While some people hate eating out alone, I've always believed there are few more civilized solitary pleasures than reading over a satisfying meal cooked, served, and cleaned up by someone else. In this context, where one is wallowing in words as much as munchies, "satisfying" most often means simple food rather than complex dishes that demand attention and a comfy setting. So the November 2001 opening of 5061 Eaterie & Deli, a renovated 1949 building in Morningside housing a restaurant, a deli, and a bookstore, sounded exciting, especially because advance press releases billed it as a casual "neighborhood meeting place" that encouraged lounging around. 5061 sounded so intriguing it was difficult to wait the standard six to eight weeks responsible reviewers grant restaurants for ironing out kinks.
But I did wait, fortunately, since several recent visits suggested that still more shakedown time will be necessary before this promising but still uneven spot settles comfortably into an identity.
Certainly one's initial impression of 5061 is not of a casual neighborhood café. Outside there's a valet parking stand (though self-parking is possible, too); inside is not a rustic hideaway you can slouch into but an expansive two-story open-architecture space inspired by Bauhaus design and coordinated by a maitre d' who, the instant diners enter the door, immediately and electronically communicates their table number to staff elsewhere in the huge complex. As it turned out, though, 5061 may have SoBe/SoHo style, but the personnel sure didn't have SoBe/SoHo-style attitude; everyone I encountered was relatively well-informed about 5061's food and extremely eager to please.
Dishes themselves were a mixed bag: some were tasty, some pretty terrible. But what was particularly puzzling about 5061's food is that none of the usual helpful rules reviewers are supposed to pass on to readers -- what to eat and what to avoid in a given eatery -- seemed to apply. "For a great meal, stick to basic preparations accenting freshness and avoiding elaborately creative' sauces" is the useful rule most commonly found in reviews. Or one particularly relevant in Miami's Fusionland: "At most global' concept places, the cuisine of one nation inevitably comes across better than others, and indeed at this restaurant, featuring the foods of Paris, northern Newfoundland, and certain insect-eating areas of rural Mexico, the foie gras somehow proved more ultimately satisfying than either the dried codfish with Jell-O or the chocolate-covered live caterpillar grubs."
At 5061 it was impossible to generalize. For instance, after sampling pissaladière Provençal on a first visit, I'd have strongly suggested the rule "Avoid any preparation described as originating in Provence or, to be safe, anywhere near the south of France." What pissaladière is in Provence: a savory topping that's most often just sautéed onion and anchovies but sometimes features intensely concentrated essence-of-ripe-tomato sauce and olives, on a freshly baked crust that is either pastryish (in which case it's buttery) or pizzaish (in which case it's thin and crisp). What 5061's pissaladière slice was: an appallingly oversalted underripe tomato topping garnished with anchovies plus one olive half, atop a thick crust that was hard as plywood on the bottom and a waterlogged dough on top. I've no idea how long ago the thing had been overbaked and then left sitting and soaking, but it was absolutely inedible.
Needless to say I was reluctant to sample quiche Provençal. But it was totally terrific! The crust was melt-in-your-mouth, not soggy. The filling was a light yet rich custard, encompassing mushrooms, garlic, and herbs -- plus perky tomato slices that provided refreshing contrast. Spinach quiche, though not as boldly flavored as the Provençal, had the same great crust and the smooth filling around the fresh-tasting and still somewhat crisp-textured green vegetable: skillfully done. The texture of a spinach-cheese empanada, however, was compromised by some variety of cheese that coated the roof of one's mouth unpleasantly. How does the same chef turn out a perfect quiche filling and a clunky empanada filling? Your guess is as good as mine.
