South Miami Goes to Town

Chef Stefano LaCava’s contemporary American menu is pop music for the palate

Town Kitchen & Bar evokes a decidedly cosmopolitan mood. This is partly attributable to its urban-industrial design, with exposed ceiling pipes and poured concrete floor and walls, one of the latter horizontally striped by a photo-mural of Times Square. Plus there's a bustling big-city bar scene, where suits and skirts flirt over creatively concocted cocktails, the action overflowing to a spacious outdoor patio. Or perhaps Town projects a city vibe because it's as crowded as a subway at rush hour. Although it debuted in the shadows of the Shops at Sunset Place just two months ago, the 165-seater is already so packed with young professionals and giddy locals that upon entering, you might think you're in a locale with far more cachet than South Miami. Like maybe Coral Gables.

Chef Stefano LaCava's contemporary American menu is pop music for the palate, a crowd-pleasing, easy-to-gum-along-to medley of pizzas, pastas, salads, sandwiches, mussel pots, a few seafoods, and many steaks (one of the owners is the former GM of Morton's on Brickell). Town centers specifically on grain-fed Angus beef from Stock Yards in Chicago; the recent trend in menus is to designate point of origin for as many foods as possible, so even steaks now come with a pedigree. The meats are sliced in-house, massaged with a "wet rub" of seasonings, and broiled at 1400 degrees (fun fact: Hell is only 1100 degrees). And they are good. A rare twelve-ounce Delmonico rib eye, one of four cuts served à la carte, flashed a crisp, caramelized crust and boasted beefy beef flavor. On the side were whole-grain mustard-horseradish sauce and thick homemade steak sauce with a terrifically tangy tamarind taste. "Roasted root vegetables" are also touted as plate-mates, but our waiter presciently informed us it is really just a garnishlike smattering, so we ordered an accompaniment of black-eyed pea orzo that proved unexpectedly reminiscent of Chinese fried rice — except better because pancetta was flecked throughout.

Other carnivorous offerings are available as "main plates," like that reliable old bistro favorite of steak/frites. Town's version brought a tender ten-ounce New York strip, which like the rib eye was full-flavored, but make sure to request that the "roasted shallot au poivre" be served on the side; it was a cumbersome dark brown gravy that overwhelmed the meat's taste and soggied its seared exterior. I scraped the sauce off with my knife and then enjoyed the steak and meaty frites — a good deal at $24. The roasted half-chicken dinner was only $14 and brought a moist, thin-skinned, paprika-browned bird; a small scoop of garlic mashed potatoes; and what is billed as "damn good vegetables" that turned out to be a common cluster of carrots, zucchini, and patty-pan squash.

JOE ROCCO

Service was anything but common. This is one of the youngest staffs I've seen, as well as one of the best. It felt as if we were being served by a highly competitive youth corps, a near-army of waiters, servers, and bussers hustling, pulling together, and working seamlessly as a team, remaining not only calm but also authentically upbeat as the chaos of a packed house swirled around them. Really surprising was how well trained they were, how confident in their knowledge of the cuisine, and how quickly and adeptly every need was seen to. The whole group deserves kudos, although our waitress during one visit, Samara, merits mention for turning in a singularly praiseworthy performance on a particularly hectic occasion.

They're a very friendly crew too, and so is the idea of offering half-portions of either caesar or house salad for $5, the latter's mixed greens temptingly topped with chopped egg, bacon, and mushrooms. A quintet of dressings includes creative choices such as toasted cumin buttermilk or organic carrot-miso, as well as the more typical balsamic vinaigrette and chunky blue cheese. For those of you who don't have an abacus handy, this half-portion notion means you can have a plate of salad followed by a complete chicken dinner for $19.

Main plate salads are more meticulously conceptualized than the regular old Greek or chef selections. The "Sunset" mix of greens, for instance, gets tossed with amaretto-and-rosemary-marinated oranges, Gorgonzola, and walnuts. And the standard cobb salad comes customized with jumbo shrimp stuffed with luscious crabmeat. Either of them is a meal in itself (which is, I suppose, why they're called main plate salads), but it never hurts to have a little brick-oven pizza on the side. Pies here are thin as whispers, the papery crusts appealingly charred and capped with capricious garnishes such as barbecue chicken with smoked Gouda, or straight up with tomatoes and mozzarella.

Our "Barcelona-style" mussel pot was not so hot. The mollusks were tender enough but puny to a pea-size degree. And although the spicy tomato-based sauce in which they were steamed provided a potent cilantro kick, it contained merely a few minuscule scraps of "chorizo sausage" — which isn't the way they do it in Spain. I regretted not choosing the "Parisien" pot with Pernod and lobster butter instead.

Town's kitchen scrimped on "Chicago-style" sausage too, a meager amount of the chopped meat mingling with whole-wheat penne pasta, sweet peas, and wild mushrooms in a simple but tasty cream sauce mildly tinted with Marsala wine. Although sausage-skimpy, this dish still would have made the grade if the pasta hadn't been overcooked.

Even the most ardent of barbecue buffs should draw the line concerning the placement of certain comestibles upon the grill. Poundcake is one such food, and the proof is proffered at Town via four buttery, triangular wedges crisscrossed with grate marks and imbued with an insufferably smoky taste. A thick puddle of pistachio crme anglaise and a bevy of fresh berries were just helpless witnesses to the tragic conceit.

Four "designer cupcakes" were more satisfying. (Cupcakes are enjoying a rather robust revival these days.) The two full-size and two minicakes were nothing out of the ordinary (vanilla and chocolate in paper wrappers), but they were soft, fresh, and tasty, which is about all one can reasonably expect from this dessert. Imported treats such as key lime pie from the Blond Giraffe Key Lime Pie Factory, ice cream from The Frieze, and espresso from Illy bespeak an admirable quest for quality.

This newcomer misses the mark on a dish here and there but is otherwise flush with fresh food, solid steaks, stellar service, and a dining scene as spirited as an American town square on Labor Day. Town squares are important: They provide communities with a central place to gather and socialize. After many years without such a spot, grateful South Miami residents are going to Town.

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