With Big City Tavern in Fort Lauderdale and Boca Raton, City Oyster Bar in Delray Beach, and the new City Cellar Wine Bar & Grill in Coral Gables, Big Time Restaurant Group has shown itself to be city-slick in picking the right real estate for its entries into the burgeoning business known as casual fine dining. For those who don't keep abreast of such matters, casual fine dining is a relatively recent classification that translates into fine dining without fine tableware, fine linens, fine service, or fine cuisine. It is a means of making something middling sound majestic sort of like referring to George W. Bush as a casual genius.
City Cellar exudes warmth and comfort by way of dim lighting, dark carpeting, plush banquettes, and a liberal use of mahogany-stained wood throughout the contemporary 240-seat dining room. At the rear of the space is an open kitchen with a roaring brick hearth; toward the front runs a beautiful bar backed by a large glass wall behind which thousands of wine bottles are resplendently displayed more than 500 selections to choose from, with more than 40 available by the glass. Like others of its ilk, City Cellar will potentially procure much of its profits from wine sales and a bustling bar scene.
Although singles are apt to commingle at the bar, Cellar dwellers who come to dine are more likely to sit in pairs or groups. This is a family-friendly place, its diverse, Mediterranean-inspired menu boasting pizzas, pastas, salads, and a dozen readily accessible fish and meat selections. (Not to quibble over linguistics, but none of the starters or pizza toppings and only five entrées get grilled at this so-called grill.) Prices are a little less supportive of family values: Appetizers range from $10 to $14, pastas $19 to $23, and main courses $23.50 to $34. The final bill bespeaks "fine" more than it does "casual."
Diners are started off with slices of warm country white bread baked on-site. Plenty of time is allotted for predinner chat, because the kitchen paces itself. An appetizer of sweet, petite bay scallops, chosen from a list of printed nightly specials, came gently sautéed and cradled by a Tuscan-like tandem of creamy white polenta and two halves of a fresh artichoke heart (with long, tasty stems attached). Lightly dressed leaves of rocket lettuce laced across the top were a nice touch too, but the menu's promise of applewood bacon turned out to be but two burned bits, and the scallops were doused in a deep pool of olive oil marred by harsh raw garlic. The escargot starter would have benefited from some of that garlic, although the six snails were exceedingly soft and nonetheless satisfying in a savory herb butter. A salad of crisply breaded, cleanly fried green tomatoes layered with thick slabs of fresh mozzarella cheese would have succeeded if not sabotaged by an acidic avalanche of shredded radicchio and red onion soaked in balsamic vinegar.
From the fiery brick oven came a salsicce pizza that tasted as though purchased from the frozen food section of a supermarket. The crust was flabby, the sauce imparted all the finesse of unseasoned canned tomatoes, and a crowning garnish of cheap chopped sausage and uncaramelized "caramelized" onions was the culinary equivalent of an ill-fitting fedora on a poodle.
Main courses were better. A fillet of Atlantic salmon was moistly grilled and accompanied by the same artichoke hearts that came with the scallops, two meaty spears of asparagus, "tomato-herb infused" olive oil (actually basil oil with diced tomatoes), and an "English pea risotto" not sure what language the peas spoke, but the arborio grains were overcooked. A butt steak from the top sirloin was grilled with dexterity, sliced, and served with a flavorful Worcestershire-infused "Asian" brown sauce, grilled asparagus (you'd think this vegetable was in season), and "rock shrimp and Yukon gold potato salad" that turned out to be a heated combination of the two ingredients with a crunch derived from dried, wasabi-imbued peas.
Amiable waiters performed their tasks the way ineffectively trained workers do. I might also add that it never feels quite right to leave a restaurant without a staff member properly bidding goodbye. Then again, we walked out a bit briskly, eager to defrost our chilled bones in the blessedly balmy outdoors. It later occurred to me that perhaps the air conditioning was set to replicate the optimum temperature of an actual wine cellar 50-55 degrees Fahrenheit.
Desserts don't deviate from the routine restaurant renditions of crme brlée, key lime pie, chocolate lava cake, and apple pie à la mode. Best of the bunch might be a flourless and fudgy bittersweet chocolate tart flecked with candied orange and sided by a scoop of vanilla ice cream that smoothed the darkly rich cocoa taste. It was a sumptuous note on which to end, but all in all, City Cellar earns only a casual endorsement.
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