Kris Wessel's Red Light Shines

New restaurant means great food at peerless prices.

Kris Wessel is this town’s most daring and enigmatic chef. The lanky, easygoing Big Easy native was in 1995 the original pioneering partner of Paninoteca, on then just-awakening Lincoln Road. After selling his share of the biz, he dropped out for a bit and later resurfaced in 1999 with Liaison, on then-construction-marred Española Way. Liaison was ahead of two notable curves to come: small, personal, chef-driven neighborhood restaurants and an emphasis on integrity of ingredients. Jackhammers finally succeeded in drilling nails in Liaison’s coffin in 2002, but not before Wessel established a reputation as an up-and-coming culinary star. The up-and-coming didn’t come with his next stint as hired gun to help save the ill-fated Elia in the Bal Harbour Shops — in the blink of an eye Mr. Wessel was gone from Elia and, again, from our radar — but he has arrived with Red Light, the new “regional dining lounge” that marks the comeback kid’s latest and greatest return.

Wessel’s name is printed at the bottom of Red Light’s laminated, single-page rectangular menu, followed by, in parentheses, cook. Funny how all over town there are unaccomplished cooks calling themselves “chefs” while one of our most serious toques modestly applies the lesser label to himself. The humble approach extends to his cuisine too, which is good, all-American comfort food the way it used to be: fresh, mostly locally sourced organic ingredients prepared without much fuss.

Much has been made of Red Light’s location near Motel Blu on a yet-to-be-gentrified block in the MiMo neighborhood. Relax: A valet attendant offers complimentary service right outside the door, so you needn’t take a walking tour of seedy side streets. The restaurant is inside the former Gold Dust Motel, which took 15 months for Wessel to spin into a fun and funky diner with red walls, mustard-yellow booths, and orange barstools running along a wraparound counter (behind which is a full-service bar).

Lack of air conditioning one night led some folks to exit. I wonder if they knew about the additional 47 seats at outdoor tables lined picturesquely along the Little River (this area isn’t visible from the dining room, nor did the waiter mention it on any of our visits). There are also a few tables out front on Biscayne, so although the interior is small, seating reaches 100.

Red Light fills with a largely local clientele that exudes more of a salt-of-the-earth vibe than is usually found at restaurants run by notable chefs. Then again, how many such chefs proffer a menu that tops out at $17 and contains just three items costing more than $11? You guessed correctly: zero. The bill of fare comprises one soup (summer corn with spicy dried tomatoes), three sandwiches (pulled pork, organic beef burger, and meatless “vegan-wich”), four salads, six “specialties,” one catch of the day, five sides, four desserts — and goodnight, Irene. In coming months, it will be expanded to about 30 items that will run all day (Red Light is currently open for dinner only, Tuesday through Saturday).

There are no appetizers or entrées listed as such, but most of the specialties can serve in either capacity. On one visit, we started with a hot skillet of baked organic eggs draped with melted Morbier (a rich, creamy cheese) and garnished with bacon crisps, halved grape tomatoes, and a trio of crunchy crouton toasts ($11). Then we segued into sous vide lobster ($16) and barbecue shrimp ($9) as main courses. The former features the French low-temp technique of vacuum-sealing food (along with its nutritional integrity) and slow-simmering it in a thermal circulator (which heats water to 110 degrees Fahrenheit and rotates it evenly). In this case, the sealed comestibles were thin slices of Florida spiny lobster marinated with allspice leaf and sour orange juice. The plastic bag gets snipped open at the table and the contents poured into a bowl of fresh corn-chowderlike sauce with diced new potatoes, tomatoes, and parsley. The lightly portioned lobster was astonishingly tender, surprisingly bland (seemingly bereft of even salt), and ultimately delicious when swiped through the gently sweet corn sauce.

New Orleans-inspired barbecue shrimp, a hit at Liaison, brought a half-dozen crustaceans cooked just right and smothered in thin, dark, peppery sauce made from reduced shrimp stock bolstered with red wine and garlic, spiked with cayenne, and splashed with tangy Worcestershire. Shrimp with preserved lemons ($9) paled by comparison, and accompanying fried green tomatoes were too greasy outside and contained too-little tomato inside. Other bright lights on the menu include cornbread-crusted fillet of local hog snapper, moistly sautéed and served atop a sprightly black-bean/sour-orange stir-fry ($17); and plum-roasted quail: one or two juicy birds ($8/$15) delectably glazed and garnished with the namesake fruit and accompanied by a vinaigrette-dressed goat cheese-and-crouton salad that contributes crunchy, acidic contrasts. The only specialties we didn’t try (yet) were the slow-smoked spare ribs with melon slaw ($10), and “chowhound geeksteak,” an organic New York strip served with choice of one side ($17). I’ll choose the big bowl of grits imbued with blue cheese every time. Another regional American twist on the same theme is baked mac and cheese, here stripped to its essentials: penne pasta with sharp cheddar cheese and a tad of fontina.

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