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Homegrown in Homestead

Homestead gives me the creeps. All that fresh air. The crops. The flat, wide-open spaces. The townspeople, who all know each other by name, as if anonymity were the eighth sin. The vaunted historic downtown district, which rolls up its sidewalks at sundown.

The stuff, in short, of which my nightmares are made.
Admittedly, the fact that I last cruised downtown Homestead right after Hurricane Andrew accounts for some of my phobia -- the place was absolutely wrecked. And lately I've been hearing reports about the rebuilt and restored downtown area being an enclave for antique buffs. And about one of the most popular places in town, the White Lion Cafe, an antique shop-cum-eatery that serves dinner Thursday through Saturday (lunch Tuesday through Saturday). I believe the words "cute" and "charming" came up. So I sucked up my last lungful of city air and prepared to expel it in crop-dusting country. Naturally, I can't resist the challenge of anyone else's opinion.

I especially hate it when that opinion turns out to be correct. The White Lion Cafe is cute and charming. A trellislike outdoor dining room lined with rough-hewn wooden booths a la Key West, and the indoor store area scattered with a few tables, are chock full of collectible knickknacks, all with price tags dangling. A sign in the restroom discourages "five-finger discounts." A bottle of mouthwash and a supply of little paper cups are also on prominent display in the bathroom, chef-owner Loryann Swank's answer to complaints from lunchtime customers (who need to return to work) that there's too much garlic in her cooking. Swank would rather mar her eclectic decorating scheme than change her style of cookery, an attitude that may eventually win her as many customers as it loses.

You can call her stubborn, maybe, but you can't say she's unresponsive. Swank's handwritten and oft-misspelled Americanized-fare menu changes once every two weeks or so, but she'll adapt any of the dishes to suit a patron's taste, or she'll fill requests from diners who've remembered a favorite from menus past. She indulges her regulars, who are likely to order a dish "the way Lory knows I like it," and introduces herself to strangers. For a while, she stocked buttermilk for the pregnant woman who came in every Thursday craving it, and even sent over a special "Lion spice" blend of juices for one of my guests, who was eight months pregnant at the time. These accommodations have garnered her an extremely loyal local following, including a rather well-fed neighbor's cat that successfully begged a fish dinner from the outdoor tables (mine in particular).

Trained as a graphic artist, the 30-year-old Swank, who also works in the family business, received the White Lion as a 28th birthday gift from her mother Sallyann, a gerontologist who runs Swankridge Alzheimer's Research and Care Centers. Sallyann began the business as a store in 1984, later adding on a publike tearoom, which in turn developed into a lunch-and-dinner destination. All proceeds (except for staff payroll) from the antique store and cafe go to the care centers -- a feel-good reason to grab a meal here.

Even if the dishes don't always sit up and say, "I am Lion. Hear me roar."
Swank makes good use of her Homestead setting not only to procure antiques but to purvey the ultrafresh produce available from right down the road. A crock of soup of the day, New England clam chowder, was packed with chunks of red-skinned potatoes, sweet and firm despite their milky bath. The cream broth was a perfect consistency, unthickened by flour or cornstarch, cradling pieces of just-shucked clams, tender and pink as a sunset. A few tidbits of bacon were oddly flavorless, but their addition certainly didn't mar the chowder's seaside impact.

A choice of house or caesar salad, served with each entree, likewise highlighted South Dade pickings. There wasn't much difference between the two fields of green: Both comprised torn romaine leaves and tomatoes and featured a whole spicy pepper on top; the house salad had shredded red onions and the caesar sliced black olives. Homemade dressings were the main differentiation -- a honey-sweet raspberry vinaigrette and a ranchlike blue cheese were ideal on the house salads, while an anchovy-challenged, raw-egg-free (pregnant women take note), and not particularly cohesive Parmesan vinaigrette was poured over the caesar. In keeping with the restaurant's philosophy, of course, you can order the caesar dressing on the house salad.

