Gut Filling

As I see it, women and restaurants are alike in exactly one way: Once they earn a reputation, they've got it for life. Only it's usually "bad" women who can't shake public disdain, and "good" restaurants that never fall out of public favor even if they should. This month, in honor of my own checkered past, I set out to determine whether several local eateries that are perennially touted as topnotch are still worthy of the praise.

3101 Ponce de Leon Blvd., Coral Gables; 446-1400. Open Monday -- Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. (Friday until midnight), Saturday from 5:00 p.m. to midnight, and Sunday from 5:00 to 11:00 p.m.

A very drunk gentleman broke off his conversation about his successful gambling philosophy and leaned precariously toward me. "I've never been here before," he said, flashing his Rolex and his diamond pinkie ring. "How's the food?"

"Delicious," I answered truthfully, though I could see it didn't really matter to him. What he was really asking was, Am I in the right place? And I could tell by his bourbon-scented breath that Christy's, whose motto is "aged beef and spirits," was indeed the right place for him.

As it is for most other folks. Christy's is an eighteen-year legend, feeding to the power-hungry generation that rebuilt Miami Midwestern corn-fed beef and calves' liver, not to mention veal piccata, broiled lamb chops, and stuffed fillet of grouper. And despite the highfalutin atmosphere that permeates the clubby upholstered dining room (and despite the chicken, shrimp, and lobster tail that dot the menu), the beef is the true focus here, and rightly so.

Even the black bean soup, a puree served with a snifter of sherry on the side, tastes of beef stock. This was rich and tasty, a nice prelude to the justly famous caesar salad served with all entrees. Loaded with Parmesan, garlic, and a huge number of whole anchovies, the crisp sweet romaine was a large pile of pleasure, a meal in itself.

Roasted for three hours, prime rib of beef is offered in two sizes, and the menu doesn't lie: At fourteen ounces, the standard (smaller) size is indeed an "ample cut." A lovely marbled hunk of meat was accented with juicy broiled mushroom caps and tangy horseradish sauce. The waiter added a scoop of house-grated white horseradish on the side, a practice he repeated with the sour cream and chives (which were actually green onions) on the baked potatoes that accompany entrees. A twelve-ounce filet mignon marinated in teriyaki sauce was requested medium-rare but arrived overcooked to medium-well, and was a little dry as a result. But the flavor was delicious, the slightly sweet-salty sauce (also served on the side) soaking into the meat.

Blackout cake, a luxurious chocolate layer cake topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, was the perfect finishing touch -- though I do believe my newfound friend substituted a cocktail for that course. But then, at least his cholesterol is low. Steak, sour cream, caesar salad, chocolate cake ... God knows where mine is now.

5225 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 865-6500. Open 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. daily (6:00 to 11:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday).

In 1987 the inimitable local food writer Lucy Cooper declared this restaurant's "luxurious neo-French architecture ... a lovely backdrop for dining on traditional to new French cuisine, as well as such strange fare as alligator and kangaroo." She deemed Dominique's one of the best restaurants in South Florida, ranking it alongside Chef Allen's, Cafe Chauveron, and the Grand Cafe on her Top 10 list that year.

In the succeeding decade, a few things have changed. For one, the "strange fare" has been bumped, replaced by a new, lighter Florida menu. A more casual Garden Terrace now adjoins the ornate main dining room, which for its mirrors and carved chairs and polished tiled floors can feel formally stuffy.

And I don't know that I'd put Dominique's in a class with Chef Allen's. Some of the entrees -- pan-seared Atlantic salmon with black lentils, grilled tuna crusted with cumin and coriander seed, and a grilled filet mignon with a Maytag blue cheese butter, for instance -- are inventive, but many of the appetizers were mundane and indifferently prepared on the night I dined. The pine nuts garnishing the baby arugula salad were burnt, the balsamic vinaigrette too oily on limp greens. Juicy tomatoes and roasted peppers helped perk up the salad, but nothing could salvage the lobster bisque. The broth was dark as a roux and briny, garnished with chunks of tough lobster. "Crabcake Dominique's" was perhaps the best starter, succulent chunks of blue crab formed into a patty sans breadcrumbs and pan-fried. The pommes frites scattered over the cake were cold, however, and a tomato sauce billed as spicy added color but little else to the plate.