A salmon-tuna carpaccio appetizer, served on fresh fennel slices, also was hit or miss. Salmon tasted fresh but tuna tasted off, and the very strong taste of an accompanying lemon-oil dressing with capers seemed like a classic French coverup. Very possibly 5061's raw tuna is usually fresher -- anyone who follows this paper's restaurant columns realizes tuna quality has been erratic in South Florida for at least a year -- but when I tried to test this theory on a subsequent visit by ordering a raw-tuna sushi maki from a faxed menu more than a month old, I was told by deli personnel that a sushi chef hadn't yet been hired. "Maybe next month." So sorry, readers: For raw-fish quality it's your guess, again.
Two sandwiches, a "traditional" prosciutto and mozzarella on solid country bread and a "neighborhood" Lemon City (Virginia ham, salami, Provolone) on a genuinely French but limp-crusted baguette, also differed dramatically in quality. The former featured imported prosciutto di Parma and, at my request, imported buffalo mozzarella (at no extra price); the latter, while tasty, used cold cuts and cheese of no better than supermarket "premium" quality. The quality difference was especially puzzling given that the price difference was only 26 cents.
Salad choices are extensive at 5061, though oddly limited and disappointing at the deli's "mixed salad" bar. (The eatery and deli are confusingly semiseparated, with cross-space ordering possible with some dishes but not others.) At any rate the eatery's salad possibilities ranged from simple to "specialty salads," like ginger-spiked seaweed shrimp and various assorted plates like a Mediterranean with hummus, tabbouleh, and so on. Both salads I tried -- a "Home's Favorite" (avocado, tomato, cucumbers, and onion supplemented with grilled fish) and the classic Francophile "Curley" (frisée with lardons, croutons, and a poached egg) -- were wonderful, especially owing to a very accommodating waiter who encouraged us to sample as many salad dressings as we wanted. I'd advise diners not to miss Khalil pomegranate sauce, a bright-red tart/sweet treat that our waiter described as "an original creation of the chef." Which chef is unclear since, according to 5061's press material, the chefs are named Jean, Didier, and Antonio. But good going, Khalil, whoever you are; this dressing would perk up almost anything.
Including 5061's greens-garnished homemade crabcake, a generous patty of the old-fashioned sort, aggressively flavored with some celery-salt-heavy condiment, hot chili, and quite a quantity of salty capers. A grain mustard-mayo sauce, while pleasant, was too bland to balance so much seasoning. Fortunately Khalil's fruity tang did the trick.
While much of 5061's menu concentrates on light bites, there also are dinner entrées: seven pastas, seven meat/poultry plates, and a selection of fish and shellfish that's not as big as it looks since some of the thirteen listed items (pompano and lobster on our visits) aren't always available. Most of the fish, though, can be customized, and sauces range from tartar to internationally accented exotica like rouille or tapenade. The blackened salmon was excellent -- inside moist with a slightly still-red center, outside spiced with a protective coating that was just salty enough and surprisingly subtle compared with the majority of "blackened" fish found in restaurants. Also terrific for the same reasons was roasted free-range chicken. As Julia Child lamented in her classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking, even a minute of overcooking can toughen and dry out a chicken breast, but 5061's impressive half chicken featured dark meat that was done well, while the delicate white meat remained tender, springy, and delectably juicy. All entrées come with a small salad of fennel, onion, julienne carrots and beets, daikon, and pea sprouts -- undressed, so ask for Khalil sauce.
On a first visit, dessert, an ice cream-almond crêpe, proved pure overkill. Expecting a freshly made, delicate, thin pancake garnished sparely with ice cream and nuts, I was floored to be confronted by a giant cocoa-covered mound. The quantity of vanilla ice cream under all the chocolate and almonds would've fed a football team. A subsequent visit's apple tart, though, was an authentic French tarte Tatin: buttery-rich pastry topped with thin-sliced, cooked but still crisp apples.
As for 5061's books, they too were a mixed bag. The small selection housed upstairs consisted mainly of travel-oriented coffee-table volumes, many of them hard-to-find-here imports -- beautiful things. But too beautiful, I fear, to be appropriate tabletop reading -- one of the few items that would not be improved by a shot of Khalil sauce.
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