Would you compare Norman's to Piola Pizza? Well, neither would I. Each is great at what it is. In fact the only fair way to judge restaurants is not by one scale but by trying to evaluate how well any given restaurant succeeds according to its own individual definition, which is why New Times doesn't award those silly stars. Doesn't it make more sense to compare apples and apples rather than apples and Volkswagens?
This perfectly sensible standard devolves into a perfect puzzlement, however, when trying to judge the success of a place that defines itself as a "California Bistro."
First there's the problem with that word bistro, as we've noted before in this newspaper. These days it means almost anything, or nothing; it's virtually interchangeable with brasserie, café, and a half-dozen other terms. So what is a bistro, anyway? And what does "California" mean as a food definition, except for "weird"?
Fresco California Bistro
1744 SW 3rd Ave.
305-858-0608. Open Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and 5:00 to 10:30 p.m.; Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and 5:00 to 11:00 p.m.; Saturday, noon to 11:00 p.m.; closed Sunday.
Whatever, the menu at Fresco California Bistro is an informal mix of Italianesque and Tex-Mex dishes, ruled, it seems, by the old hippie Sixties sensibility, predating "New Californian" food, that lots of cheese and sour cream improves everything.
Fortunately for Floridians, the food at four-year-old Fresco, an upscale-looking but budget-priced place that was one of the spearheads of the Brickell area makeover, tastes far better than it reads. What's going to throw you into a swoon comes at the meal's start. It's not an obvious winner from the menu description: sweet corn tamales. When I ordered these -- which I did only because Mexican items seemed a Fresco specialty -- the reaction from those at my table was underwhelming. Tamales. Cornmeal mush steamed in a corn husk, satisfying in a hearty traditional sorta way -- been there, done that. Not. Fresco's tamales were more like minisoufflés. They were rich yet light, not at all cornmealy but, rather, custardy. They were sweet (from fresh, sweet corn kernels, as well as some sugar) but not cloyingly sweet. They were, as one dining companion summed it up, "something I could happily make a whole meal of, if I just had two or three orders to myself." Fat chance. My dining companion snared one whole tamale and was lucky to escape with her fingers intact as she went for a second. Do, if you value your friends' body parts, order lots and lots of these tamales. Though garnished with traditional tangy tomatillo and mild tomato salsas, they are hardly traditional Mexican fare.
Neither are Fresco's vegetable egg rolls standard Asian fare. Filled with mushrooms and carrots as well as the usual shredded cabbage and celery, the rolls, about the diameter of a taquito, come piled with guacamole, spicy tomato salsa, and sour cream in place of plum sauce and hot mustard: Chinese/Mex fusion -- not subtle but not bad.
Since Wolfgang Puck reinvented all-American Italian pizza as a designer nibble more than fifteen years ago at L.A.'s Spago, no food has seemed more typically Californian. And for sure, most of the ten toppings available on Fresco's Puck-size "personal" pies would send a Naples native screaming: a Hawaiian pie with tomato sauce and pineapple; a cilantro-spiked Mexican taco-type model with chicken, guacamole, and sour cream; a shrimp pizza with cheese and seafood. We went for the one recognizable pizza, a "Margheritta" (recognizable except for its misspelled name), which featured tomato sauce that cried out for some kick, some nice but not enough fresh mozzarella, a nontraditional sprinkling of Parmesan that pretty much overwhelmed the mild mozzarella, and enough fresh basil to overwhelm everything else. And the pie's puffy shell, while appealingly chewy, was a bit too thick and breadlike for the tastes of my tablemates.
A daily special caprese appetizer again suffered from basil overkill. But being uncooked, these excess whole leaves were easy enough to ignore, and the high quality of the dish's other elements -- creamy fresh mozzarella, assertively fruity olive oil, and tomatoes that were actually ripe for a change -- made Fresco's take on this familiar item better than most.
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To make any of these appetizers or small plates a full meal, an ideal accompaniment would be any one of the three salads we tried, all also available in half-priced half-orders, each of which feeds, roughly, Rhode Island. As for quality, well, the caesar salad made one forget just how over this normally overdressed sodden cliché is; the perfectly coated romaine leaves were subtly anchovy-flavored, with a garnish of Parmesan cheese, plus a few richly crumbly croutons. A half-portion of vinaigrette-dressed pear-and-walnut salad featured multiple peeled fresh pear halves, as well as blue cheese. And a lavish California orange salad including, on a mesclun bed, fresh mandarin orange sections, avocado, apple, blue cheese, raisins, and some addictive candied pecans, was marred only by a huge helping of overcooked chicken pieces.
Because two members of our party of four were on the Atkins diet, we tried two meat/fish main dishes. But sadly, neither of the main plates we ordered was anywhere near as tasty as the appetizers, salads, pastas, and snack foods we had tried. A small piece of grilled marinated skirt steak, both bone-dry and flavorless in spite of alleged herb/spice soaking, was accompanied by equally tasteless mixed vegetables and grilled onions, plus a pile of mashed potatoes that might not have come from a box but tasted like it. And the Fresco classic trio, listed in the "From the Seas" category even though two of the trio items were chicken and Italian sausage, was worse. The chicken was petrified; so were the very small shrimp. The Italian sausage was fine -- even miraculous if one thought of it as seafood. But the trio's allegedly spicy tomato-and-white wine sauce was plain bland. And accompanying aglia e olio spaghetti was pure grease.
Much better was ravioli di zucca, the most characteristically California nouvelle of the fourteen pasta entrées (though not the most characteristically weird; that would be the caramelle di pollo, described as chicken-filled "candy-shaped pasta" with "creamy lettuce sauce"). Most pumpkin fillings tend to be overstarchy, cloyingly sugared, or simply heavy as lead, but Fresca's smooth sophisticated purée tasted fresh and naturally sweet, like buttered squash right out of the field.
Desserts, a roundup of the usual suspects (tiramisu, key lime pie, and so on), seemed anticlimactic. But no problem: Another serving of sweet corn tamales can make for a swoon finish as well.