Coal, Coal Heart
Like a cat, a good theater piece enjoys more than one incarnation: Long after the first run has ended, a new director, cast, and crew come along and stage a revival, often with great success. Apply the revival theory to a restaurant and you've got Embers, an American-style eatery that opened near Lincoln Road a couple of months ago. Or, actually, an old Miami Beach haunt that closed a decade ago and has now come back to life thanks to managing partners Sidney Lewis, who owned the popular Key East on Lincoln Road (where Granny Feelgood's is now), and Steven Polisar and Larry Schwartz, who previously presided over the Palace on Ocean Drive.
The trio, all of whom are baby-boomers, already had resolved to open a steakhouse when they stumbled across some historical material from Embers. For nearly 40 years, the restaurant, which served the cognoscenti, the literati, the high-powered A and those who like to dine among them A had enjoyed a status equivalent to some of our contemporary South Beach establishments. Opened in 1948 by partners Radio Weiner and Sam Sterling (from the barbecue Sterlings of Cincinatti), Embers finally shut down in 1984, at which time Miami Beach was about as popular as red meat.
Ten years later the climate seems right in every way for a rekindling: Steak and potatoes are back in vogue, as of course is South Beach. And Miami is still home to people who, like the new owners, remember dining at Embers long ago. (Polisar and Schwartz are natives; Lewis's grandparents lived in South Florida.)
To cater to purists and nostalgia buffs, the partners hired consultants who'd worked at the original Embers. Because the actual site wasn't available (Paragon now occupies the space, at 245 22nd St., a block west of Collins Avenue), Lewis et al. had to settle for a newly renovated building on Meridian Avenue, just off Lincoln Road. The Sam Robin-designed interior (she does a lot of work for Gianni Versace), is something of a departure from the turn-of-the-century scarlet drapes and crystal chandeliers of the first Embers. It's a handsome departure, though, evoking a stately Chicagoan atmosphere, with charcoal oak floors, mahogany paneling, stunning alabaster chandeliers, and eighteen-foot-high ceilings. The only decorative items gleaned from the first Embers are to be found among the vintage photos -- some, but not all, shot at the restaurant -- of famished diners and celebs that grace the walls.
The menu, without question, is a throwback. The partners reproduced the restaurant's better-known menu items, including the French-style salad dressing. I haven't seen juice (orange or grapefruit) offered as an appetizer since I waitressed in a Jersey deli. Nor have I recently come across a simple hearts of lettuce and tomato salad smothered in blue cheese dressing.
As willing as I am to be embraced by nostalgia, though, it had better be good.
The starters we tried certainly were. Seasoned, chunky croutons homemade from day-old bread provided the perfect accent for a bowl of zesty potato-leek soup. One of two soups offered nightly (the other is a Tuscan white bean laced with garlic and basil), the pureed potato blend was a delightful start. A light fall of Parmesan A white on white A added another layering of flavor. The house salad is one of Embers's most popular orders: chopped romaine, crisp and fresh, sliced black olives, and croutons, tossed with the pleasantly tangy French dressing. The lettuce was sprinkled with chopped egg and parsley, a refreshing touch in this age of watch-your-fat-intake (and a welcome alternative to caesar salad, which is also available). Grated black pepper completed the spectrum of sweet-to-spicy flavors.
We skipped over the only two hot appetizers (sauteed portobello mushrooms and a "Venetian" white pizza made with roasted peppers and four cheeses), opting instead for the a la carte vegetable side dishes, my favorite part of just about any meal. Lighter choices such as spinach aglio e olio, French string beans, and a steamed melange were offered, but these prospects paled in comparison to creamed spinach and asparagus with mozzarella sauce. A huge mound of the spinach, served hot as lava, lacked salt but otherwise was an enticing creamy blend, far too large a quantity for even the hungriest pair of diners to consume. (When the kitchen says vegetable dishes serve two, they're not kidding.) Ditto for the asparagus, which arrived with the mild but runny cheese sauce in a metal pitcher on the side. The stalks of the vegetable had been peeled, a condition that unfortunately rendered the asparagus overcooked.
