Here's Your Chart
About halfway through my first visit to Coconut Grove's Chart House, one of my dining buddies, a native Floridian, confessed that he and his family had tried to put the place out of business when it first opened in the early 1980s. Their gripe was not the food, which, he claimed, was much the same then as now. And the marina setting, with panoramic bay views from both the picture-windowed interior and the extensive outdoor deck, certainly wasn't anything to complain about. What was problematic was the Chart House's phone number, just one digit different from my friend's family's number. "People were constantly calling my family for dinner reservations. At first we just said wrong number. Then finally we started accepting bookings, even asking people if they wanted to reserve our $9.95 twin two-pound lobster special," hoping that the hungry hordes who showed up to find no tables and no bargain lobsters might destroy the joint -- or, at least, its reputation.
Fat chance. This classic, upscale all-American seafood chain restaurant (one of 40 worldwide, of the genre I call "Parent Places" because they're the sort of conservative-fancy, not glamorous, restaurants where you'd take your parents for special occasions or vice versa) is still going strong, judging by my party's 35-minute wait to be seated for an 8:00 reservation, midweek in an off-peak season. But the wait wasn't too boring or too alcoholic since the maitre d's desk provides special high-tech gadgets that buzz patrons when their table's ready, enabling pleasant predinner dock strolls as an alternative to cocktails.
While our first visit's waiter forgot to bring us bread and butter (which you do want: The assorted-grain rolls are fresh and warm, and the butter's herbed), two of the three appetizers we ordered boded very well for the rest of the meal. Oysters on the half shell were not the usual blah southern belles from local waters but cold-water Canadian malpeques: firm and juicy, with an almost lettucelike crisp, clean aftertaste. Accompanying them, unfortunately, was standard red cocktail sauce which would've totally overwhelmed the beautiful babes, but which was easy enough to ignore once we finally got our waiter's attention to request some lemon sections. Clam chowder was New England-style but superior to many versions I've had in New England: thick but not too, packed with clams rather than filler, and tasting like the sea rather than like bacon or salt pork. Unlike many seafood soups, there's no hidden meat in the chowder's base.
A third more nouvelle-ish starter, seared peppered ahi tuna, was fine because the fish was fresh but was otherwise less satisfying than our more old-fashioned previous picks; the rare tuna slices were not quite rare enough, the lemon/mustard dip was neither mustardy nor lemony enough. But I should've known better. In Parent Places, the rule of thumb is to stick with simple dishes relying on top-notch raw ingredients rather than risking cutting-edge preparations.
Since the Chart House's menu touts the freshness of its fish, I wanted to stick to seafood for entrées. Though crab was that month's featured fish, however, the Alaskan king crab legs I'd planned on ordering turned out to be frozen (as they almost always are at all restaurants, with rare exceptions like Shoji Sushi). So when my native Floridian friend mentioned that the Chart House had always been known for its roast beef, I rather skeptically went for it -- and would again, any old time. The slow-roasted rib cut was fork-tender, genuinely rare (not bleu as requested, but close enough), and rubbed with just enough herbs and spices to accent the prime beef without overwhelming it. A bracing horseradish cream sauce was a perfect partner.
Almost as tasty -- and almost filler-free -- were jumbo lump crabcakes. With their light, custardlike base and super-thin coating, the cakes seemed held together by little but faith; almost no starch was discernible. Interior spicing was also suitably subtle, but the cakes' caper butter sauce was a bit much. Something less assertively pickle-ish, like a beurre blanc, would've been better.
Herb-crusted black grouper wasn't bad, but would've been better had it not been overcooked. This species of grouper, while firm, is also more delicate than, say, red grouper; the complex tenderness is a large part of black grouper's charm but requires relatively gentle cooking. Accompanying mustard sauce was different than that on the ahi tuna appetizer but, again, had virtually no mustard taste.
Since shameless eavesdropping on my first Chart House visit had revealed that many patrons were business travelers seeking the kind of tropical waterside restaurant that should be common in Miami but isn't, I decided, on a second visit, to dine alone. Eating out can be stressful for solo diners, especially women; I've more than once spent supper hours during business trips dodging waiters at the house's worst table (the one directly in back of the swinging kitchen doors), or, even less relaxing, been seated next to solo male diners by maitre d's playing Cupid. But Chart House's personnel couldn't have been more sensitive. Though the eatery was easily as full as on my previous visit with friends, I wasn't kept waiting in the bar by myself; rather, I was immediately seated at a table whose comfy banquette had a drop-dead gorgeous view of water, islands, and sailboats. Then, evidently recognizing that the period between ordering and food arrival can be awkward for people eating alone, my very warm waitress told me to help myself to the salad bar while waiting, even though the bar is normally a freebie only with entrées ordered between 5:00 and 6:30 p.m. (it was 7:30 and I'd ordered only two appetizers). No one tried to rush me through the meal, either, though I was occupying a prime table for four.
Best of all she steered me away from the popular but pedestrian appetizer I'd chosen to a truly delicious dish I'd never have picked on my own, lobster spring rolls. While I love whole lobster, it's all too often disappointing in multi-ingredient dishes where it's not the star; in supporting roles, it's usually served undersized and overcooked, so I assumed that the purpose of these rolls' lobster would be, as usual, to enhance upscale image rather than taste. Not so. The four stylishly slant-cut though substantial rolls were packed with Maine lobster meat -- like whole claws, as well as huge hunks of tail. Additionally the pastry shell was crisp rather than tough like many Chinese eatery egg rolls; the shredded vegetables were fresh, avoiding all odor of overcooked cabbage; and the accompanying mustard sauce managed to be simultaneously subtle and a real eye (and sinus) opener.
My other appetizer choice, calamari, was also good, in a very light and nongreasy batter served with a Thai chili/citrus sauce that had enough heat but could have used a bit more tang, in a quantity sufficient to feed the state of South Dakota.
Most diners seemed to stick with just the Chart House's salad bar for starters, and it certainly makes financial sense to pay $4.95 (the bar's price with entrée; it's $10.95 as an entrée) rather than $4.50 for an á la carte caesar salad, especially since the caesar is limp and overdressed and available on the bar. But be warned: The salad bar is mostly mediocre filler -- cottage cheese, mayonnaise-heavy potato salad, the rest of the usual suspects; lumpfish "caviar" is as good as it gets.
There are a number of desserts, but what everyone orders is the hot chocolate lava cake, which was not so much a cake as a construction project: layers of molten-centered chocolate cake filled with Godiva chocolate liqueur, vanilla ice cream (Edy's, not housemade), nut buttercrunch, and chocolate sauce. This dessert must be ordered prior to dinner, to give the chef time to run next door to Coconut Grove's town hall for a building permit. Okay, kidding, but seriously, do not tackle this item alone.
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