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Take Creek 28. Before coming to the cozy little restaurant in the off-the-eatin'-path Indian Creek Hotel, chef Kira Volz made the Abbey Dining Room in the almost as obscurely located Abbey Hotel into one of the best least-known dining spots on the Beach. It had everything its tourist-grubbing, turn-'em-and-burn-'em South Beach neighbors lacked: moderate prices, elegant yet unpretentious ambiance, personable service, a sizable local clientele and, of course, Volz's food, a hearty but finely honed mélange of Mediterranean flavors and influences.
As a chef, Volz had everything too many of her more celebrated but less talented SoBe counterparts lacked: culinary self-discipline, a palate that recognized the Mediterranean is larger than northern Italy, and a blessed understanding that no one gives a damn how damn creative you are if your food doesn't taste good. That last point is all-important.
So what's with the B-word?
Well, despite Creek 28's just-funky-enough charm and Volz's undeniable culinary skills, the food simply did not live up to my (admittedly high) expectations. It seemed as though in paring down dishes and prices from the Abbey level (Creek 28 is more casual and even more affordable), something of their spark went away too. At plenty of other nearby restaurants you would be thrilled to get food of this caliber at such a reasonable cost, but Volz is better than that.
Still, the experience itself is a gas. The vestigial indoor dining room is about the size of a large postage stamp or a small envelope, but the brick-lined, tree-bedecked patio is expansive and gorgeous, dominated by a blue-tile fountain in the center. Service is accommodating and downright neighborly, as if the servers forgot they were supposed to be channeling SoBe 'tude.
And the wine list is a joy, with an intelligently chosen roster of New and Old World wines; the vast majority sold for less than $35. For a couple of bucks extra you can taste something quite remarkable, a white Grenache from Priorat, Spain's hotter-than-a-flaming-habanero region. The 2004 Odysseus Garnacha Blanca is a delicious example of the winemaker's art, with the haunting floral tones of viognier and bracing undercurrent of minerals that characterize most contemporary Spanish wines.
But it all comes down to the food, and a pair of starters was disappointing. Shrimp fattoush a sort of chopped salad made from plump little crustaceans, tomatoes, cucumbers, and green onions tossed with sumac vinaigrette sounded more appealing than it tasted, which was rather bland despite the array of ingredients. A special that featured a venison medallion atop a pile of crunchy green beans slathered with horseradish-infused crme frache was one of those "Huh?" dishes not quite an appetizer, not quite an entrée. Although well prepared, its disparate elements never quite came together, like a bunch of people standing around staring at each other at a party.
Tender pork medallions with caraway spaetzle and pickled red cabbage was equally well executed and a lot more sensible so sensible it was about as exciting as kissing your sister. Or watching her brush her teeth. Only one dish shone with the kind of brilliant flavors and inventive juxtaposition of ingredients that made Volz's food at the Abbey such a delight big chunks of monkfish in a savory, saffron-tinged broth, enlivened with green olives, bell peppers, and bits of smoky chorizo. If every dish at Creek 28 were this good, you would have to pry my cold, dead hands off the table.
Actually a fat square of chocolate and bourbon-marinated cherry bread pudding was pretty decent, too, or at least it would have been if it wasn't burnt and blackened around the edges, an unexpected lapse that shows why expectations are a you know.