One may order a potato a la carte, but it's probably not necessary: All entrees besides pastas come with a choice of starches. The twice-baked "famous Embers potato," half a baked potato scooped out of its shell, blended with butter, repacked and baked again, was homestyle and lumpy, the outer skin crisp. In a town where exotic root vegetables are being prepared in increasingly unusual ways, this was a welcome take on the spud. That said, whether it deserves to be "famous" is debatable. And basmati rice, overcooked and sticky, may be more appropriately described as infamous.
Despite Italian influences, such as a mozzarella-and-tomato salad in the appetizer section and a five-cheese spinach lasagna amid the main courses, Embers remains a steakhouse: steaks, chops, and seafood served without fanfare. (Unless you count the steep prices, which may cause a stir at your table, as they did at mine.) We sampled the combination of barbecued baby-back ribs and duck, one of the revived house specialties. A half-rack of ribs was lightly coated with a sweetish sauce we wished had been lavished on instead of merely brushed. The ribs themselves were spare and dry, as light on meat as they were on barbecue sauce. The half-duck was an even more arid proposition, more like kindling in duck's clothing. A sidecar of uncooked barbecue sauce was off-putting and provided no relief. We had better luck with a pair of broiled Maine lobster tails, the meat proudly bursting from the shells. Only slightly too salty, the tails were tender and juicy enough to make the accompanying drawn butter superfluous. Then again, at $28.95, I'd like to see the claws, too.
Seasoning posed a more serious problem with the "Embers apple fritter," a free side dish served with every meal. Deep-fried and soaked in a rich syrup, the fritters were too salty to eat, the fruitiness of the apples having been completely lost. On a better night, these generous fritters could suffice for dessert, though one is likely to be swayed by a slice of key lime pie or chocolate mousse cake supplied by Simon the Pieman. Or, for that matter, our choice, peach melba. Prepared on the premises, this sugary dessert proved an appropriate conclusion to a meal rife with sweet memories of Miami Beach.
As this review was in progress, so was Embers. The menu has been revised, with some prices -- and some dishes -- reportedly dropping. Gone are the soups, for instance, and the juice-as-an-appetizer motif. The duck has been retooled, and a choice of three salads is offered at no extra charge with each entree.
Like anyone who presents a revival, Lewis, Polisar, and Schwartz run the risk of playing it safe with borrowed material. Once the storm of publicity passes and the thrill of nostalgia pales, Embers will have to succeed on its own virtues, some of which are already apparent, and some of which could use more rehearsal.
Last week was one of those weeks when people were only half-communicating, dropping insufficient hints instead of conversational tidbits, and no one knew what anyone else was talking about. I blame my friend Annabella. She's the one who first mentioned the farmhouse down south, where folks line up for fresh-baked cinnamon rolls. But she couldn't recall the name of the place, or where it was located. Then Ann mentioned Knott's Berry Farm, which apparently has a reputation for its cinnamon rolls. But wait A Knott's is in California. Then I get a phone call from my co-worker Liz, who has heard I know something about the Amish place with the great cinnamon rolls.
Actually, Knaus Berry Farm isn't too difficult to locate. In fact, you could look it up in last year's Best of Miami issue, under Best Cinnamon Buns. Or you could just drive out to 15980 SW 248th St. (Coconut Palm Drive). The farm, which is run by Old German Baptists, not Amish, sells fresh strawberries A the season's first are in A and various products made from the signature berries. Produce as disparate as fresh beets, jalape*os, and red leaf lettuce is also available, depending on the day. But the real attraction is the bakery, which puts out the best cinnamon rolls (35 cents each, $3.80 per dozen) and pecan rolls ($5.90 a pan) I have ever tasted. A variety of breads and the cheese or herb "breadsticks," as generous as small baguettes, also are wonderful, as is a selection of pies and cakes. Only a few miles from Tropical Fruit and Spice Park, Knaus Berry Farm is hardly a well-kept secret: Lines extend out the door and could have you waiting for up to an hour. Be patient. An ice cream stand that sells soft-serve sundaes and shakes helps to pass the time. And the scent of cinnamon that remains in your car even after you take the rolls to neighbors and friends makes it worth the effort. Knaus is open from 8:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday; it closes for the summer after the last Saturday in April. Give them a call at 247-0668.
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