Flannel, No Grunge

In the Eighties, when consumerism was at an all-time high, Americans became adventurous, willing to try anything without thought of the consequences. Extreme sports. Junk bonds. And food: sushi. Steak tartare topped with raw egg.

In the Nineties, we're still bungee jumping and whitewater rafting. The stock market thrives. But the most pervasive food trend now is safety. Mad cow disease in England. E. coli breakouts from fast-food burgers. Salmonella in your caesar salad. TV exposes about restaurant kitchens that are so filthy you could mold sculptures in the grease traps.

I'd be irresponsible if I suggested that everyone just eat whatever they please with utter disregard of the consequences. I don't want my cause of death to be food-related (unless eating myself to death counts). I'm as worried about the quality of restaurant kitchens as anyone A if not more so, given that I've worked in at least ten of them. Recently some readers have suggested I examine the kitchens of the establishments I review. I can't do that without compromising my anonymity. But I can report on restaurants that appear especially concerned about maintaining healthy standards.

So when Stephen Smith's recent Miami Herald piece "How Safe Is Restaurant Food?" -- the one asserting that a restaurant inspector's approval is more valuable than a critic's positive review -- lauded the Red Flannel Cafe in Coral Gables for being exceptionally observant of health codes, I decided to pay my own visit.

I remember the spot as JJ's American Diner, which served mediocre food in less-than-sparkling surroundings. The place has obviously changed. A cross between a pub and a diner, the restaurant now features a spotless black-and-white tile floor, a green-tile open kitchen so shiny it looks as if it has been boiled, and gleaming leather booths that prompted an "Oh, comfy!" from one of my guests as we slid in. But while the atmosphere is as clean as a California supermarket, the food tastes more like Silicon Valley.

The fare is more upscale than the lumberjack name suggests -- here you get shiitake mushroom hash rather than the corned beef variety -- and is all over the world map. And unlike a diner, breakfast is strictly breakfast, lunch strictly lunch. In other words, you can't get a waffle for dinner, a real shame if your mouth has been watering for one with Haagen-Dazs ice cream on top. We had to settle for an unappealing brownie sundae, the square of chocolate microwaved to such a degree that steam poured out from its insides as if from a volcano. Apple-blueberry cobbler suffered from the same overheated fate, a cardboardlike biscuit supporting coals of tasteless fruit and a fast-melting scoop of vanilla ice cream. Turbocharged Sara Lee.

A main course of Asian-influenced mahi-mahi had a prefabricated feel to it too. Overloaded with toasted sesame seeds, the fish had absolutely no flavor or texture of its own. A setting of soy-sauced lo mein noodles interspersed with soggy celery and snow peas didn't improve matters. I had a very similar entree, minus the dolphin, from the Budget Gourmet line. Once.

Meat loaf, molded into cookie-cutter ovals, looked like salisbury steak. Two baked wedges were topped with a chunky but bland tomato sauce; along with a brown gravy, the same tomatoes were drizzled onto a side serving of mashed potatoes. This plate was easily a Hungry Man portion, the meat properly well-seasoned but so finely ground that it had the texture of bread pudding.

A hamburger formed from ground lamb and lidded with a whole portobello mushroom cap and a smear of pungent goat cheese sounded inspired. We ordered it medium-rare. The waitress wrote it down, then remembered her training. "The chef only makes it medium-well," she said. This directive, which seemed to be a preemptive strike on the E. coli bacteria that thrive in undercooked meat, is a stand restaurants often take after a well-publicized outbreak. I respect owner Klaus Frisch's awareness of health hazards, his concern for his customers, and his antipathy for lawsuits. But I hate eating hockey pucks, which is what this dish amounted to. E. coli be damned, I draw the line at medium-well burgers. Parasites, hepatitis, mad cow disease - at some point, you assume the risk or become paralyzed with paranoia. The last thing I need to see my therapist about is food phobias. (To the kitchen's credit, a companion of crisp cottage fries provided some relief.)

I wouldn't have expected a seafood risotto to be the best of our choices. Yet it was. Seasoned with saffron and studded with broccoli and tomatoes, the rice grains were creamy but firm. Chunks of succulent shrimp (I would have preferred whole), pearl-white scallops, and rings of calamari brightened the risotto, which was a huge and welcome portion.

An appetizer of fried calamari also tasted good, the batter light and not greasy, the squid succulent. A tomato sauce similar to the one on the meat loaf didn't lend any flavor, however, and may convince you not to rely too heavily on the Italian end of things should you opt for Red Flannel. To wit: A vegetarian pizza was terrible, a bad Wolfgang Puck. The grilled squash, zucchini, eggplant, and onions covered the crust with produce-section appeal. But the crust was limp, the pesto sauce used instead of tomato was more like chutney (too sweet and fruity), and no cheese was melted on this at all, a fact the menu didn't mention.

The most delicious starter was a Southwestern one, a poblano pepper stuffed with a combination of feta and Maytag blue cheeses, then battered and deep-fried. The pepper was laid out on a mango chutney and grilled tomato sauce laced with sour cream; when we cut into it, the melted cheeses poured out like a freshwater spring, soothing the spicy sauce. The result was a terrific conglomeration of flavors -- better on the calamari than the marinara was, and a great dip for the complimentary chili-powdered tortilla chips that arrived with a tasty three-bean salsa at the beginning (and most promising moment) of the meal.

I've suffered food poisoning -- perhaps not as many times as I should have, given the amount of dining out that I do, but probably more often than the general population. I avoid reef fish for fear of contracting ciguatera, and refuse raw oysters harvested from red-tide waters. I send bloody chicken back for more fire. These are reasonable precautions, and not too demanding on my taste buds. Neither is eating in a clean restaurant, which the Red Flannel certainly is. "I'd eat here," the clipboard-toting official said of the Red Flannel Cafe when the Herald sought his evaluation. "No problem." But if you ask me, there is a problem. The inspector may have taken that burger's temperature, but he didn't bite into it.


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