I'm a sucker for reunions, and this summer I attended a rather offbeat one -- the get-together celebrating the 60th anniversary of the New England Music Camp. I spent three consecutive summers of my adolescence there on the shores of Lake Messalonskee, warming the silver of my flute under the Maine sun and stretching my soprano in the pine-scented air. And while I didn't exactly keep up with my chosen instruments, after some decades I thought it time to catch up with old friends. Here's a sample conversation:
Them: "What do you play?"
Me: "I played flute. And sang."
Them: "Oh, that's right. And do you do that professionally?"
Memory is faulty, I guess, and so no one recalled how amateurish I was in a camp filled with wanna-be virtuosos. Neither threats nor phone calls home to my folks could induce me to perform solo in a camp recital; I liked the anonymous safety of the orchestra and the choir. I never set foot in a practice cabin (one-room houses equipped with pianos and very few windows) unless it was with my boyfriend of the moment. Truth is, I returned to NEMC year after year not necessarily for the opportunity to study great music with professional musicians, but to bask in the company of dorks like me.
Those summers at camp and fifteen years of flute and voice lessons have left me with a legacy I hadn't counted on, however -- the dangerous ability to be (you guessed it) hypercritical. Though I'm a pretty lazy dilettante musician, taking a guitar break from writer's block in the solitude of my office or dabbling with friends over too many bottles of wine, I'm notorious for razzing untrained or self-taught musicians, particularly singers, whose faults and bad habits seem obvious.
All this is to say that perhaps I shouldn't have visited the three-month-old North Miami Beach restaurant Bravo! when I did. Exhilarated from my return visit to camp, where a performing group of twelve-year-olds can sound like the New World Symphony, I wasn't willing to settle for anything musically mediocre, and Bravo's concept of singing waitstaff was probably, on reflection, an easy target. Nor did I expect the food to be very good. Formerly Tutto Matto, an on-again, off-again Italian place located on Collins Avenue during the height of roadway construction, Bravo is still run by Fabian Basabe, who also owns i Paparazzi and the Boulevard Hotel on Ocean Drive.
Major changes of menu and concept are usually signs of a pretty leaky vessel. Basabe says it was the construction combined with a power surge of nearby competition that prompted his decision. Of course, he still has a challenge in the form of across-the-street neighbor Cabaret on Collins, another new eatery that provides a floor show with the fare. But fan or foe of Bravo's warbling-waiter concept, you can't deny the talent on the floor -- vocalists belting out show tunes and trilling arias with the aid of props, lighting, theatrical staging, and piano accompaniment by musical director David Williams.
Entertainment isn't confined to the aural atmosphere. Chef Lawrence Wells's New American symphonic concoctions alone could sell out a concert hall. One of the more inventive repertoires to hit the South Florida scene in a while, the menu updates classic French and American foods with Asian influences. Appetizer highlights include delicacies such as roasted sweetbreads on a licorice satay and Asian pear salad, or boneless legs of bullfrog with pickled seaweed and baby bok choy in a red-curry-coconut sauce; main courses feature rabbit curry and carrots braised with cumin seed or bamboo-steamed salmon with galangal-tomato sauce and Thai basil.
We opened our dinner with several choices from the "Overtures" section of the menu. Ceviche de langostino was huge prawns, shelled and served warm over a salad of Belgian endive and mixed baby lettuces. The langostino, rich and sweet, were perfumed with a citrus infusion; crunchy corn nuts scattered over the top provided an interesting textural counterpoint. Quail were also presented over greens, this time watercress so fresh it evoked an English countryside filled with bubbling brooks. The pair of game birds, small and plumper than the specimens I've encountered lately, were gorgeously glazed with Thai spices, sticky skin complementing the dark juicy meat.
Tamer starters such as wild mushroom ravioli are available for the more traditional diner, and are every bit as delicious. We loved the al dente dough of these four pockets, crimped edges almost bursting with dark, meaty mushrooms chopped like beef. The earthy interiors were enhanced by a mild-mannered tomato-chive marinara. Soup of the day, on the other hand, wasn't as titillating. From the "Interludes" section, Maine lobster bisque was more like muddy broth. The lobster essence was far too strong and salty, untempered by cream and about as tasty as the seawater in which the shellfish had made their homes.
Bravo's "Main Events" were quibble-free. I haven't seen this much game and poultry offered as entrees since Scott Howard's turn at Martha's Tropical Grille, and I was torn between the rabbit, roasted breast of capon with lemon grass and sweet rice steamed in a banana leaf, roasted duckling with a spicy sesame sauce and a tamarind glaze, and loin of venison. Venison won, though I prayed the staff wouldn't launch into any Disney-inspired songs when this was served; instead we heard the opening strains of a Les Miserables song. This was an oddly luxurious dish to be consumed against an implied backdrop of hunger, revolution, and deprivation, but when two tender, musky filets are doused with bramble-berry sauce and garnished with a bunch of tiny champagne grapes, who can really muster up the appropriate empathy? Let 'em eat ordinary beef. The bramble berries, pulled from prickly shrubs that are related to rose bushes, tasted like huge, tart blueberries crossed with cranberries, and melted into a savory, fruity sauce. The meat was flattered by an excellent preparation of root vegetables: slow-roasted beets, turnips, and whole baby carrots.
Loin of lamb, which we expected to be a similar cut, turned out to be a full rack (bones in) of some of the most supple lamb I've ever eaten. Simply roasted to a luscious medium-rare, it was served over a fragrant puree of fresh lima beans. I especially liked the interesting treatment of this starchy legume, a break from the usual potatoes.
As a great alternative to chicken, squab was an enticing choice. The full-fleshed bird, slightly smaller than a Cornish hen, was perched on a noodle pancake, a welcome change from pasta and reminiscent of the cakes I used to consume in New York's Chinatown. Egg noodles were woven into a round base, fluffy as a Spanish tortilla and wide as a dessert plate. A tangy demi-glace covered both the cake and the squab (a cultivated game bird related to pigeon), which fell off the bones into a heap of tender, light-color meat. Pearl onions caramelized with honey and ginger were a crowning touch.
Roasted pearl onions also accented a red snapper fillet, a recipe that in comparison to the highly charged venison, lamb, and squab seemed timid. On its own, though, the fish had merit. Pan-fried, the flaky snapper wore a suitably crisp exterior. A beurre blanc laced with Pernod was a defining touch, soaking like coconut milk into the heap of herbed basmati rice that supported the fish.
A dessert trolley stacked with sweets may be the perfect "Grand Finale" for some, but I preferred the port recommended to us by our waiter (who, by the way, was as well trained in the service industry as he was in the business of show). The sweet fortified wine tasted especially good with the cigars Chef Wells, on his first gig in Miami after stints in New York and Orlando, distributed while making the rounds of the 200-seat dining room, made cozy with curtains and decorated with framed collectible Broadway posters. True, too many people indulging in this option can make the place awfully smoky, especially for those not in love with pungent tobacco. But however you end it, a meal at Bravo! will leave the toughest critic humming with contentment.
Bravo! 17004 Collins Ave., Sunny Isles; 945-0312. Open nightly from 6:00 to midnight; until 1:00 a.m. Friday and Saturday; and from 4:00 to midnight on Sunday.
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Wild mushroom ravioli
Ceviche de langostino