People often compare New World cuisine restaurants Chef Allen's and Mark's Place. The reasons are fairly obvious. Both rank consistently as Miami's top restaurants; both, in fact, have won national recognition. Friendly rivals, both opened in the mid-Eighties and are named after the pioneering chefs who operate them. And both are located just off Biscayne Boulevard, Chef Allen's in Aventura and Mark's Place in North Miami. Like most food-conscious Miamians, I often find myself mentioning them in the same New World breath. Yet one question never fails to annoy me:
"Which is better, Chef Allen's or Mark's Place?"
That both Allen Susser and Mark Militello specialize in dishes that can be termed "New World cuisine" says far more about that catchall category than about either man's style. While they may use the same range of ingredients the results they achieve are dissimilar, which doesn't provide a suitable basis for comparison. But the last person who asked me this question also did me a service: I realized that although I had enjoyed the businesslike snap and high-energy bristle of Mark's Place a few times in recent months, it had been some time since I'd savored the muted hominess of Chef Allen's.
White linens and fresh flowers greet Chef Allen's patrons as they enter a space divided into "rooms" by half-walls and arches. Slightly surreal interpretations of pomegranates and pears adorn the walls, while neon-strip lighting adds a Deco touch. Admirably, this ambiance is equally suitable for dating couples and entire families (one little girl was asleep at the table the night we visited most recently). All are treated with fondness and quiet humor by the staffers, who act as if everyone is a regular. Indeed, many are repeat customers. Others make Chef Allen's their happy-occasion restaurant of choice: I know one family that routinely celebrates birthdays there, and another that visits annually to partake of chef-owner Allen Susser's special Passover menu.
Passover comes just once a year, but the chef sees to his customers' dietary requirements on a nightly basis, with a menu that is revised and rotated frequently. Susser's dishes reflect a tropical outlook, forgoing fats in favor of light, fresh fare cooked with a minimum of oil -- foods that are comfortable to eat in this heavy humidity. One of five salads listed on the menu, a cool mix of organically grown arugula and endive, was the perfect embodiment of this philosophy. The peppery edge of the greens was refreshing and satisfying, cut with pungent nuggets of pistachio-encrusted, baked goat cheese and a subtle vinaigrette. The house breads -- sun-dried tomato focaccia served on a plate, as well as long breadsticks that stuck out of their ceramic canister like antennae -- were a lovely accompaniment.
Rock shrimp hash was another utterly appealing appetizer. Made with sweet, shredded boniato and dotted with shrimp and robust roasted corn, the crunchy pancakelike structure was a delicately fried treat. Mango "ketchup," tangy and fruity, accented the plate.
We also ordered a Caribbean antipasto for the table, a combination of six items, all of them spicy. On the low end of the spice barometer were two tamarind-chili shrimp, curled from the grill and basted in a savory barbecue-style sauce. Charred rare tuna A three medallions of quality ruby fish barely touched by the grill on the outer edges A was edge-of-the-fork tender and slightly more piquant. A supple conch ceviche, tart and vinegary, also warmed the mouth. The real fire was supplied by the jerk calamari, whole baby squid dusted with a Jamaican spice mixture that had us gasping for Overproof rum, which would have gone down like water after that searing experience. Fortunately the antipasto was stabilized by a milder green papaya "slaw" and a delicious, if spicier, black bean salsa.
We thought to cool off with the main courses. A whole yellowtail snapper, crisp on the outside, was moist and steamy on the inside and, as our server put it as we began to separate meat from bone, "more work but worth it." Covered with an understated, smooth coconut milk-and-curry mixture that featured green onions and stir-fried shiitake mushrooms, the sweet-fleshed snapper stood up admirably to a marvelous complexity of flavors.
A plain, wonderfully prepared swordfish fillet benefited from barely embellished basics. Marked from the grill, the succulent meaty fish was complemented by the anise flavor of fennel bulb, also grilled. Horseradish added flair to a scoop of mashed potatoes, while more sparks were supplied by an innovative sun-dried fruit confit, the candied apricots, papaya chunks, and cherries scattered over and around the fish.
Pan-roasted calamari served with pappardelle was another simple but elegant preparation. Enhanced with slightly bitter broccoli rabe and nutty caramelized garlic, the brothlike sauce was excellent. The squid, however, arranged at intervals around a mound of the superb tricolor noodles, were too tough, which defeated the effect of the dish.
Peach-and-chili-roasted duck, though, compensated with a Georgian flair, a reminder that New World cuisine has some roots in the Deep South as well as in South Florida. Served with smoked Vidalia onions, the game bird featured a fruity, crackling skin and a juicy, steaklike texture. Inch-thick circles of roasted yams provided a fine finish.
Dessert is a signature course at Chef Allen's; not many deny themselves the pleasure of pastry chef Michele Kutas's nightly souffle (for timely results, order it at the same time you order your dinner). We thoroughly enjoyed that night's chocolate-brownie version, made more decadent by the dishes of chocolate sauce and whipped cream served with it. So much for light tropical eating and humidity-friendly digestion. On the lighter side, a tropical sorbet sampler -- mango, passion fruit, raspberry, coconut, and pineapple -- was served in a sticky almond-flour pastry bowl and garnished with fresh blueberries, strawberries, and other seasonal fruits.
With the opening of the well-publicized Mark's Las Olas in Fort Lauderdale, it may seem as though Mark Militello finally has the edge over Allen Susser. But I say forget the comparisons. At Chef Allen's -- or Mark's Place for that matter -- it's the diner who is the winner.
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