I've always wondered about so-called bad-luck restaurant locations that have earned, after the initial restaurant has departed, a rep for failure. Take the old WPA space on Washington and Eighth or thereabouts. It's been ten years and about that many different restaurants since that one single -- yet brief -- success, and none has made a go. Are such sites truly ill-fated, the haunted houses of the culinary world? Or can the right combination of elements prove to be a ritual cleansing?
Despite what the realtors tell us, I think the latter. Look at Barton G. The old Gatti's location deteriorated for decades until Debbie Ohanian remade it into Starfish. But brief flirtations with food-oriented fame, as sudden as a grease fire, were smothered just as quickly. When rumors that the Barton G operators were renovating yet again and expecting, if not complete success, at least viability as a local hangout, many insiders were scornful. Skeptical. And completely wrong.
It is my sincere hope that the same cynics will be eating their words, along with fig-xerez-vinegar-braised quail with a foie gras-brioche crouton or purple sage-grilled petite veal rack with nettles, chanterelles, and a side of robiola white polenta, at Elia.
I know that the Bal Harbour Shoppes restaurant does not have an auspicious background. Years ago -- maybe eight or nine -- it was a popular bistro called Coco's Sidewalk Café. Rising rents forced that restaurant to move upstairs. From then on, whatever came into the supposedly prime, indoor-outdoor spot (the Black Rose, Petrossian) proved that capitalism doesn't always work -- good or bad, redecorated or completely renovated, with an obscure name or a well-known one, the incoming restaurant would collapse under the stress of watching all its potential business file into the neighboring Carpaccio's, a crowd favorite. Even Dennis Max couldn't resurrect it, and closed his eponymous eatery -- what was supposed to be the start of this restaurateur-who-would-be-king's comeback -- a mere six months after debuting.
At first glance it seemed Elia would rapidly follow where so many others have nobly, if reluctantly, led: down under. As in, way. Greek restaurateur Thanasis Barlos, who has run a successful restaurant in his homeland for the past eleven years, made a classic error: He put too many chefs, all with different nationalities, in the kitchen. Three -- a two-star Italian, a French, and the executive from Barlos's Greek restaurant -- were consultants; Rebecca Puro, who had achieved some local fame at the Abbey dining room, was the American name for PR cachet. It was a recipe for an international stew, with the carrots dominating the meat, and she departed the pot after the first couple of months.
Elia had problems even after she left, however: The Mediterranean menu didn't deviate far enough from what Carpaccio offers; the execution and quality were off; and the staff enjoyed the outdoor setting more than the customers did, often disappearing, we suspected, to window-shop. Once again, the whispers about cursed locations began to circulate.
Enter the exorcist, Kris Wessel.
Fans of the upscale, New Orleans-influenced restaurant Liaison on South Beach might remember Wessel as the talented, hard-working, and completely beleaguered chef-owner. A four-year veteran of the erstwhile, original Mark's Place in North Miami and a launcher of the still-running Paninoteca on Lincoln Road, Wessel is one of the chefs in town whom critics and loyal customers alike, won over the twelve years he's been living and working here, have kept in their sights. Unfortunately for all concerned, Liaison started to take off with the public just a bit too late, and Wessel was forced to close in April 2002, just as he was beginning to be considered a destination.
Since Liaison's closure, Wessel has kept something of a low profile. "I did a series of consulting jobs. One was for a health food market [chain] that had no to-go or eat-in food. I designed little kiosks to produce juices, salads, organic sandwiches. It was like reliving Paninoteca days," he comments dryly.
Still the Liaison experience left him wiser but undaunted: "My plan at that time was to open my own gig. I constantly worked and looked at spaces. I ran around to all the supposedly hottest locations. What I discovered is that real estate is out of control. Everything, especially in the downtown area, was always a year away. A lot of the lower Biscayne stuff was all locked up in land deals. The owners weren't leasing retail space; they were looking to flip the land."
At that point, Wessel accepted the offer to be executive chef at Elia, a move that some considered surprising given his more recent South Beach history. But he had actually done consulting work on that space when Petrossian was gearing up; the owner, Mary Ann Richter, was formerly partners with Dennis Max and Mark Militello at Mark's Place, and knew Wessel from that kitchen. Plus his familiarity with northeastern Dade locals -- Aventurians, North Miamians, and the like -- leaves him in good stead to lure these folks to Bal Harbour. "If you don't go in with the right concept here, they'll rip you apart. I spent the first six weeks [on the job] watching the women take all the croutons off their caesar salad, asking for dressing on the side and not eating their potatoes or rice, and I remembered how difficult the clientele was at Mark's Place. A lot of them are diet-crazed. I actually thought they might have moved away or died but that doesn't seem to be the case," Wessel jokes. "But on the other hand, they're great clientele 'cause they have discretionary income and can dine whenever they want."
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To deal with both restrictions and predilections, Wessel designed a protein-heavy "New Mediterranean" menu where a lot of the more interesting starches are available on the side. Sort of like a steak house, but one where you can order such main courses as hazelnut-dusted skate wing with braised leek avgolemono (lemon-egg sauce); braised rabbit cephalonia with Cyprus chard and feta pie; or caul-roasted young veal rack with barlotti beans, chanterelles, and just-wilted spinach, plus starch-driven accents like Israeli couscous; white polenta with chèvre; or domatokeftehes (tomato fritters).
"One of the reasons I took the job was because the tag Thanasis had in the beginning was 'fine Mediterranean.' They came out of the box with really authentic items," Wessel explains. "But they got crushed because it was high season and they were doing 400-500 covers per day. With no one, clear voice allowing for creativity in the kitchen, the place crashed. Then the concept became confused -- was it Greek? Was it Italian? Now the original idea is going forward."
And, knowing Wessel, forward also means one step beyond. His signature creativity will be accessible via a forthcoming small-plates menu as well, and Wessel, whose second daughter was born just about three months ago, has committed to a kids' menu, too. Though he has no ownership in Elia (as of yet), he says, "We are building this as a partnership. Thanasis has this great, laid-back European approach to everything, and he's got commitment. He just needs to learn the American market. That's where I come in."
There, yes. But more important for diners who have missed Wessel's signature, imaginative dishes, he comes in through Elia's kitchen door. Jinx or no jinx.