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Kris Wessel is this towns 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 Liaisons coffin in 2002, but not before Wessel established a reputation as an up-and-coming culinary star. The up-and-coming didnt 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 kids latest and greatest return.
Wessels name is printed at the bottom of Red Lights 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 Lights 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 neednt 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 isnt 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 didnt 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). Ill 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.
The very concise wine list six whites ($24 to $42) and four reds ($34 to $36, one $58) contains appealing boutique selections, but it wouldnt hurt to add a couple of slightly higher-end bottles, if only for the occasional enophile (Wessel has plans to do so in the near future). Two sakes are offered as well (Hikos Milky and Mutsu Mai), yet the ambiance here seems more suited to suds. Red Light responds with nine choices from familiar bottles such as Red Stripe and Corona to the more esoteric Wolavers Brown Ale and Avery White Rascal.
Peach-blueberry tart jolted us from our seats. To be more specific: After the waiter knocked over a water glass with a plate of peach-blueberry tart, we were jolted from our seats. The dining room crew is composed of nice folks, but for the most part they are poorly trained and inattentive plus there arent enough of them so theyre always running behind. The tart, though, was divine, the fresh fruits baked together long enough to meld, but not so much they melted into indistinguishability. Loosely scattered lumps of buttery cobbler crust topped the fruit, and whipped cream capped it like a cloud. A soft, not-too-sweet, quality-cocoa chocolate cake proved equally heartwarming, especially when paired with freshly made ice cream; we sampled a swell honey-walnut, but flavors change daily (rumor has it that banana is best).
You might have to wait a bit for your dessert, for it seems that when the waitstaff isnt backed up, the kitchen is. In fact the only patrons who might not exit this joint ecstatically are sticklers for timely dining and professional-grade service. For everyone else, Red Light represents an utterly unique restaurant (in these parts) with great food prepared by a gifted chef at peerless prices either in a boisterous, fun-filled environment or by a serenely flowing river. Heres hoping Wessels talent shines here for a long, long while.