The price point is very strong today,” Susser says, “but they're just seats, not direct competition.” Which isn't exactly the truth: As one frequent Miami diner points out: “Who the hell wants to go to Chef Allen's when you can grab a steak at Morton's?”

What Chef Allen will pledge is that he can't see himself leaving either the restaurant business or South Florida, where he's been since the Seventies. “I like the growth opportunities here and the mix of people.”

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