The costliest real estate is that which sits vacant, unleased, or unsold, generating no income for its owner. No one knows that fact of life better than the city of Miami, landlords of Firehouse Four restaurant. Government officials took four long years to approve new tenants for the empty eatery (it went out of business in 1994), rejecting applicants who it determined lacked sufficient financial backing to keep the 11,500-square-foot space from figuratively going down in flames. Such prudence seemed to make sense: Why rent to a restaurateur who might not be able to meet the monthly payments? But meanwhile the building -- a real firehouse that dates from the Twenties -- grew shabby, and renovation costs began to mount. In other words, all the red tape created an enormous white elephant.
New Firehouse Four proprietors Tom Richardson and Gus Vidaurreta apparently had enough cash to satisfy the bureaucrats. Several months ago they invested $1.5 million to revitalize the two-story downtown building, located on South Miami Avenue near Brickell. The backers, joined by third partner and general manager Amador Fernandez, weren't necessarily motivated by an altruistic desire to preserve the historic building; rather, they were nostalgic for happy hour. The previous incarnation of Firehouse Four hosted the most riotous Friday-afternoon drinking fest of the early Nineties. Crowds of tipsy yuppies spilled out over its patio and into the street like a pina colada from a blender; they downed screwdrivers with as much vigor as they pounded the numbers of their cell phones. A good time was had by all (who can remember it, that is).
To start, the trio hired interior designer Diana Joyce to rehab the place. She preserved the poles that firemen once slid down (they're blocked off by Plexiglas to prevent some drunken customer's inevitable attempt to play Batman twirling down into the Batcave) but redid just about everything else. The upstairs dining room now features a polished blond wood floor and connects to a rooftop terrace -- a pleasant, breezy place to booze it up at an outdoor bar or snack at a dozen or so tables. The first floor, publike with a cherry-color wood bar and glossy tables, is now carpeted with a flower-patterned cranberry rug; the adjoining patio is set up with a half-dozen portable bars every day from 5:00 to 7:00 to serve the happy-hour hedonists. Stereo speakers booming disco music compete with softer, jazzier tones emanating from the roof. Like Miami itself, the new Firehouse Four is a restaurant with multiple personalities.
And since Richardson and Vidaurreta have reopened the place, the hedonists have come. About 3500 of them, every Friday, a plague so thick that off-duty cops are hired as security guards and the sidewalk area is fenced off. That's about 3499 too many people in one place for me, so I decided to visit for dinner instead.
"They serve food?" a companion questioned, astonished, when I told her where our party of three would be eating. The fact that Firehouse Four is more than just a happy-hour venue comes as a surprise to some people, not that the owners make a secret of executive chef John J. Foley's inventive, upscale American-Caribbean fare. For now, though, some of the menu items should remain on the back burner, because while the happy hour may be hot, the quality of the food is decidedly lukewarm.
Literally lukewarm, too. Our entrees, which took an hour to appear, arrived at room temperature. All of our food was barely warm, but a whole snapper ($15.00) entree was the biggest culprit. At our server's suggestion, this crispy critter had been deboned in the kitchen rather than served complete. We were dining on the terrace, you see, and couldn't get our oil lamp to stay lighted: We wouldn't have been able to spot all the tiny bones. But the battered and fried snapper, generously fleshed, must have sat around awhile, because it came to our table unappealingly cool. Piled on a bed of watercress, the fish was flavored with a tart tingle of citrus juices that could have used an oil or creamy balancing agent.
We had a similar temperature problem with an appetizer called "Havanas" ($6.95), two cigar-shape pastries filled with savory chopped chicken and chorizo. Not only did the crust ooze cold grease, congealing from its wait in the kitchen, but the burnt orange-shallot barbecue sauce that was painted in a design on the plate had actually hardened. We peeled it off like Shrinky-Dinks from wax paper. The cigars were accompanied by miniature jicama "matchsticks," tied together in a tidy little bundle. We thought these were clever, if a bit Lilliputian compared to the length and breadth of the Havanas.
The kitchen was kind enough to split an eggless caesar salad ($8.50) three ways, but none of us could finish our portion. Although pungent shaved Parmesan helped to cut the potency somewhat, the garlic in the dressing was powerful enough to cure ten colds.
On the other hand, a cream of boniato and leek soup ($3.50) was perfectly balanced. The sweet root vegetable, pureed with mild leeks, was both tasty and hearty. We scooped up the slightly too thick mixture with homemade boniato chips, a nice touch. Grilled chicken breast adobo ($14.00), a main course, was delicious as well. The juicy poultry, luxuriously rubbed with ground spices, was flavorful but not zingy. The bone-in chicken was served with fresh, sauteed Swiss chard and a somewhat gluey boniato mash.
Dessert -- a chocolate cake bursting with melting syrup ($4.95) -- was the only item that really arrived radiant with heat. And while the dab of vanilla ice cream that accompanied the cake would have made a feast for a Borrower, it seemed laughably tiny to us, and pointed up the restaurant's second biggest shortcoming: Portion control is one thing, but garnish control?
