I have this recurring nightmare, which always seems to hit me when I'm about to go out to a restaurant I'm almost positive will be very good: I dream I'm a P.R. flak paid to bang out praise, nothing but praise, about every joint in town.
I told you it was a nightmare.
Naturally I had the dream last week, right before I went to eat at Pacific Heights. I had fallen asleep wondering if there was anything I'd have to say about Jonathan Eismann and Yves Picot's new Coral Gables venture that wouldn't require me simply to sharpen my superlatives and let fly. What could I, a virtual Eismann acolyte, possibly have to offer besides praise -- I, who've waited years for this long-rumored offshoot of Eismann's much adored South Beach eatery Pacific Time to materialize?
So it came as no surprise when I woke up in a sweat.
Open only a couple of weeks in the made-over digs of the former Didier's and still serving a "preview dinner menu," Pacific Heights nevertheless boasts a peaking dinner hour. Already it's tough to secure a reservation in the handsome two-story dining room. Decor -- molded pale-yellow walls and wrought-iron chandeliers -- is about as understated and Gables-conscious as Pacific Time is SoBe self-aware. Of course, all the bustle at this early juncture renders the staff a trifle slow, but that should iron out over (Eastern Standard) time.
But the new-car smell doesn't excuse what I consider a major flaw, a decision that needs to be rethought. No, not the fact that award-winning chef Eismann has stepped into more of an ownership role here, overseeing the menu and relying on chef de cuisine Frank Jeannetti and sous chef Roberto Pagan to head the kitchen. After all, the man with the pan can't cook in two places at once. Nor am I complaining about the menu itself, which is less pan-Asian and more pan-American than I would have expected, reading like a road map of local and independent purveyors; Eismann and company have correctly judged the dining public's backlash against the overdo on Eastern ingredients and eased off some. Designer items like "steamed Florida Sebastian Inlet whitewater very little neck clams in Napa chardonnay with spring onions, crushed tomatoes, tarragon, and blanched garlic," "Francine's local mixed organic lettuces and freshly picked herbs with black pepper and thyme and warmed Laura Chenel goat cheese," and "Pacific Heights's macaroni and cheese" (yes, the real retro thang) deliberately bury the Asian influences that gained Eismann national renown. Fortunately for those of us who are still fans of these flavors, other dishes -- "Key West pink shrimp, pan-seared with Indochine flavors, cellophane noodles, avocado, mango, basil, and lime" and "crackling chicken salad with Togorashi spiced roast chicken with sesame vinaigrette, crisp rice noodles, and Asian greens" -- recall Eismann's signature touch.
What vexes me is this: The portions are far too stingy. As in tiny enough to wonder whether something fell off the plate on the way out of the kitchen. Eensy nouvelle holdouts from the Eighties. Minuscule. Puny. So Lilliputian that it takes longer to read about 'em on the exhaustingly detailed menu than it does to eat 'em when they're brought forth. Price, oddly enough, is one of Pacific Heights's two saving graces: Entrees average seventeen dollars, with none topping the twenty-buck mark.
Quality, of course, is the other high point.
A bowl of vine-ripened-tomato gazpacho was sweet and juicy, chunky with tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions. A pretty and aromatic swirl of yellow pepper coulis added substantive appeal, though a grind or two of fresh black pepper would have been a perfect topper. Grilled Cantonese empanaditas were also delicious, three tasty pockets stuffed with minced Chinese duck. Flavored by the grill and a tangy sweet and sour dip, the dumplings lay over a small brush of frisee -- which we consumed out of ravenous desperation -- and was garnished by yellow and red tooth-size tomatoes. Fresh steamed Costa Rican hearts of palm and sweet leeks with extra-virgin olive oil and citrus vinaigrette also did little more than stimulate our taste buds. These long spears of hearts of palm were beautifully done, served warm and supple under the blended, almost buttery dressing. The accompanying leeks, tender and mild, partnered them justly.
Pizzas, says the preview menu, are coming soon. In the meantime we found another appetizer option under the "Noodles" section, where half-orders of pasta can be sampled. Fresh thin noodles with wild mushrooms in a vegetarian white truffle broth was our choice: Al dente buckwheat noodles, nested in a happy confusion, held their own against a fabulously earthy infusion and some of the juiciest shiitakes I've encountered. Next time I'll get the full order.
Eight entrees may seem a limited number, but even vegetarians are acknowledged, with a grilled portobello mushroom steak. This oversize cap was marinated in a teriyaki-tasting sauce and grilled to a charming finish, all crisp edges and moist meaty insides. The "steak" lay over a scoop of vegetable risotto that featured zucchini, sugar snap peas, and shiitakes. Sharing was the only problem: The dish didn't stand a chance against four hungry forks. Nor did a piece of real meat, the pepper-encrusted New York strip loin. The beef was certified Colorado Angus, coated in crushed pink and black peppercorns, then pan-roasted and served with tamarind ketchup. Though a little too peppery for my taste, the steak was a hit, and so were the garlicky trio of rosy skin-on baked creamer potatoes and crisp sauteed bok choy that came on the side.
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Pacific Time is known for its fish, and Pacific Heights will be too. Grilled Florida Keys black grouper Szechuan was dressed in a spicy sauce similar to the one on the mushroom, with an afterkick that flirted with the palate. The delicate flake of the fillet was made more substantial by a pair of tempura sweet potato wedges that had been dipped in batter and fried in hot oil until crisp. Sea bass was excellent as well, a pan-roasted, sake-braised fillet cut in half and served as a "sandwich." The smooth, creamy filling comprised truffles ('tis the season for truffles), celery root, and Yukon gold potato puree. Oven-roasted tomatoes finished the dish with intensity, though this main course in particular left us craving more.
Desserts, done by PT's pastry chef Jennifer Warren, included the famous-by-now-or-at-least-should-be bittersweet chocolate bomb, an individual cake filled with fudgy syrup. I thought this could have used a little more sugar, though. I was far more disappointed by another cake, maple spice, which was stale. And fresh mango -- one side of the fruit cut off the pit and served in the skin -- should either be taken off the menu or spruced up with some sorbet.
Pacific Heights has some of the nitty-gritty stuff to work out, such as waiters who remove wine glasses from the table before they're empty. In short, the two-story restaurant seems still to be rising. But as far as plumbing the potential goes, well, what are heights without a few depths?
Costa Rican hearts of palm and leeks
Chinese duck empanaditas
Portobello mushroom steak
Pan-roasted sea bass