Main courses were a significant improvement. Roasted Long Island duck glazed with a hoisin sauce featured a crisp candied skin and rich, juicy flesh. Sauteed baby bok choy and a molded scoop of wild rice made a fresh match for the main event, which was marred only by the absence of the caramelized kumquats that had been promised on the menu.

Pan-seared yellowtail suffered not from omissions but from substitutions. Red snapper, we were informed by the waiter, replaced the yellowtail, and proved to be a bit too mild for the delicate sauce made with crabmeat. And the accompanying mango-papaya salsa described on the menu turned out to be a chopped combination of cantaloupe and honeydew melon, which all but overwhelmed the fish. Out of the whole dish, a scoop of jasmine rice held the most fragrance.

Fortunately a roasted veal chop, sporting a tremendously long bone, had enough flavor for two entrees. Though a touch too rare, the musky meat mingled pleasantly with the creamy asparagus and wild mushroom risotto that supported it.

Long on atmosphere -- a piano bar tinkles nearby -- Dominique's was short on service. The maitre d' seemed at first surprised, then annoyed when diners showed up. Though it was a Saturday evening and we had a reservation, it took him several minutes to prepare our table, and the restaurant was only half full. And it's more than disconcerting to have a waiter who disappears for lengthy periods, only to reappear asking and answering his own question: "Everything all right? Good, good." Not a pleasant way to dine, especially when you're paying nearly 30 bucks for one of the meatier entrees. Dominique's clearly has the chops. It's their worth that's questionable.

1200 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; 673-4343. Open 6:00 p.m. to midnight nightly.

The tourists have taken over Mezzanotte, the premier attraction in the theme park we call South Beach (the restaurant is now a chain, with a location in the Grove and more to come). Even on Monday night, flashbulbs, multiplied by the mirrored walls, pop with the frequency of a sound wave, so vacationers can show their friends the famous restaurant where models used to perform table dances for free (these days diners limit their gyrations to the aisles).

To be perfectly honest, I've never been partial to the overlighted bus-stop atmosphere, the supercilious service, the pricey mediocrity of the Italian fare. So I was really pleased when I went back this time: Though the lighting remains bright, Mezzanotte has mellowed. Waiters were polite and busboys attentive, prices didn't seem as high as I remembered them, and the food was meticulously prepared.

Broccoli soup was a delicious starter, hearty and appetite-stimulating at the same time. A creamless, garlicky red pepper broth featured verdant florets of the vegetable, as well as strands of angel hair pasta and just a touch of Parmesan cheese. Pastas in appetizer-size portions also looked like a good idea; we enjoyed delicate nuggets of gnocchi bathed in a Bolognese sauce. The ground beef and tomato in the gravy combined nicely with a melting sprinkle of mozzarella atop the soft potato dumplings.

That homemade mozzarella blanketed a tender main course of veal scaloppine. Pounded rounds of veal were breaded and topped with thin slices of eggplant, with tomato sauce and cheese layering the meat and vegetable like a casserole. Garlicked and salted sauteed spinach, a stalk of broccoli, and Parmesan-encrusted broiled potatoes added zip to the dish, which was a satisfying portion.

Calamari barcaiola was supple sliced baby squid sauteed in clam juice, garlic, oil, and red wine. This was a tasty seafood meal, with the addition of fresh green peas and chopped tomatoes providing panache. This main course doesn't come with a starch, however, and diners might want to consider ordering a side of angel hair pasta for an additional $5.50.

Tiramisu and zabaglione are pretty standard dessert choices. (A great capper to a Mezzanotte meal can be found right down the street at 1434 Washington Ave. in an incredibly authentic gelateria called Gelateria Bella.) Mezzanotte might be the number-one attraction on the SoBe tourist trail, but it's also a grand place for locals to dine.

Osteria del Teatro
1443 Washington Ave., Miami Beach; 538-7850. Closed until September 25. Please call for hours.