Firehouse Four's Richardson and Vidaurreta can brag about their happy-hour numbers. And they can pursue their current plans, which include opening a bank in Pembroke Pines and co-writing a book titled 360 Degrees to Success. But unless they want their patrons to drink dinner every night, they might want to first figure out how to serve their fare in as timely a fashion as they do their alcohol.
Pacific Time Next Door is another restaurant to have risen from the ashes, but in this case the ashes were still glowing. The sibling to chef-proprietor Jonathan Eismann's Pacific Time, on Lincoln Road, Pacific Time Next Door originally opened as Pacific Time Cafe this past spring. Set in the lobby and courtyard of the Sterling Building -- why waste space? -- the mostly outdoor, 80-seat eatery closed for two months over the summer, reopening in late September with a new name and a new menu.
"It was a planned closing," Eismann notes. "It was just too hot out."
PT Next Door should have been called that name from the beginning, Eismann adds. But business advisers talked him into calling it a cafe instead. "People thought a cafe would serve French fries and spaghetti, and we didn't." Now, PT Next Door, which was designed to handle the overflow from the more formal and trendy Pacific Time, means what it says. It's a shorts and T-shirt kind of place, decorated with an array of soothing foliage and seasoned with fresh (if humid) air. But the intriguing menu resembles Pacific Time's in philosophy: elegant pan-Asian fare cooked by Eismann and his sous chefs Tim Bryant and Thom Batchelor. Same great taste, lower decibels.
And indeed the food is excellent. PT Next Door's casual environment has allowed Eismann to play around a little bit, so he's indulged himself with themes and special menus: Monday is Vietnamese night, Tuesday is Balinese night, and Wednesday is Thai night. The regular menu carries many oft-requested Pacific Time dishes, as well as what Eismann terms "items of their own device" (dishes created solely for PT Next Door). Now when frequent Pacific Time clients don't feel like dressing up or making reservations at their usual haunt, they can order their favorites at PT Next Door, including the yellowfin tuna. And Eismann can stop "making the walls bloody trying to keep up with customer demands."
My only demand will probably be pretty easy to meet: Don't take the Key West pink shrimp curry ($19.50) off the menu. Ever. This nest of cellophane noodles, garnished with seared shrimp and fresh water chestnuts, might be my favorite PT main course. Spiked with coconut milk, the curry was soothing, not searing. Accompaniments, including raisins, chopped mango, and diced banana, were provided on the side.
But then I tasted the miso chicken and vegetable lo mein ($13.00), which tempted me to relegate the curry to favorite number two. These curly noodles were coated with sesame and soy, interspersed with shredded cabbage, and topped with chunks of succulent white-meat chicken. Another simply flavored, delicately balanced dish.
Eismann is very much on his game when it comes to meatier main courses, particularly the dry-aged Colorado medallions of filet mignon ($22.00). Grilled, the coins of beef were sublime with a soy-lime glaze and came partnered with broiled shiitake mushrooms. Outstanding.
No entree portion is so large that it precludes indulgence in an appetizer and dessert. We framed our meal with fragrant, steamed vegetable dumplings in a mild miso broth ($7.00) and a dish of dense, delicious coconut-milk rice pudding ($4.50).
"Thanks for coming in on our last night of business," the waiter at Karli's, a German-Austrian restaurant on Washington Avenue, said as he put down our strudel. No way. Not only had I been dining at the six-month-old restaurant that very evening with the intention of reviewing it, but I was prepared to rave about the place. The schnitzel was tender, the duck breast musky, the chicken paprika appropriately peppery. How could this happen?
"It was too much, running my catering business and the restaurant," chef-caterer Karl Zoisl explained that final night. "But you can call me up and I'll be happy to cater a dinner for you. Small, large, it doesn't matter. I'll make you a five-course meal." (The location, incidentally, will soon house a Mexican eatery.)
He handed us his card. But really, it was small consolation. I've rarely tasted such buttery mashed potatoes, such well-prepared red cabbage. And Zoisl, who for years was the chef at the all-female Foundlings Club (located in the Sterling Building, home coincidentally, of PT Next Door), has a terrific hand with Austrian pastry. But I'm not too disturbed. With all the resurrections and reincarnations going on lately, I wouldn't be surprised if Karli's was the dining scene's next phoenix. Until then I guess I'll just have to throw a party.
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1000 S Miami Ave; 305-371-3473. Lunch and dinner Monday through Thursday from 11:30 a.m. till midnight, Friday and Saturday till 2:00 a.m.
Pacific Time Next Door
927 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach; 305-534-2774. Dinner daily from 6:00 till 10:30 p.m, Friday and Saturday till 11:30 p.m.
19700 NW 84th Ave, North Miami-Dade; 305-829-5607.