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Miami Beach has been hot and hip for over a decade, and surrounded by the salt water since long before velvet was first made into ropes. But just try to find a stylish place to dine with a water view. Add to your wish list outdoor dining, courteous service, trendy and tasty food, and downscale prices for this upscale eating experience, and you'll have about as much choice among candidates as liberal Republicans do.
But it's not an impossible dream. Remember William Weld, the eccentric Massachusetts governor in the 1990s? Fiscally staid but socially hip? Not perfect but pretty darned good, and a lot of fun? Well, Miami's sea-seeking diners now have a similar contender (and one that promises to stay on the scene a good deal longer): Roger's, which opened in late April in North Bay Village.
From the outside, the newly built restaurant doesn't exactly exude hipness. It looks like what my gang growing up in Montclair, New Jersey, used to call "parent places," the kinds of restaurants the family would go to on special occasions. In fact Roger's looks like a big, fancy New Jersey steak house. And its setting is not quite in hip/hot Miami Beach, but a mile west of the Beach, along the causeway to the mainland. North Bay Village ranks roughly between Aventura and Kendall on the trend-o-meter.
1601 79th St. Causeway
Miami Beach, FL 33141-4106
Region: Mid/North Beach
Valet parking -- another thing my parents loved -- is mandatory but free at Roger's, something you'll never find on South Beach. And the attendants are very friendly. On a second visit, my dining companion and I were recognized as repeat customers; by the third, I was greeted like a regular. (In another plus by South Beach standards, my aging economy car was delivered gently at the end of the meal, not with a screeching halt, as though the driver were a NASCAR contender.) Dinner service was equally accommodating and cordial. And the huge, high-ceilinged, rustic-elegant interior conveys enough of the same welcoming feel that diners forced indoors by the summer heat needn't feel disappointed.
But despite floor-to-ceiling rear windows that look out over the water, Roger's strong suit is its expansive, palm-planted back lawn and dining patio. To one side, a giant tiki hut houses a bar and surrounding booths for diners who prefer a roof over their heads. Tables on a bayfront brick patio accommodate those who prefer the open air. Since the restaurant is on the causeway's north side, a primo nighttime view of downtown illuminated over the bay isn't possible, but the visuals are still spectacular.
The food wasn't as spectacular as the setting, but it's not intended to be. The idea here is casual comfort cuisine. And chef David Downes's stylish take on American (though mainly Southern) classics is very satisfying -- fairly simple stuff, but most of it cooked with more creativity than usual, and elegantly presented. The menu includes about a dozen entrées generously garnished with vegetables (with optional sides available for $4-$5 each). There are plentiful appetizers, sandwiches, burgers, and meal-sized salads to satisfy Roger's grown-up crowd, most of whom appeared to be twenty-to-fortysomething professional people, not club kids. For the real kids -- though none were in evidence during my visits -- there's even PB&J.
Among starters, the potato pancakes with sour cream and salmon caviar were standouts. The patties, about the size of silver dollars, were delectably crispy critters; with no discernible heavy filler, the delicate disks of pressed potato shreds held their shape, apparently, by divine intervention. The salmon eggs were popping fresh.
"Lil' burgers" on biscuits were also excellent, though nothing at all like White Castles (or the South's beloved Crystals). I've tried many chichi chef-made two-biters, but they're never prepared rare enough. Yet the insides of Roger's trio of thick hand-formed miniburgers were perfect: juicy-red and as flavorful as any gourmet hamburgers I've had (except at those places that cheat by throwing in foie gras and charging $40). The biscuits that substituted for rolls were tender and terrific, too.
With precision-cooked ground beef that had not been overworked to toughness, the full-sized Southern burger was equally tasty. Toppings were also quality: flavorful cheddar, fresh onions and mushrooms, and applewood bacon. A super-smoky barbecue sauce added savor. The dish was very messy, however, as the humongous flattened biscuit that served as a bun had baked up rigid rather than pliable, like an oversized cookie. My dining companion ended up with a handful of crumbling biscuit around his dripping meat patty, and a shirt flecked with sautéed onions.
Crispy calamari and fried green tomatoes were both disappointments, owing mainly to coating problems. The calamari came entombed in some sort of breadcrumb crust that, while nicely spiked with chilies, was just too heavy. And the cornmeal coating on the tomato slices was even thicker, with a tendency to slide off whole at first bite, leaving a naked circle of hard, undercooked green tomato. The accompanying sauces didn't help, either. A "sweet, hot dressing" for the tomatoes was tingly enough, but cloying and sticky, essentially a red-pepper jelly. The calamari's marinara tasted like homemade ketchup, and its mayo-based dipping sauce needed more citrus or spice, something bracing enough to cut the fried fat.