All That Live Must Dine

Some notable and rather macabre exceptions notwithstanding, it is not the general purpose of this column to survey tragedies, catastrophes, or natural disasters. But a funny thing happened on the way to this forum...

A cataclysm of Hurricane Andrew's magnitude casts a long and looming shadow over the landscape, so it is understandable and profoundly human to personalize such an experience in an attempt at perseverance. This is what most of us have been doing for well over a week now in the wake of what the Miami Herald called (in, for once, a fitting headline) "The Big One." But taking into account the extent to which my colleagues in the media have abused this instinct beyond redemption, parading a veritable rogue's band of banal recollections, observations, ruminations, and speculations, I shall not add to their lot. My hurricane anecdote is brief and, I hope, pertinent.

It can come as no surprise that, as the ear-shattering gusts of Andrew pounded windows and doors and roofs, pelted debris, flattened neighborhoods across the southern peninsula, hissed and whistled through fire exits, ventilation passages, and elevator shafts, and leveled a force of Biblical proportions at South Florida, this critic's mind was not on restaurants or film or writing for this publication. Nor was it on the bogus humanitarianism of Rick Sanchez and or the meteorological pyrotechnics of Bryan Norcross on TV. Instead, the terrifying evidence of nature's unstoppable power, and the frail alliance of human beings huddled in homes and shelters awaiting its mercy, filled my thoughts.

The classical Greeks feared the wrath of the god Poseidon's gales, and Andrew's proved no less harrowing 2000 years later. All told, it was a humbling six-hour stretch, and when it was finally over, fear and hope were inextricably bound in the collective memory. I was reminded of Shakespeare's The Tempest: "We are such stuff as dreams are made of, and our little life is rounded with a sleep."

Suddenly and to my great surprise, I felt a ravenous hunger, and noticed that among the family members, friends, and employees I spent the night with, numbering 22 people, the feeling was similar and pressing. Our bellies emitted a cry, a need for sustenance, that was nothing less than an affirmation of human grit in the face of the unknown. Thus we made our reacquaintance with life: In a dark kitchen equipped with portable gas burners purchased in preparation for the worst, eggs, bacon, bread, coffee, and orange juice -- all in copious amounts -- were prepared, served, and savored before we gingerly meandered off to bed.

Nourishment. Rest. Recovery.
This, then, cannot be a business-as-usual "Cafe." The week after Hurricane Andrew is not a time to dissect a restaurant for the purpose of review, to speak of cuisine, service, prices, wines, and atmosphere as if nothing had transpired, especially when just a few miles down the road the appetizer, entree, and dessert being served is called misery. It is a moment to take stock, converse with some notable restaurateurs I've admired over the years, and plot a course for the next seven days, when normal life -- or a semblance of it -- will hopefully be restored.

Many are doubtless wondering how their favorite restaurant weathered the cyclone; others will want to know what services are being made available, particularly in Dade County, which was -- and remains -- center stage for the enveloping tragedy. These many queries cannot be satisfied by yours truly with any degree of authority. The capsule reviews listed in the following pages portray each restaurant in full flower, not in the throes of restitution. Patience and generosity must be your guide during the next weeks (and possibly months). Practicality, too, for whatever dear old Southern Bell says about tying up phone lines, you'd best be advised to call the place of your choice before driving there.

It goes without saying that the further north you travel, the less damage you'll encounter. For example, I had the extreme good fortune to dine at the Armadillo Cafe in Davie last week, a restaurant I reviewed upon my return to this column. With the exception of ice, which Kevin McCarthy and Eve Montella (the owners of the Armadillo) buy rather than process themselves, everything else was abundant at this Southwestern gold mine: buffalo steak, lamb, fresh whole snapper, blue crab and lobster quesadillas, plus their chocoholically extraordinary desserts: chocolate-hazelnut and vanilla creme brulees, chocolate-bourbon pecan pie, chocolate fritters, chocolate ganache torte. They had even found time to prepare a rarity -- buttermilk chipotle tart served with a port-cherry sauce, a miracle of creativity, both spicy and unctuously sweet. The experience was delightful, but also a shade perverse, for this hedonistic feast was reminiscent of those haute cuisine palaces that remained open in the aftermath of World War II's ruination, to regale a select few with memories of la belle epoque.

In North Dade, three of the most rewarding restaurants, Gourmet Diner (exactly as the name sounds), Rascal House (the legendary delicatessen), and Mark's Place (named "Best Perennial Favorite Restaurant" in our "Best of Miami" issue earlier this year) have weathered their blows and picked themselves up slowly. Jean-Pierre Lejeune, owner of Gourmet Diner, opened last Thursday; his daily menu carte boasts some of the same great specialties of French classical cuisine -- beef burgundy, chicken chasseur, duck with apples, scallops provencale, and kidneys in mustard sauce -- but the scarcity of heavy cream meant that JP's deliquescent fruit tart, chocolate mousse, and napoleon had to be placed on hold. "Luckily for us," Lejeune says, "we had little damage, but thousands of dollars of food had to be thrown away."

This has been a common occurrence. Arthur Goodman, co-owner of Rascal House on North Miami Beach, says his restaurant sustained some damage in the parking lot, but service is back and running. How much food had to be discarded? "Thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars worth," he claims. Prior to reopening last Saturday, Rascal House delivered scores of deli sandwiches to the devastated areas of South Dade, a deed that deserves a heartfelt "Mazeltov!"

Andrew even humbled Mark's Place, that summit of New American creativity due west of Bal Harbour. The exterior had recently been painted white -- the storm turned it yellow. But no matter: Mark Militello's doors opened last Saturday with a menu that, while modest beside the encyclopedic menu habitually offered, put a brave face on the situation and, as always, excelled.

Further south, in Coral Gables, with uncertain dates for restoration of electricity and greater property damage than in North Dade, dining was more a dice roll than a jelly roll. Nino Pernetti, the debonair owner of Caffe Abbracci and Caffe Baci, had taken the precaution of donating his supply of comestibles to the nearest shelter (the Hyatt Hotel). Abbracci reopened first, on Thursday, with an abridged menu still fairly replete with elaborate Italian cuisine. Among the pastas, there's a tortelloni gorgonzola, agnolotti with tomato-and-basil sauce, and fettuccine al salmone; you can also order some of Abbracci's regular standouts, such as grilled paillard of veal, veal chop tricolori, and swordfish with balsamic vinegar. Pernetti believes that both Baci and Abbracci should be back in full swing "very soon."

The list goes on and on, obviously. For now, though, better to get those gastric juices flowing and seize the day at your favorite eating arena. The dividends -- cultural, psychological, and spiritual -- are too numerous to count.

And finally, I'd like to suggest that, as a tribute to a life-changing event, these hallowed feeding grounds adopt some new innovations: Gourmet Diner should consider including some of the fine dishes of Lejeune's native Belgium (waterzooi, for example). Maybe Mark's Place should bring back some great desserts from yesteryear (Ana's strawberry bread pudding). How about some of that epoch-making salmon-dill cream pasta at the Armadillo? God knows, if Nino Pernetti could be persuaded to send Abbracci's horrible birthday music (which includes John Williams's galloping theme from Raiders of the Lost Ark) on an extended sabbatical, then Hurricane Andrew will truly not have been in vain.


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