By David Minsky
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By Bill Wisser
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Since virtually all of the regulars on what it amuses me to refer to as my "Restaurant Review Victims List" (food criticism is one of the world's most interesting jobs, but it'd shock you to learn how often reviewers end up with job-related ailments ranging from food poisoning to just plain terminal boredom) are relatively sophisticated folks, it's always surprising to discover that when given a choice of restaurant possibilities, dining companions often seem to get most excited not by the glam velvet rope-type candidates where J.Lo's butt might be planted at the next table, but by places promising more of a home-away-from-home eating experience. Considering how long the comfort-food trend has been thriving it shouldn't surprise me that pretty upscale professional people opt for Mom's meat loaf over the resto/lounge meat-rack experience. Wait. Make that, "home cooking as good as Mom's should have been."
Who makes meat loaf Mom should have cooked is Holleman's, which is owned by Carlos Santana (no, not that Carlos Santana). In terms of celeb-studded ambiance, homey Holleman's is even farther from J.Lo's butt than Miami Beach is from Miami Springs geographically. In the past half-year the eatery has seemed even more cut off from the touristed parts of town because of absolutely hideous construction on surrounding access roads. On the first of three recent visits, I was initially sure that the joint had folded despite over twenty years as a favorite neighborhood bar/grill, because of the almost impenetrable amount of prisonlike fencing surrounding the spot.
No worries. All's well inside, and all who are in need of comfort will immediately feel much better once settled in one of the rustic room's booths (there are tables, too, but the booths are so comfy that it's well worth calling ahead to reserve one), in the experienced hands of motherly servers who, in several cases, have been here nearly as long as the place has. Ditto the chef. Most patrons -- roughly equal numbers of old and young diners, Anglo and Hispanic -- seemed to be regulars, too.
Dinner prices include not just green vegetable plus a choice of starch with the entrée, but soup or a substantial house salad beforehand. Ask your server to guide you. On one occasion it was difficult to even get her to tell us what the nightly soup was, and when we appeared stressed with indecision, she said with steely firmness, "Tell ya the truth, if it was me? I'd stick with the house salad." We did. Good move, despite the iceberg lettuce mixed in with the romaine; homemade croutons were exceptional.
The same croutons came on a caesar salad that was substituted on another visit for a house salad, a caesar that managed to be gutsy despite the fact that a salt-phobic tablemate ordered it anchovy-free -- not my choice ever, since I'd rather die younger and sated than older and safe, but a nice option for those who prioritize health over taste. Another salad option is to substitute a supplementary-priced Brent's for the freebie possibilities. Normally $5.95, the Brent's features a mesclun mix (called "honey mustard lettuces" for unknown reasons) in place of more pedestrian lettuces, and includes black olives, artichokes, onion, mushrooms, blue cheese, and walnuts, all dressed with a not-too-sweet or too-sour balsamic vinaigrette. For light eaters, it's a full meal.
Long-time Miamian friends remember Holleman's as one of the town's few gourmet seafood sources years ago, and fish is still a good bet here. Snapper stuffed with crabmeat (a special, but often on the menu) was a huge fresh fillet that was not overcooked -- and not full of that nasty surimi stuff; the stuffing's crab seemed to be snow, not lump, but was real and well spiced. The same dressing came packed plentifully into a live Maine lobster stuffed with crab, which was wonderful. Holleman's broiled stuffed lobster was moist, tender, sweet, great, just as good as the classic steamed twins my table tried for comparison. In Miami I've had both fancier lobster preparations and cheaper basic models, but none better cooked. Warning, though: Lobster's a normal weekend special, but call ahead or risk disappointment; on two nights that I came craving lobsters, the shipment didn't arrive.
Old-fashioned establishments tend toward timidity; Holleman's Snapper Maitre D', however, made it clear that's no problemo here. The moist, meaty fish was very lightly breaded, but flavored with an assertive amount of garlic/parsley topping.
Holleman's is a steak as well as a seafood house, and the meat items I tried were as well prepared as the fish. I ordered an eight-ounce Steak Diane fearful of continental pretensions, but the brandy/scallion bordelaise was less gloppy than the overwhelming stuff that too often typifies this dish. Even more impressive was prime rib, which I had ordered rare, expecting -- it being fairly late in the night -- something between medium rare and medium despite our server's promise otherwise, but got an almost inch-thick cut that was indeed really rare. Accompanying horseradish sauce was not appealing, more of a raw mix of horseradish and something very sour, but easily ignored.