Dress-Down Bliss

I'm a notorious slob. Hand me the mail and I'll drop it on the stairs; buy me an expensive evening gown and I'll hang it on the StairMaster; dirty a dish in my house and I'll let it sit in the sink until I have to sandblast it to get it clean. Haphazard housekeeping wouldn't be such a crime if I weren't also a terrible procrastinator and a pack rat. I'm sure the woman who cleans my house once a week would be happy to help me put things in order, but my Spanish is a documented handicap, as is her English.

My husband, with the 800-plus beer cans he collected as a child still in his possession, is my equal in liability. Good thing he is, too -- he can't say a word about the piles of menu files dripping out of my study and down the stairs.

Occasionally, though, I get motivated to do more than play hide-the-catnip-toy in the paper stacks. Cleaning up can even be therapeutic, a useful diversion from writer's block. Instead of rummaging around in my brain for something to say, I dig around my office. Sometimes imagination is sparked by what I uncover.

This week, for example, I found a gem of a letter, written to me five years ago, back when I first started writing these reviews. A German tourist posed a blunt question in reference to South Beach: "Do you ever," he asked, "review unpretentious eateries?"

The easy answer, then as well as now, is that unpretentious eateries on South Beach are indeed a rare find. As renovation -- some say gentrification -- continues unabated, restaurants that lack snotty, pseudosophisticated attitudes are subject to removal along with the broken, piss-stained cement, simply because they aren't tourist attractions.

Like many Beach denizens, I have a love-hate relationship with the concept of restoration. I do want this place to thrive. That means it must cater to the crowds who frequent it, providing them with shopping and dining opportunities. At the same time, I dislike the invasion of what used to be eclectic territory, and I resent the high-rent conformity of the kind forced on Lincoln Road and its businesses. The places I still visit on a regular basis are the ones that display individuality.

That's probably why I'm fond of Jeffrey's, a three-year-old American bistro located on Michigan Avenue just south of Lincoln Road. Where suddenly the local restaurants seem to be all terrazzo and tile, Jeffrey's is carpet and lace. Where in other sidewalk cafes spotlights glitter harshly and neon leers, Jeffrey's Home Depot-ish chandelier and ceiling-fan light fixtures are reassuring. Where elsewhere service is brusque and house music pounds, at Jeffrey's the waitstaff displays beautiful manners and classical tunes tinkle like champagne into a glass. Where everywhere in this sea-level mire glitz and glamour grant privileges only to the customers who wear them well, at Jeffrey's every customer is treasured, even those who look a little grungy. Which is not to say the fare is downscaled to jean shorts and T-shirts, but that its homemade flair is a direct reflection of the decor.

On my two visits, even the bread basket was welcoming, thanks to the puffy fritters that partnered the crusty rolls. Fresh from the fryer, these tasty morsels of fried dough sprinkled with sugar were a sweet way to begin the meal -- and they were quickly replaced when depleted.

Another warming way to kick-start the appetite was a crock of baked onion soup au gratin. A nicely seasoned bouillon featured actual onions, soft and sliced into generous wedges. A hunk of French bread dwelled within its depths, while a veritable slab of Swiss cheese guaranteed oozy, stringy results. Soups are often on the specials board, and we were fortunate to also try a chilled cup of carrot-ginger. Just a bit sharp, the puree reminded me of the dressing you smear on greens in Japanese restaurants, crisp and refreshing.

Crabcakes, gleaned from the appetizer section of the menu, were also impressive, two of the finest I've had in recent memory. High and full, these browned cakes comprised lump crabmeat from East Coast blues. Virtually filler-free, the delicious pan-fried cakes rested on a bed of sauteed spinach and were accompanied by a grainy mustard sauce. For twice the price you can get these as a dinner entree, a great option for the crab lover.

Jeffrey's might be one of the few places left on the Beach that serve a complimentary house salad with entrees, and this frilly composition of greens, carrots, and tomatoes was lovely, dressed in a tangy balsamic vinaigrette. The same dressing, accented with tomatoes that taste as if they've been pickled in it, arrived in a gravy boat with the artichoke and shrimp salad we ordered as a starter. From the description, we'd figured that this would be whole artichoke hearts stuffed with whole shrimp; instead it was four quarters of an artichoke heart matched by four medium shrimp, served over salad. Pleasant, but nothing special. Stick with the house salad.

The small grouping of entrees yielded more balsamic vinegar, this time as a marinade. Chicken breast, boneless and butterflied, was soaked in it, then grilled to sweet juiciness, though the resulting grill marks had a somewhat burned flavor that was unappealing. The poultry was brightened by a pile of fresh green leaf spinach, simply steamed (not sauteed, as the menu billed) and a soothing scoop of lumpy mashed sweet potatoes.

The same unpleasant charring, tasting of an unclean grill, marred a basic hamburger garnished with lettuce and tomatoes and slid between a poppyseed-onion roll. This half-pound of ground steak could have been wonderful -- the blue cheese we requested as a topping was actually mixed into the meat. But overcooking rendered it medium-well and dry. Potato chunks, fried to a crisp golden brown, were a bit of a saving grace.

Pasta, peppercorn filet, and veal cutlet round out the main course selections. More interesting dishes are often featured on the board that attracts clientele in from the sidewalk, though these can be pricier (entrees range from about $10.95 to about $20.95); ask before you order. We loved a fillet of black grouper, crusted with horseradish and baked. The succulent fish was laid on spunky mashed potatoes, making this dish a study in white. Another special, crépes stuffed with lobster, mushrooms, and spinach, was not as successful. Though generous, the chunks of lobster were overcooked, as were the baked crépes themselves. A sherry-color champagne sauce softened the too-crisp pancakes, helping to soften the texture but not the $20.95 price tag.

Jeffrey's crowning achievement -- chicken, beef, or seafood pot pie -- is somewhat startling, a ramekin filled with stew and peaked by a large envelope of puffy pastry. The seafood version was delightful, succulent chunks of lobster, scallops, and shrimp simmered with onions, peppers, and carrots; the pastry was delicate and crumbly, perfect to dip into the rich, winy brown sauce. Creamy, well-chopped cole slaw was an appropriate garnish to this filling meal.

Don't let a full stomach distract you from the dessert cart. Throughout the evening, you might notice the waiters replenishing disappearing sweets with fresh-baked goodies straight from the oven. We scored a still-warm slice of tart strawberry-blueberry pie this way, along with a dense sweet potato pie. Floating island is perhaps the most original dessert, impossible to resist when it's wheeled in front of you. Generous puffs of meringue, gently baked and napped with a vanilla sauce, were light and airy, not at all cloying.

Wash down that dessert with the house's treat, a glass of golden tawny port. The brandylike wine is a homey touch, a nice way to usher out the diner and cushion the check. Good intentions are, after all, the surest mark of an unpretentious eatery, and they'll be the ones that get me, wrung out from a day of writing (not cleaning), in tank top and jean shorts, to return.

1629 Michigan Ave, Miami Beach; 673-0690. Dinner Tuesday -- Saturday from 6:00 to 11:00 p.m.; Sunday from 5:00 to 10:00 p.m.

Onion soup
$8.95 (appetizer)
$17.95 (entree)
Seafood pot pie
Grilled chicken breast

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