The Paramount Grill in Aventura Mall is being touted as Chef Allen's passage into casual dining. For those of you who may have just arrived here, Allen Susser once was one of the most talked-about chefs in town, his namesake restaurant nationally acclaimed. That was back in the heady days of the late Eighties, when Miami's New World cuisine was first splashing its Caribbean-influenced waves across the nation's culinary consciousness. In recent years, though Allen and his establishment remain reputable, the profiles of both have been on the wane (or maybe just lost in the crowd), which makes Paramount something of a comeback for Susser -- even though he's never gone away.
The handsome room has a warm traditional chop-house look subtly stylized by clean contemporary lines. Hanging gold and amber lamps, mud-brown and forest-green leather banquettes, rich woods, and old-style gas lamps flickering on red-brick columns create a scene so seeded in earth tones it could have been designed by Naomi Wolf. The waitstaff, looking alpha in Cheez Whiz-color shirts and exuding a gee-whiz enthusiasm, were very much on the ball. On one occasion our table of six was accommodated in near-impeccable fashion, points lost only for tardiness in bringing drinks and refilling water glasses.
The menu should please people with short attention spans, divided as it is into fourteen categories (salads, sides, seafood, and so on) with limited selections within each that still manage to convey a wide range of options. Or, to loosely paraphrase Lincoln: "If you serve food that pleases most of the people all of the time, and all of the people most of the time, then even if you can't please all of the people all of the time, at least you'll have a pretty good mass-appeal menu that can go head to head with, say, a Cheesecake Factory." Which just so happens to be located directly downstairs from Paramount.
Appealing to the masses is a must, as the Factory thus far has eaten up the competition in this troubled food court, site of two consecutive failures launched by China Grill Management and a quick retreat for CocoWalk's popular Café Tu Tu Tango. Paramount also should be helped by competitive prices -- the most expensive menu entrée being a $24.95 T-bone -- though chalkboard specials include more seriously aged steaks at $30 and up. On the other end of the meat market, $14.95 brings an undeniably thin but flavorful flank of "Caribe crusted" skirt steak with mashed potatoes and spinach. Another monetary incentive: free valet parking. (Cheesecake patrons pay $3.)
A bracing way to begin your meal would be to choose from "ice bar" selections, such as oysters on the half shell, littleneck clams, and stone crabs. Regular appetizers are mostly shellfish too: steamed mussels or clams, fried calamari, and scrumptious rock-shrimp cakes, the little crawfishlike crustaceans formed into a duo of darkly fried, seasoned patties with lemon aioli squirted on top, crisp coleslaw below.
Another starter option would be the foot-long pizza, which was just that and also about six inches wide, meaning big enough to serve as an appetizer for many. Or, for that matter, as a main course for one -- an unlucky one, as it turned out, who chose roasted chicken pesto pie with sun-dried tomato and mozzarella, only to receive it slathered in goat cheese. Worse, after being returned, the corrected version didn't come back until everyone else was finishing their meal. Worse still: While this time the brick-oven pie included the correct cheese, it lacked chicken and had just the slightest smattering of pesto. Even our waiter seemed annoyed, confiding to us that the pizza man was new. Although it's always a drag when this type of bungling occurs, Paramount itself is new (open only a month), and therefore deserving of a grace period to iron out such matters. They didn't charge us for the pie, which was gracious if appropriate, so I hope it's not ungrateful to point out that even with proper ingredients this pizza wouldn't have much going for it other than length.
Sandwiches slide across the map, from barbecue chicken quesadilla, to blackened mahi-mahi with mango ketchup (Susser's signature condiment), to lobster roll East Coast-style, meaning mainly Maine, as it's mixed with mayo and served in a hot dog bun. Thick chargrilled burgers are offered as well -- what's a grill without them? Salads include the obligatory caesar and tuna niçoise; Mediterranean-influenced shrimp and arugula with artichokes and white beans; Asian-influenced ginger-seared steak with crisp noodles; and Martha Stewart-influenced red and white endive with blue cheese, poached pear, and candied walnuts. Smaller and simpler alternatives are asparagus vinaigrette, romaine hearts with green goddess dressing, and tomato slices (unfortunately underripe) with fresh basil and balsamic dressing. Soup du jour, a coarsely puréed lentil redolent of smoky bacon, possessed such impeccable consistency and flavor that Chef Allen would be hard-pressed to make a better one himself.
Allen obviously is not working behind the stoves here, but his influence is keenly apparent in the seafood selections -- always a Susser strength. The half-dozen fish entrées boast an impressive breadth of cooking method and style: lobster brick-oven roasted with asparagus; salmon pan-seared with rock shrimp mash and lentil cracker; tuna grilled rare; swordfish grilled with sweet potato hash, oven roasted tomato, and horseradish. Shrimp and eggplant turned out to be better than we bargained for, as six skewered and grilled jumbo prawns with heads and thready antennae arrived in place of the more commonplace crustacean. Imbued with garlic and tarragon, the prawns were served over saffron rice and thin black strips of tender eggplant. Another winner: succulently fried scallops with fluffy waffle chips and an herb-remoulade barely infused with ale.
A turkey chop so resembled a pork chop, replete with bone on top and skin running up the side like a strip of fat, that we checked with the waiter to see if he had brought the proper dish. He had. Seared to a golden brown, the moist breast chop was succinctly highlighted with lemon, black olives, and fresh thyme, a novel and delicious way to enjoy this meat that restaurants rarely tinker with. I also appreciated that the trio of chicken dishes -- pineapple barbecue with cashew rice, key lime with yuca fries, and salt and pepper with mashed potatoes -- were cooked whole by rotisserie so that half a bird came on the plate instead of those omnipresent slices of skinless breast.
Of course nothing is more omnipresent than pasta, the quartet proffered here rather pedestrian: angel-hair marinara; penne Bolognese; lemon-pepper fettuccine with chicken, mushrooms, and sun-dried tomato; and linguini with shrimp, prosciutto, and broccoli. The last was deftly done though, al dente noodles bathed in a light white wine sauce with just the right amount of garlic and spice.
Paramount doesn't try to compete with the zillion cheesecakes below, but their single offering is creamily swirled with milk chocolate, crusted with crunchy hazelnuts, and pooled in espresso-anglaise sauce. Best desserts are the warm and homey ones, like apple crumb tart with cinnamon ice cream, and pear caramel cake topped with a cool scoop of maple-walnut. You also can opt for fallen chocolate-banana soufflé, though that seems to me like buying a bicycle with flat tires.
Paramount Grill offers fresh, attractive foods that are, all in all, enthralling for a mall. And while it has nothing to do with fine dining, it's nice to have the skilled and seasoned Susser back in the news just the same.
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