Maybe you haven't noticed, but despite our notorious heat and humidity, some of Miami's finest restaurants are steaming up the joint with soup. Not cold soups like vichyssoise, gazpacho, or fruit purees, but broths, bisques, and veritable bowlfuls of stew.

This trend has not been lost on the venerable, award-winning Osteria del Teatro, where a different soup is offered every day (the list of about twenty specials changes daily as well). The potato concoction we ordered on a recent evening was so creamy and delicate it was hard to believe it had been made without a drop of dairy. The flavor and texture were unmatchable, the smattering of homemade croutons on top a lovely finish. (Smoked black bean is another perennial triumph.)

Osteria regulars who know the pink menu is hardly worth a glance focus instead on the first interchangeable white page, or on the blackboard, or on the waiter as he reels off the impossibly long list of specials. Though several of those are always available, their sauces change. Pan-seared chicken breast was sumptuous when sauteed with shallots and sun-dried tomatoes, the juices of the crisp yet moist white meat mingling with a superb champagne cream sauce.

Pastas were a treat too, big enough for a main meal. Black ink ravioli, stuffed with crabmeat and scallops in lobster sauce, was superlative, though the inky dye was absent (these babies were white as lobster meat). The ravioli was a sensual treat, plump with shellfish and bathed in an exceptionally light cream sauce.

Another seafood main course, the cartoccio, proved not only the kitchen's superiority but also the waitstaff's. This dish comprised seafood -- scallops, squid, and mussels -- sauteed with tomatoes, garlic, and olive oil. The mixture was then sealed in parchment paper over linguine and baked "in its own juices." Upon serving the entree, the waiter slit open the paper to allow the steam to escape, then extracted and shelled the langostino that rested atop the pile, whisking away the shell as he withdrew.

Despite all the richness, desserts are a must, whether you prefer an elegant tiramisu or a homier apple tart. Indulgence is what eating out is all about.

Victor's Cafe
2340 SW 32nd Ave., Miami; 445-1313. Open noon to midnight daily.
Good Cuban food abounds in this city, with bodegas and cafeterias dishing up homestyle fare on practically every corner. Believe me, I appreciate that. But when one has a hankering for the same ingredients prepared with a bit more innovation -- gourmet Cuban, in other words -- there are really only a couple of choices. Victor's Cafe is dependable not only for the elan of its menu but also for its breezy setting and brisk, efficient service.

This fall Victor's celebrates its sixth anniversary, and after dining in the two-story restaurant, surrounded by greenery and falling water, I can easily see why it retains its reputation. I couldn't keep my hands off the appetizers we ordered -- unless it was to pick up my mojito. Tostones rellenos were four little fried plantain baskets, each filled with fricasseed shrimp. The shrimp, set in a puddle of savory sauce, were so fresh and meaty they rivaled the bananas for substance. We also delighted in a pair of pollitos mandraques. These "fingers" of minced, moist chicken encased in a crusty, quick-fried shell were similar to croquetas, and absolutely terrific (but no mas, alas; this fowl was recently removed from the menu).

In a rare move, I systematically consumed a side dish before I even tried my entree. Tamal en cazuela -- cornmeal cooked in a cast-iron (or these days, aluminum) pot -- was fantastic, the creamy Cuban-style polenta veritably addictive. The asopao de camarones, a Puerto Rican-inspired dish I ordered as an alternative to paella, wasn't too shabby either. A savory tomato broth contained six fabulously fresh jumbo shrimp, pitted Manzanilla olives, fresh green peas, and slices of pimiento. White rice settled near the bottom, a rich find once the broth was depleted a little bit.

Buttered rice and aromatic black beans, whole and perfectly cooked, accompanied a main course of vaca frita con mojo. This pounded, shredded steak, cut into bite-size sections, was crisp on the outside, tender in the middle. A tangy marinade of lime juice and garlic zinged on the white onions that covered it, rendering them almost pickled. Gourmet Cuban, yes. Small portions, no.

Last year Victor's added a cabaret stage to showcase Latin entertainment; this year it ran a Cuban sushi-and-jazz night. The only laurels that rest here are the bay leaves that adorn the black beans.


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