I'm not saying Chef Allen's décor used to be dull, but when I first reviewed the restaurant, one of my dinner guests fell asleep at the table. Granted she was only nine years old. And she was medicated owing to an allergic reaction. But still — the place wasn't exactly stimulating.
That sleepy youngster now has a child of her own, which tells you something about how long Chef Allen's has been around. In fact it opened in 1986, around the time Allen Susser and a few other notable local chefs were creating a South Florida-centric take on New American cuisine. Because of their predilection for pairing tropical fruits with savory foods, the group was unofficially billed "the mango gang." Susser embraced the moniker more than the others, producing The Great Mango Book and a line of mango cocktail sauce and mango ketchup.
All the other mango gang members have since replanted their roots or dropped from the tree altogether, but Susser hasn't budged from his Loehmann's Plaza locale. This past year, however, he refurbished his restaurant by removing carpeting and replacing it with stained concrete floors; expanding the full-service bar area; updating artwork; and, most significantly, taking down walls of glass block that separated the dining rooms. The unified space, still warm, woody, and curvilinear, now has a far airier feel.
19088 NE 29th Ave., Aventura; 305-935-2900. Dinner Sunday through Thursday 6 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6 to 11 p.m.
The cuisine has been upgraded even more than the room. Now tabbed a "modern seafood bistro," the restaurant boasts an emphasis on local sustainable fish and produce — and on lower prices, an effort to change the perception of Allen's from fine-dining destination to casual neighborhood haunt. In light of recent economic developments, the timing for this switch couldn't be better.
Begin with a bowl of seafood chowder: a fish-based broth bracingly brimming with tender calamari rings, clams in the shell, diced potato, nubs of bacon, niblets of corn, and skinny strips of leek tempura on top. Or try a sprightly salad of roasted gold and (sweeter) red beets, feta cheese, a tiny dice of crunchy cucumber, and organic baby arugula leaves (from Paradise Farms in Homestead), all tossed in tart-sour orange vinaigrette. Shrimp-and-grits "brûlée" pleased with plush Florida crustaceans baked in a casserole with organic stone-ground cornmeal enlivened by Manchego cheese, tamarind, and shallots. "Lobster mac and cheese" impressed as well, a terrific tarragon-and-cognac-laced lobster glaze coating firm, hand-formed pasta tubes; shiitake mushrooms; and a few nuggets of luscious lobster. There seemed to be no trace of cheese, which suited me just fine; it likely would have obscured the other ingredients.
You can hardly go wrong with any of the starters, the caveat being Baja tacos: a flimsy fillet of mahi-mahi rolled into a tortilla burrito-style with mango slaw and chipotle cream — a comestible more compatible with a seafood shack than a bistro. (On a subsequent visit, we noticed this item had been banished from the menu.)
Eight of 11 starters cost $10 or less, but a quintet of bar-like snacks is even cheaper ($4 to $7). Among them is a new twist on the old-time canapé, called "devils on horseback": three mango-chutney-and-Parmigiano-Reggiano-cheese-stuffed dates wrapped and baked in thick swaths of applewood-smoked bacon. Other small bites include popcorn shrimp, as well as smoked almonds served with Manchego cheese, which practically begs to be paired with a Tempranillo or Cabernet. There are more than 100 bottles to choose from, but only five red wines are offered by the glass.
Seafood has always been Susser's strong suit, and a main course of swordfish astonished with its bold and unique accouterments. The seared fillet was small, moist, and ushered to deliciousness by smoked almonds, earthy chanterelle mushrooms, and juicy red grapes; the sauce was prepared by deglazing the cooking pan with sweetly edged Pinot Noir.
The rest of the fish repertoire likewise differs from dishes served not only at the old Allen's but also at other restaurants in town. Distinctive seafood accompaniments include orange raita, Thai tomato salsa, bean sofrito, and a potent saffron tea that came in a pourer alongside pristine whole roasted yellowtail snapper on a bed of caper-studded red quinoa. A couple of one-and-a-half-pound lobster preparations are proffered too, and for old times' sake, grouper comes with rock shrimp, coconut rum ... and mango.
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Every joint in the city nowadays touts some sort of wood-burning contraption, but Allen's 720-degree wood-burning Lyonnaise grill imbues foods with a more assertive smokiness than most. Carnivorous choices include a 24-ounce bone-in cowboy steak for two, Niman Ranch skirt steak, Black Angus filet mignon, and a double-cut Berkshire pork chop served with not-too-sweet mango chutney cut with vinegar, and chili-dusted baked sweet-potato wedges. One would be hard-pressed to find a finer plate of food for $22.
Most main courses run $24 to $28 and come with a vegetable or starch. Sides, however, are just $5 to $7 and large enough to be shared by two, so you might want to supplement your entrée with fresh spinach leaves in a "fondue" of shallot-laced cream and Parmigiano-Reggiano, or with exceptional hand-cut French fries.
Susser's signature double Valrhona chocolate soufflé is still the number one crowd pleaser here, though fresh fruit sorbets offer a lighter, more refreshing finish; flavors change seasonally, but if they still have peach around, grab it. A banana threesome gratified too — a scoop of banana ice cream, thickly caramelized banana tart tatin, and soft banana-bread pudding lined up on a rectangular plate. The selection of high-end coffees and teas is unusually extensive.
General manager Philip Shayne oversees with a keen eye the amiable and alert waitstaff. We didn't see much of the James Beard-winning Susser through the glassed-in open kitchen when we dined here, so much credit is due his longtime chef de cuisine, Daniel Serfer. Heck, the whole crew deserves kudos for helping the reinvented, reinvigorated Chef Allen's reassert itself as one of Miami's premier restaurants.