Starters are somewhat limited. Moreover, they seem to be variations on a mono-ingredient theme. On our visit, the menu featured garlic mushrooms, "The Crabby Mushroom" (spelled "Crabie Mushrom"), and "The Art of Mushroom" as three of the four choices. For an extra buck or two, any of the appetizers was also available as an entree, served over pasta. Surveying the Art of Mushroom, we could see why. The platter of sauteed tomato wedges, mushroom slices, quartered artichoke hearts, and leaf spinach looked like a pasta dish minus the noodles and was hearty enough to satisfy a dinner appetite. Ladled over slices of buttery French bread, the melange was edgy with vine-ripened flavor, though dampened by too much cooking oil.

That same heavy hand with the lubricant irreparably damaged main courses, which range from beef and veal to seafood to pasta specials. Inaptly named, "Alfredo's Angel" was a devil of a disaster. A dish of chicken and angel hair pasta topped with a light Alfredo sauce was more oil and garlic than cream and Parmesan cheese. The boneless breast had been chopped into strips, then sauteed to toughness. Al dente pasta and a wealth of mushrooms and leaf spinach, though welcome, couldn't pull this concoction back from its greasy grave.

"On the Lamb," an interesting presentation of center-cut lamb chops boned and sliced into quarter-inch-thick pieces, also proved to be a mistreatment of meat. Gristly and overcooked, the lamb was as dry as the bone it was missing. The meat was tossed with more of the spinach and mushrooms -- a sale at the farm stand, perhaps -- and loaded onto a flatbed of firm angel hair noodles. A brothy white wine sauce dotted with basil would have given the dish a nice pungent flavor, had it not been for an overdose of garlic and oil.

Oil was the only thing wrong about a wonderful piece of what the White Lion lists as farm-raised freshwater snapper, or tilapia. This sweet, white-flesh fillet did indeed remind me of succulent red snapper pulled right from the water. Free of pesky bones, the fish was grilled and ringed with purple onions and mushrooms. A side of stir-fried broccoli and pole beans added welcome greenery to the plate. The baked potato I chose for simplicity of flavor over the mashed variety, however, was a little startling -- it was exploding with melted ricotta and cheddar cheeses.

Dessert more than compensated for the vagaries of the meal. Swank bakes most of the enticing selection every day: carrot and chocolate layer cakes, key lime pie, et cetera. We couldn't resist a slice of delicious pistachio cake -- one of the few that Swank buys from Homestead-based baker Terrie Young, owner of Cakelicious -- white layer cake iced with fresh, pale green pistachio frosting. A serving of warm peach cobbler, a scoop of vanilla ice cream running over the top, was another fabulous treat.

Flawed main courses aside, White Lion Cafe can be an appealing place. Though it's going to take a lot of tea and cookies to find a cure for Alzheimer's, I can't think of a more relaxing way to do good work.

Side Dish
Rats are something to exterminate, not celebrate, unless you're feting the advent of the Year of the Rat. According to the Chinese, the rat is romantic, resourceful, ambitious, versatile, and thrifty (not necessarily in that order). To celebrate these qualities, so apropos for February, Tropical Chinese Restaurant on Bird Road is throwing a banquet-style dinner for $30 per person. For dim sum devotees such as myself, who stuff themselves at Tropical every Sunday morning but never seem to make it back for an evening meal, this is a great opportunity to sample more than a few entrees.

The trap is baited with aptly named delicacies like gleaming moonlight soup (for the romantic rat in your life), "fat choi" scallops (for the resourceful one), imperial jade rolls (for the ambitious one), satay rainbow beef in phoenix nest (for the versatile one), and eight-treasure rice pudding (for the thrifty one, who will probably save dessert for later). Festivities include the lion dance, a wine tasting, and traditional costumes. The dates are Monday and Tuesday, February 19 and 20, beginning at 7:30 p.m. For reservations or more information call Mei Yu at 262-9540, but hurry; it's almost fully booked already.


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