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When I first moved to South Beach almost a decade ago, I was afraid to walk down Lincoln Road late at night. And by late I mean 10:00 p.m. Although the bohemian-style walking mall, with its cracked sidewalks and bizarre art galleries and fledgling cafés was full of character, it also was full of characters. Mostly they were harmless homeless folk who settled in doorways with a pint of something, along with a few crackheads and staggering psychotics. But my apprehensions were nothing compared with those of acquaintances who lived in other parts of Miami. They wouldn't even join me for dinner in the very early evening -- and by very early I mean 6:00 p.m. -- despite Southwestern temptations like the long-gone Lazy Lizard café. Unnecessarily risky, they considered it. Downright scary.
Of course those days are over. Now the only thing to fear on Lincoln Road is Victoria's Secret seduction. But those same friends haven't changed their mindsets, just their direction. Instead of Lincoln Road, today they focus their trepidation on Washington Avenue, where the freaky looks and violent tendencies of club kids and gang members have been duly noted by the dining community.
Which is the biggest reason why Roland Tezyen moved his eight-year-old gourmet Chinese restaurant, Chrysanthemum, off Washington Avenue -- indeed off South Beach altogether -- this past June. “Older customers were afraid to come to Washington Avenue,” he explains. “Whoever didn't get into the bars and clubs was creating problems -- hitting people and throwing bottles. I was starting to lose customers.” Tezyen also wryly admits he was losing patrons for another reason: His fan base in Bal Harbour, mostly elderly folk, was starting to die off, and no amount of gentrification or policing of Washington Avenue could fix that one. As a result, he says, 90 percent of his customers were coming up from South Miami-Dade. Add to that a $11,000 monthly bill for his valet parking service, a lease that had run out, and an open space in the Streets of Mayfair, and it was a no-brainer. Tezyen split for Coconut Grove.
Hot and sour soup $3.95
Salt-and-pepper pork $12.95
Chicken breast with crispy spinach $14.95
Mongolian beef $17.50
I had my doubts. Could the tourist-driven restaurant industry in the Grove be the right place for Chrysanthemum, which has always been known for its genteel service and signature dishes such as sautéed chicken breast with crispy spinach? Yet I also was hopeful. I'd never cared for Chrysanthemum's old headquarters, a plain square of a dining room with glass blocks, some foliage, and gaping storefront windows. And I was beginning to see some lackadaisical food preparation there. Appetizers such as the five-flavor spareribs were coming out of the kitchen as burnt as a tourist. Others, like the spring rolls or shredded duck wrapped in pancakes, appeared so quickly it was obvious they had been prepared hours ahead of time and then reheated.
In the new home, the French-style service (Chrysanthemum's roots are in Montreal, where Tezyen owns three other restaurants) is still exemplary. Under the supervision of manager-partner Sonny Ng, hordes of waiters tend to every table, dishing out individual portions from the main plates, refilling water and iced teas. The chicken with crispy spinach remains an outstanding signature entrée, the tender white-meat poultry surrounded by a flourish of lacy spinach, flash-fried and sprinkled with salt, pepper, and sugar. Some of the appetizers, namely the spring rolls and the duck-filled pancakes, however, still need a more careful hand: On one visit the spring rolls were greasy and seemingly filled with nothing more than bean sprouts, while the shredded duck was as desiccated as a dockhand.
Yet Tezyen has implemented many changes, including, along with chef-partner Pun-Tak Sum, redesigning the menu, since Chrysanthemum now has a smaller kitchen and lower ceilings. So the fifteen sizzling dishes, which are served on hot plates and make lots of smoke, had to go. It's tough to miss them when you can get crispy shrimp Peking style, coated with a wonderfully sticky ginger-garlic sauce, or supple nuggets of Mongolian beef, which were informed by scallions. These two entrées were unframed by vegetables, which only highlighted the terrific quality of the main ingredients. I'm still holding a grudge against Tezyen, though, for deleting my favorite soup, crabmeat with white asparagus, from the bill of fare.
Chrysanthemum now serves lunch for the first time since opening its doors in 1993. Lunch entrées like the salt-and-pepper pork, medallions of pork wrapped in seasoned rice flour and deep-fried, aren't cheap (some run up to ten bucks), which could deter business from foot traffic. Still, lunch comes with a choice of soup -- go for the rich-and-zesty hot and sour, a chicken broth darkened with vinegar and abundantly stocked with shredded chicken, tofu, mushrooms, and bamboo -- as well as rice, either steamed white or lightly fried with onions and shredded lettuce. So you may pay for it, but you won't walk hungry.
Dessert is rarely a big temptation in Chinese restaurants, and Chrysanthemum, offering a scant choice of ice cream or almond cookies, is no exception. But a Borders is right across the street, complete with a café where you can spend the money you saved on parking on rich, decadent sweets. Whereupon you can stir a cappuccino and reflect on Tezyen and his partners' decision: Good move, guys.