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Not too long ago an unflattering review of Baleen's brunch adorned these pages. The oak-paneled, forest green, chandelier-sophisticated dining room (curiously themed with monkeys) didn't bother me, nor did the circular, fully foliaged outdoor patio, whose Biscayne Bay backdrop makes Baleen one of the area's most romantic locales. Rather it was the skimpy, third-rate buffet that caused my jaw-dropping shock, considering the high repute this Grove Isle establishment has enjoyed since 1999, when current Chispa whiz Robbin Haas took control.
By merging classic American steak house with South Florida fish house, Haas managed to create a menu featuring a superb selection of oak-grilled meats, seafood, and specialty plates such as lobster bisque, Asian bouillabaisse, and Chinese fried snapper. Since then Baleen has developed into a national restaurant chain with locations in Naples, Daytona Beach, San Diego, Scottsdale, and Santa Fe, all of which are run by Noble House Hotels and Resorts. Haas has long since moved on, but many of his hits still inhabit the menu at Grove Isle (and other locales), accompanied by contributions from his successor, Arturo Paz, whom I wrongfully assumed was still gainfully employed at the time of my brunch.
Not until I caught chef Donna Wynter on WSVN's "A Bite with Belkys" preparing one of Baleen's new specialty dishes -- grilled sugar cane shrimp and scallop skewers -- did I realize she is now in command of the Baleen kitchen. I felt slightly bad for not having allowed Ms. Wynter more time to revamp brunch, considering her rather heralded career history: She helmed Satine and Nikki Marina at the Diplomat in Hollywood, Palme D'or at the Biltmore, and Donna's Bistro at the David William Hotel.
4 Grove Isle Drive
Coconut Grove, FL 33133
Region: Coconut Grove
Before judging Wynter's impact on dinner, I made a point of allowing a few months to elapse. I might as well have been waiting for a Baleen in Baghdad, because the menu has hardly changed a whit, without even a whiff of those grilled sugar cane skewers Belkys enjoyed. Evidently Ms. Wynter isn't entirely free to fiddle with the now-franchised formula.
When Robbin Haas first crafted the menu, items were fresh, innovative, and produced by a caring chef whose rising reputation was directly linked to the warm reception with which the menu was received. However, much like the child's game of telephone, every time his recipes are whispered to a new chef, they lose a little of their magic in translation.
Baleen now offers a monkey-see, monkey-do menu whose inspiration date has long since expired. Houston's and the Cheesecake Factory demonstrate that formulaic cuisine (meaning that which comes not from the heart but the chart) does have public appeal, but when ordering an $18 crabcake appetizer and a $44 steak, one expects Spago, not Wolfgang Puck Express.
Those crabcakes: two golden brown, coarse, crunchy balls with reasonably seasoned filler, comprising mainly bread and shredded crabmeat. Served on a chilled plate and carried across the breezy verandah, the cakes arrived cold. A tureen of signature lobster bisque may have been served warm, but the food runner dashed from the table before my dining companion or I noticed the lack of a spoon; it took at least five minutes to nab one from a passing waiter, by which point most heat had escaped. The bisque wasn't much to brag about anyway: The texture lacked refinement (almost lumpy), the flavor too heavy on cream and brandy, too light on lobster and Madeira (if it wasMadeira; my dinner mate insisted it was "a sherry of questionable quality").
An organic Bibb lettuce salad was presented as a whole head, whose large leaves were lightly drizzled with a white, watery, mild dressing billed as "buttermilk-jalapeño." The only real flavor was imparted via shreds of Parmesan cheese and roasted pumpkin seeds -- at least I think they were pumpkin seeds, for the outdoor illumination, mostly by candle and tiki torch, is romantically subdued.
With only two red meat entrées (Roquefort-crusted filet mignon and Kansas City sirloin), Baleen is now a lot more surf than turf. Half a dozen varieties of seafood are available oak-smoked and à la carte, the remainder dressed with Asian and Caribbean trappings. Some are served whole, which led our waiter to quip, "We can remove the head in the kitchen if you don't want to meet the fish before you eat it." He had a bunch of one-liners as rehearsed as the recipes. Being the first seated in our section meant hearing his jokes recited for each and every table nearby. But he was an excellent waiter, as was the server on our return visit.
We tried an old Baleen standby, black grouper with artichoke-bacon mash and lemon-caper sauce. The plump piece of fish was slightly overcooked, the sauce floury, the mashed potatoes flecked with only a few snippets of canned artichoke hearts; there were a couple of rumored bacon-bit sightings, but they couldn't be confirmed by taste.
Another long-time and now nationwide item, free-range chicken "with wild mushroom sauce and goat cheese dumplings," brought two relatively juicy breasts, skin-on and bone-off, but the sauce's white mushrooms were neither wild nor exotic. It didn't matter much, as sun-dried tomatoes dominated the dish, which came as surprise considering they bore no mention in the item description. Accompanying dumplings were impossibly leaden, to the extent that I took great care in eating them -- if one of these torpedo-shaped dough bombs were to drop from fork to foot, it could fracture a toe.
A four-course tasting menu is available for $65 and a wine flight for an additional $45. The tasting menu reflects changing themes, with items also available to à la carte diners. I snared a pan-seared yellowtail snapper from the week's Cuban dinner, figuring this was my chance to sample one of Wynter's creations. The fish was served skin-on, but rather than being brown and crunchy, the surface was steamy and stretchy. A general rule of cooking dictates the side of fish to be served face-up should first be crisped face-down in the pan to improve presentation. The snapper was otherwise moist and fresh, blanketed with olive slices and blandly stewed tomatoes and onions. Moros on the side were agreeably saturated with an unbeatable smoky bacon flavor, but countless Cuban joints around town offer a punchier, much larger portion of the same fish for a lot less money. Baleen's wines, incidentally, match the cuisine quite well -- they too are overpriced.
By the third time I heard the waiter's intro for white chocolate and pear crme brùlée ("I don't think I've ever had a bad crme brùlée"), it was hard to stop myself from muttering, "Well, I have, and it usually entails ingredients like white chocolate and pear."
I'm not sure what the rule of thumb is regarding how expensive a restaurant need be before cuteness becomes inappropriate, but I assume any place selling a bowl of berries for $15 may meet the criteria. When asked what fruit was included in the "wild berry bowl with vanilla bean and brown sugar cream" (simply put, flavored whipped cream), the waiter replied, "Strawberries, blueberries, raspberries ... and if we're lucky, they might have gotten in some blackberries today."
Desserts are so pricey I worried whether my order for $9 banana and dulce de leche crêpes with cinnamon ice cream might be expedited in the kitchen via the yell, "One cheapo for table 17!" Apple tart was a $14 circle of buttery pastry topped with almond frangipane, thinly sliced apples, a light glaze, and a scoop of vanilla ice cream with raspberry nipple.
There's a Randy Newman song in which the aging Sixties rocker laments, "Each record that I'm making is like a record that I've made. Just not as good." That's Baleen, best left to those unfortunate folks from out of town who don't get to see Biscayne Bay very often.