An Arrival and a Return
Restaurants come and restaurants go. Some, like Prezzo Restaurant and Martini Bar, come, go, and come back again. It first opened in Loehmann's Fashion Island in 1992, was rechristened Martini Bar and Grill a few years ago, and then in February, as if by magic presto! Prezzo reappeared.
The restaurant looks the same: a sprawling, stone-floored, wood-accented, warmly illuminated space that seats 250 and includes three separate bars the largest of which is horseshoe-shaped and occupies the center of the room. The drink of choice is any from an extensive array of voguish martinis this is, after all, Prezzo Martini Bar.
The second coming of Prezzo has a lot in common with the first, including lively crowds who regularly pack the premises, and original chef Mennan Tekeli's tasty, moderately priced, Italian-Mediterranean cuisine. Tekeli is still up to his popular old tricks, beginning with a bulb of mellowly roasted garlic to spread atop soft focaccia bread. Dough lovers can proceed with a brick-oven pizza. The margherita pie, with mozzarella melted on oregano-speckled tomato sauce, effectively mimicked the taste of an authentic New York slice but was missing the charring and blisters that categorize brick-oven pies, as well as the fresh basil that is integral to a margherita.
Those who prefer a hard-crusted variation on pizza might opt for any number of creatively garnished flatbread selections. Take note that the rectangular base (with half pita/half cracker consistency) is extremely long and can easily sate four people. The sirloin steak version, with mushrooms, rapini, onions, and gorgonzola cheese, would have been great if capped with juicy red meat rather than teeny overcooked scraps. Instead, try the Greek salad flatbread, which is more refreshing.
You can achieve an even lighter beginning by ordering a zesty Cobb salad, which satisfied with its staple ingredients but was noteworthy for succulent and delectably herbed cubes of chicken breast. Also meaty and moist was a main course of red snapper, crusted with sweetly caramelized onions and crisped leeks, and partnered with tomato-caper butter sauce, garlic-dappled spinach, and proficiently puffy mashed potatoes.
Slices of chicken breast in "Prezzo's fusilli" were plump and juicy; sun-dried tomatoes and bright green rapini added a nice salty/bitter notion; and a ball of pine nut-encrusted goat cheese contributed a comforting creaminess. However, downsides to the dish included limp corkscrew noodles and a "balsamic chicken broth" that wasn't especially appealing (though not as acidic as I'd feared). I'm not sure Parmesan cheese would have helped, but our server could have offered some.
Service was suspect from the moment we were seated in a section with no assigned waiter. We sat and sat some more for about ten minutes until an alert busperson discovered us and brought bread, water, and a waiter who performed admirably under hectic conditions but was simply covering too many tables at once. Fault lies with management on this one.
Much of the food is worth waiting for, and it's fairly priced: Appetizers range from $8 to $13, most entrées are between $10 to $22, and an early-bird special brings three courses and a glass of wine for $14.95. Prezzo's wine list is expansive, the staff accommodating, and the ambiance cozily upscale. Add that together and let's just say welcome back.
A simple welcome should suffice for AV Grill and Wine Bar in North Miami Beach, which, unlike Prezzo, is brand-new. Brothers Alex and Victor Lopez launched the tidy, mauve-and-maroon-color, 34-seat eatery two months ago in one of the generic strip malls lining the 163rd Street Causeway. Although a few grilled items are listed on the limited menu, this isn't a traditional grill, as in a place that specializes in foods cooked over a fire-licked grate. AV doesn't qualify as much of a wine bar either not a bottle in sight although it does offer a limited list of mostly Spanish and South American choices.
As we perused the wine selections, a complimentary predinner plate of potato salad, complete with tortilla chips protruding outward, was brought to the table. Although it would be foolish to choose a wine based on its ability to complement potato salad, it's not unreasonable to consider the wine's pairing potential with garlic. Among the seven tapas proffered are "garlic mushrooms," "garlic chicken," and "garlic shrimp," the last served in a pool of clarified butter and so overladen with the chopped cloves that I could hardly discern the pink curves of the crustaceans underneath. Two of the other tapas are potato-based one features roasted tubers sided with garlic aioli; the other is a tortilla española (potato omelet). Fortunately we didn't select either, but I suspect that diners who receive their potato salad after having already ordered tapas are forced to suffer through a disheartening redundancy of spuds.
Nontapas starters encompass the usual selections summoned by culinarily incurious minds, such as fried calamari, tomato-and-mozzarella salad, and a puréed, ungarnished rendition of gazpacho that exuded an appetizing vinegar tang.
Main courses, described as "Old World/New World," are mostly Old World: grilled steak or salmon with garlic mashed potatoes and asparagus; roasted half chicken with pan gravy; seafood paella for two. More contemporary touches include a plantain crust on mahi-mahi and a jerk marinade for pork tenderloin that contained hardly any jerk seasonings and absolutely no spice. Instead, the grilled meat exuded sweet notes that repetitiously echoed the sweet mango sauce on the plate and "New World potato hash browns," which were composed mostly of sweetly caramelized sweet potatoes. A snapper special brought two competently seared, dully seasoned fillets accompanied by a sprightly salad of mixed greens dressed with diced fresh mango and overboiled, dreadfully bland white rice.
One might think a grill and wine bar could produce a more sizzling steak than the dull, flaccid churrasco served between bread as a lunchtime sandwich. Accompanying crinkle fries were a compromise between soggy and crisp, and the plate contained no ketchup or chimichurri. Prices, incidentally, are Prezzo-like (tapas under $10, many entrées less than $20).
This is a charming little establishment, but the cuisine isn't accomplished enough to warrant much enthusiasm. Let's give this newcomer awhile to improve. If it does so, we'll welcome AV Grill and Wine Bar a second time, and do so with open arms.
Loehmann's Fashion Island, 18831 Biscayne Blvd, Aventura; 305-931-5775. Open daily 11:30 a.m. to midnight.
Prezzo Restaurant and Martini Bar, 3055 NE 163rd St, North Miami Beach; 305-945-7576. Open Tuesday through Sunday 11:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m.
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