American Classics Reconsidered
Few things are scarier, early in the morning, than glancing blearily over one's coffee cup and seeing a plate of big sunny-side-up fried eggs staring back at you, all bright-eyed and chipper. Somewhere between 11:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.m., though, such breakfast food somehow seems like a fabulously comforting idea. So when you're reviewing a diner, traditionally the ultimate source for 24-hour breakfasts, naturally the first thing you want to know is: How are the eggs?
But the Diner is not that kind of diner. Eggs are not to be found, unless you count those in the aioli that comes with the Maine lobster/leek empanadas, or in the balsamic béarnaise that sauces baby artichoke fritters with golden pepper confetti. The Diner is a diner the way the Hotel on Collins Avenue is a hotel -- meaning it's a South Beach-style, slicked-up version of a greasy spoon.
Located exactly where you'd expect a normal luncheonette to be, on U.S. 1 right across from the University of Miami baseball stadium, it was originally a HoJo's before morphing, for several years, into the Fishbone Grill. The redecorated room, with its updated MiMo look, still does retain some of the retro feel. But instead of a lunch counter, the entrance area features a sleek granite-topped bar. At the Diner you can order cocktails, beer, wine, and a mean milkshake.
Having been lucky enough to snag one of the high-backed upholstered booths around the room's perimeter, my party immediately did what grrrls always do when sequestered in the privacy of a diner booth: trash guys. Only kidding. Well, partially kidding. We also ordered milkshakes. Booths somehow cry out for shakes like movie theaters do popcorn. It was a good old-fashioned one, too -- housemade with real ice cream, not one of those chemical-packed prefab pseudo shakes that fast-food joints serve. Serious chocolate fans should be warned, however, that the Diner's chocolate shakes are actually black-and-whites, made with chocolate syrup but vanilla ice cream. With today's taste trends escalating to ever darker, 60- to 70-percent chocolates, you would hope that an upscale diner would serve some sort of sophisticated bittersweet Ultra Shake, rather than mild milk chocolatey kid stuff.
That the Diner's kitchen is completely capable of such fusions of the new and the old was evident from the menu, which features numerous inventive New American dishes as well as deluxe versions of all-American favorites, like a foot-long hot dog elevated by its homemade relish. A fried-grouper po'boy was not just better than many po'boys I've had in New Orleans (where this French-bread sandwich with varied fillings was invented), but qualified as one of Miami's top fish sandwiches. You can have the fish grilled instead of fried, but with such perfectly crispy batter, why would you? You can also pick your fish out of the bread, as an obviously low-carb dieter eating at the bar was doing. But the crusty outside-soft inside baguette made this seem like an awful idea. The po'boy came "dressed," a New Orleans term that means with lettuce, tomato, onion, and remoulade, but the lettuce was Boston instead of bland iceberg, and the remoulade was a terrifically tangy, spicy tartar dressing of Creole mustard and hot sauce.
Of two soups on the menu, New England clam chowder was the winner -- subtly flavored, not overstuffed with potatoes, and containing ample fresh clams. Admittedly the soup was inconsistent, so flour-thickened on a first visit that a spoon stood up in the gummy stuff. Second time around the texture was much thinner, perfectly creamy. Both times, though, the hushpuppies mentioned on the menu were absent. And chicken noodle soup was nothing Jerry's Famous Deli needs to worry about. The serving (which, for five bucks, was pretty skimpy) consisted of some clear broth that was nicely flavored with chicken but contained no pieces of chicken whatsoever, just a lot of diced celery and onions. Two smallish homemade matzo balls were good, but the noodles, which looked like broken spaghetti, had been sitting in the broth so long they were total mush.
The Diner's modern side was most evident in its salads and small plates -- if you can get them. On both visits the above-mentioned lobster empanadas and very appealing artichoke fritters were unavailable. But Dungeness crab Louis with an avocado-lime vinaigrette went a long way toward soothing our irritation. Louis dressing is frequently a gloppy, overrich catsup/mayo mess, but the Diner's thinner, tangier version allowed the West Coast crab's delicate sweetness to come through. Substitution of microgreens for iceberg lettuce was also a vast improvement. What did not work was the crab's bed of "potatoes Maxim," homemade potato chips that were not only burnt black but had been rendered soggy by the dressed crab on top.
A duck tenderloin salad was a total success, one of the best salads I've had in years. Mingled with a mountain of arugula and diced mango, dressed with just enough creamy gorgonzola vinaigrette, there were easily a dozen and a half pieces of tenderized duck that had been coated with a flavorful breading of toasted, crushed almonds prior to frying. It was a wonderful combination. Also terrific: a prawn cake, shrimp chunks in a crispy potato crust. The patty's richness was balanced by a tropical Mediterranean fusion salad of white beans, red onion, and diced mango dressed in an aged sherry vinaigrette.
Maryland lump crab cakes, one of the Diner's lunch "large plates," were definitely large, well spiced, and not overbreaded. However, following what seems to be a recent unfortunate trend on Miami menus, the "lump crab" arrived in shreds -- not lumps. And while the accompanying tartar sauce was beautifully tart, the menu promised remoulade. French fries were real potatoes, but limp and saturated with grease, which happens when fries are cooked in oil that's not hot enough.
"Sylvia's Sweet 'n' Spicy Barbequed Ribs" were not what purists would consider real BBQ -- meaning pit barbecue. The Diner has no slow smoker. But the rack was falling-off-the-bone tender, and a final grilling, plus a sweet smoky sauce, gave the virtually fat-free ribs some authentic soul-food flavor. They came with a bracing coleslaw, dressed with vinegar rather than white sauce, and garlic mashed potatoes (actually skin-on smashed potatoes) that, thankfully, had sufficient fresh garlic.
The slaw and potatoes were also available as à la carte sides, as were the crunchy fresh haricots verts that came with a hanger steak. (The beans are called "French beans" on the menu, but shouldn't be confused with the nasty canned faux-French split string beans most diners serve.) Sadly for vegetarians, the rosti that also came with the meat can't be had separately; it was a great potato cake. But the wood-grilled hanger steak -- called an onglet in France, and similar to a skirt steak -- pleased our table's carnivores mightily. Cooked rare as ordered (and as this cut should be, to avoid toughening), its classically intense beefiness stood up well to the dish's two sauces, a bold Chianti jus and gorgonzola butter.
As for wines, bottles were generally moderate in price, but only because most were modest to start. A bottle of Yellowtail Shiraz, for instance, had been marked up to $29, which doesn't sound outrageous in itself, but it is almost five times the normal $6 retail price. We stuck to the four-dollar milk shakes. For an all-American finish, an extremely chocolate "King of Beasts" five-layer cake and a darned good cup of coffee evoked everything that old-fashioned diners should have been but seldom were.
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