Bake the Grade

I've learned English composition from teaching assistants. I've had my teeth cleaned by dental interns. I've had my hair styled by beauticians-in-training. So I guess it was no great stretch for me to entrust my appetite to culinary school students.

Chef & Apprentice is Johnson & Wales University's practicum facility, where students enrolled in the cooking school's Culinary Arts and Baking & Pastry Arts programs learn the restaurateuring trade from every angle while earning credits toward graduation. Often during the day, the gleaming display kitchen and dining room, with its colored spotlights flashing on minimalist walls, is the site of catered events and cooking competitions, where participants prepare dishes in full view of judges and audiences. For dinner and Sunday brunch, the facility is transformed into a 100-seat restaurant.

When it comes to service, at least, the budding chefs seem to be learning by their mistakes. One waiter tried to serve us coffee before we'd been asked what we'd like to have for dinner. Another mangled the cork of our Monterey Vineyards pinot noir, then beat a hasty retreat in search of the (more experienced) dining room manager. Later on, a third server succeeded in opening a bottle of Lakespring merlot without assistance, only to knock it over at the thrill of his accomplishment. The resulting sound and bright red spill made us the focus of the entire room and, for a second time, of the dining room manager, who we got to know well enough that we're thinking of inviting her over for dinner at our place.

Naturally, in this context mishaps are part of the program. Guests know (or ought to know) going in that they're the guinea pigs in this lab. And to judge from the crowds, plenty of folks think this is perfectly okay. Of course, as is also the case at dental colleges and beauty schools, there's compensation for putting oneself on the line: Prices here are terrific, even for the wines. Portions are hearty, and diners get a choice of soup or salad with each ($12-$15) entree. Best of all, the New American fare, executed by the students under the direction of John Reed (the "chef" of Chef & Apprentice), is plenty good enough to be taken seriously.

Despite complimentary platters of miniature corn muffins and flatbread served with garlic butter, and the prospect of a soup/salad course, we opted for a full selection of starters. A hefty pair of "crispy crab and seafood cakes" was especially worth the plunge, minced fish (mostly salmon), crab, and shrimp breaded with --f all things -- Rice Krispies. As delicious as it was surprising, the snap-crackling result was rounded out by a bed of buttery greens dressed with a (rather bland) hot pepper aioli and three firm scoops of herb-flecked mango relish that edged the croquettelike cakes.

The only flaw in a seasonal plum tomato and parsley salad was a chunky but too-salty portobello relish that topped the juicy tomatoes. Despite the overzealous salting, this salad, topped with a wedge of crumbly dried tomato focaccia, was far superior to the house mix, which turned out to be nothing more than a few leaves of lettuce coated with a barely-there shallot vinaigrette.

Two pastas are offered, in half or full portions. We tried both as appetizers. A dozen littleneck clams decorated the half-portion of linguine, dusted with Parmesan and laced with bacon. The pungent, smoky flavors were further enhanced by a garlicky white wine and parsley broth. A bowlful of penne wasn't nearly as enjoyable; slices of grilled chicken were plentiful but dry, and the watery sauce lacked zest. Roasted garlic and diced plum tomatoes made minimal impact.

Wild mushroom soup with caraway croutons and sage was a rich, creamy bisque replete with mushrooms. Though the crouton was more like a garlic toast point that resisted attempts to cut it, the dark mushroom concoction was fabulous, a better choice than the soup of the day, a turkey stock thickened with okra and tomatoes that, while pleasant, paled in comparison.

Entrees were slow to appear. When they finally did, several were as cold as the sample plates on display near the kitchen. The most heat-challenged was a charred dolphin fillet. Which was too bad A the fresh, moist fish had been cooked just right. We weren't so fond of its coating, though. More blackened than charred, the spice mixture looked like red pepper but tasted like very little. Side dishes of yellow rice and firm black beans, redolent of cumin, were noteworthy sides, while a julienne of crisp yams that garnished the top of the fish was especially good.

A second seafood offering, seared salmon provenaal, was perfectly cooked, sliding into plump, succulent flakes at the touch of a fork. But this plate suffered from too many diverse flavors. An oily, too-sweet tomato mixture covered the salmon, which was perched not on the polenta cake listed on the menu but on a "tropical mash" comprising white potatoes, boniato, and yams. A red wine reduction fanned out from the mash. The portobello mushroom mixture last seen in the salad, and a stack of flash-fried leeks, shredded and doused with Parmesan, tumbled over the tomatoes. The fish was all but hidden.

A third main course, a tasty black pepper-encrusted tenderloin of beef, was also affected by substitution -- in this case, the tropical mash appeared instead of the advertised pesto-garlic mashed potatoes. A lightly creamy peppercorn sauce dressed the two boneless fillets, which reclined on croutons similar to those that enhanced the mushroom soup. Roasted pepper paste, an intense flavor addition, dotted the plate.

Juicy and generous, a boneless breast of citrus-marinated chicken was extremely pleasing -- in spite of the fact that it, too, came with the overexposed tropical mash. Here, at least, it was appropriate. Cornmeal-coated red onions were a tasty melee atop the main ingredient, while a side dish of vegetables sweetened with raisins was interesting, if not to my taste.

If we weren't bowled over by the sight of raisins in our vegetables, we loved them in a "cornucopia" dessert. Drizzled with caramel, an emblematic pastry horn -- the perfect finish to a meal of plenty -- held a candied mixture of apples, walnuts, and raisins.

No longer trade schools for kids who couldn't make it in a "real" college, cooking institutions, including Providence, Rhode Island-based Johnson & Wales (the North Miami campus opened in 1993), have gained a great deal of respect in the past few decades. Practicum restaurants -- in which advanced students take part in all phases of the business, from busboy to maitre d' to line cook -- are deserving of respect. Chef & Apprentice may not be quite so polished in execution as it is in appearance, but the sophisticated output of this student-driven facility warrants praise. Which is more than I can say for my last hairdo-academy trim.

Side Dish
Johnson & Wales frequently hosts culinary events to which the public is invited. This fall the North Miami campus is the site of the southern regional conference of the International Association of Culinary Professionals. Known as the IACP, this nonprofit association has about 2500 members worldwide, from cooking teachers to chefs to writers to vintners. On the weekend of October 27, you're welcome to mingle with many of these folks. The agenda includes master classes given by J&W chef/instructors, a luncheon prepared by some of South Florida's top chefs, a gala dinner by the aforementioned and their students, and a luncheon aboard a luxury cruise ship. The cost is $175 ($150 for IACP members). Call 749-7377 for more info.


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