By David Minsky
By Jen Mangham
By Bill Wisser
By Laine Doss
By Bill Wisser
By Dana De Greff
By Laine Doss
By Zachary Fagenson
It has long been an aphorism of the food world: Those who can't cook, cater. Snarky, yes, but it is generally true that chefs of catering firms lack the professional training and/or talent of their restaurant-running brethren. Brendan Connor, top toque at Whisk Gourmet Food & Catering, is clearly an exception to this rule. In fact, he and sister Kristin, Whisk's managing partner, could teach seasoned restaurateurs a thing or two about succeeding in the business — or at least it appears that way, based on the steady stream of customers traipsing in and out of the tiny storefront eatery every weekday.
Some might contend the siblings' talents eclipse those of other caterers because both come from professional restaurant backgrounds. Brendan began his career a decade ago at the Hominy Grill in Charleston, South Carolina, and eventually worked his way to chef de cuisine at that city's upscale Anson's, a well-regarded American fusion establishment; his last stint was as kitchen manager at Tarpon Bend on Miracle Mile. Kristin worked with Myriad Restaurant Group in New York (Montrachet, Tribeca Grill) before returning to the Gables as general manager of the Café at Books & Books. They started Whisk as a catering outfit only — thus the tiny space — and then tacked on the café and takeaway ventures almost three years ago as a means of filling income gaps during seasonal slowdowns. Business at Whisk became brisk right away.
Some of the folks marching into the cozy café have called in advance and are there to grab lunches to go. Others fill the three tables that altogether seat 15. Still others wait outside in the slender strip mall until some of those seats turn over. Every now and then, one of Kristin or Brendan's high school teachers stops by to eat; both are Miami natives and graduates of Coral Gables Senior High, located two blocks away.
A sign on Whisk's window reads, "Good food served here," and indeed this place is testament to just how far fresh ingredients and fair value can carry a restaurant. There is no cutting-edge concept at work — no reinvention, deconstruction, or reconstruction. There's not even any truffle oil. The one-page paper menu, including specials, is printed each day, and the selections comprise not only food that's good for you, but also things you like to eat. Generally that means fresh salads, savory sandwiches, hearty entrées, and homemade desserts. More specifically, it translates to goat cheese fritters, fried green tomatoes, juicy burgers, fingerling French fries, grilled grouper sandwiches, buttermilk fried chicken, churrasco steaks, burritos, brownies, blondies, cupcakes... You scream, I scream, we all scream for this sort of stuff, even more so when ingredients are locally sourced, often organic, and prepared with a deft touch.
Let's begin with starters. A chickpea-dominant hummus comes with thick, tough corn chips. "Peruvian-style" grouper ceviche arrives with finer tarot root chips. Each satisfies in basic fashion. But the soup du jour swept us away; it was a sweetly delicious butternut squash bisque boasting pure notes of the puréed vegetable merely buttered up and dabbed with fresh cream and a pinch of chives.
The only other appetizer choices, barring specials such as fresh stone crabs and the aforementioned ceviche, are beef bresaola, and fried green tomatoes with herb-buttermilk dressing. The air-dried beef was wrapped cigarette-like around walnut-and-raisin-studded goat cheese, with a side dip of clover honey, resulting in a tad too many tastes. The green tomatoes were cornmeal-dusted and fried to perfection, but we preferred them on a sandwich, between grilled slices of multigrain bread, with lettuce, red tomato slices, applewood-smoked bacon, and a thin veneer of Dijon mustard and mayonnaise.
Unless specified otherwise, all sandwiches are similarly garnished (except no bacon) and served on either multigrain or whole-wheat toast. Hefty fillings include roast turkey with Brie cheese and cranberry mayonnaise; tuna salad made with freshly grilled fish and classic mayo-celery-onion mix-ins; a veggie combo with hummus, avocado, and sprouts; and Charleston chicken salad, moist chunks of breast meat melded with walnuts, raisins, celery, red onion, mayo, and Dijon.
You can get a grilled skirt steak sandwich too, but we tried the meat fanned out on a salad plate of mixed greens, cucumber slices, grape tomato halves, and crumbles of Gorgonzola cheese in a bright cider vinaigrette (menu said "balsamic," but we were grateful for the mistake). A dry-spice rub on the six ounces of steak gives it a delectable kick. A slightly larger length of skirt is offered as an entrée, and so is churrasco, whose seared beef is bathed in garlic-chili-coconut sauce. Another spicy, coconutty sauce glazed and pooled a pristine square of tripletail, a mild, flaky white fish hooked in Key West. This was offered as a daily special with bright, crunchy French green beans and a steamy dome of jasmine rice. Buttermilk fried chicken, another popular special, is available on the regular menu atop a salad of organic spinach greens, local avocado, red onion, chopped egg, cremini mushrooms, and honey-mustard dressing.
Portions here are generous, and doubly so with the burrito entrée: two large flour tortillas each wrapped around a San Francisco-style mix of savory pulled pork lechón, black beans, jasmine rice, avocado, and sour cream whipped with sweet/piquant Peppadew peppers (the last ingredient giving the rolls a distinctive flavor). The only entrée we didn't care for was the vegetable-fried rice, a bland sauté with a few clippings of zucchini, cremini mushrooms, and onions dominated mostly by the taste of semi-raw garlic.
Friday is burger day at Whisk, and the specimen here is a beauty: a fat hunk of fresh, grass-fed ground beef adorned with a different creative guise each week. Alongside are Whisk's "brown bag fingerling potato chips," papery slices fried in peanut oil and punctuated with Parmesan cheese and cracked black pepper. If these don't come with your meal, try them à la carte.
The burger costs $13.95, but excepting daily specials, other sandwiches are all under $10, sides and apps less than $6, entrée salads $11 to $14, and main course plates $12 to $18 (dinner specials tend to run a bit more). Cans of soda are just a buck; other beverages, served in mason jars, include homemade iced tea, fresh-squeezed lemonade, and a combo of the two (known as an Arnold Palmer).
Among the dessert choices most days are cookies, cupcakes, brownies, and blondies — fresh, not too sweet, and recommendable. Do not, however, bypass the key lime pie, one of the finest we've had in a long, long time. The thin, fresh graham crust was just firm enough; the glossy condensed-milk custard impeccably balanced with tart key lime flavor; and the topping not an ostentatious crown of meringue, but a puff of whipped cream cradling a ripe halved blackberry — like the proverbial cherry capping the treat that is lunch at Whisk.