A year ago Ruth Fertel told Entertainment News & Views that what spurred her to mortgage her house in order to buy a small dining establishment called Chris Steak House was a "gut feeling." For Fertel, following her own instincts has led to a 37-restaurant, $80 million chain that moves an average of 8000 steaks a day.
Linda Brandino has opened her Linda B. Steak House on Crandon Boulevard in Key Biscayne for similar reasons. The two-level (upstairs is "casual" lunching, dining, and dancing; downstairs is upscale dining only) steak house stands on the site of the former English Pub, a restaurant owned by her husband Stefano Brandino (of Stefano's, Sundays on the Bay, and Salty's fame). Though the original Pub was torn down in 1986, the Brandinos obviously felt some sentiment for the location; in late October of last year, after another business had failed there, the pair made a rapid decision to take over the new building. Reinstating the English Pub was out of the question, however. As Linda B. says, "You can't replace a legend." Besides, notwithstanding her husband's financial investment, this new venture was to be her first solo run in restaurant management, and she wanted to make it a "restaurant of the future" rather than a reminder of the past.
Another full-circle coincidence is bound to ease Brandino into her chosen role. General manager Paolo Retani, who made a name for himself as the ultra-suave host at Caffe Baci, actually got his start at Stefano's. Though he stayed on at Baci after Nino Pernetti sold the restaurant last July, Retani has since signed on with Brandino. Add in executive chef Ignacio "Iggy" Pogada, who oversees all the Brandinos' restaurants, and a staff of servers who mix sophistication with a welcome sense of humor, and Brandino is blessed with quite a professional staff.
She also has herself. Linda B. is very much a character, likable and more than a little outrageous. Steak house diners are greeted at the door by big blond hair, big red lipstick, big and colorful "nail-art" fingernails, and Boca-chic ruffle-and-lace outfits. After introducing herself with a handshake to everyone in your party, she escorts you to your table, then returns to make small talk during the course of the meal. Several times.
In fact, we probably could have done with a little less visiting and a little more shrimp in the extra-lemony scampi appetizers (three was the amount in each). But especially in this town, such friendliness is refreshing. Home-baked rolls and herbed butter went especially well with the "Biscayne Bay scampi," and with a rich rognon of veal. These were kidneys, properly pungent but a little tough, sauteed with butter, parsley, and juicy mushroom chunks. (For the enthusiast, sweetbreads are also offered.) Roasted peppers, a cold appetizer consisting of red, yellow, and green bell peppers, were grilled with olive oil and dressed with garlic, whole anchovies, and salty black olives. Thanks especially to the aggressiveness of the anchovies, the dish held its own against the potent scampi and the kidneys.
We had some difficulty deciding which cuts of beef to order as entrees A everything from steak tartare to prime rib is available. One eventual choice was porterhouse, of which two sizes are offered. As the 48-ounce conjured visions of the late John Candy's performance in The Great Outdoors, we went with the slightly more human-scale 24-ounce. Cooked to a perfect medium rare, it was a succulent treat. "Slice of the Key" was a more firmly fleshed sirloin strip, sliced and served over a bed of sauteed-but-still-crunchy red peppers and onions. We tasted no evidence of a promised balsamic vinegar marinade, but the excellent quality and flavor of the meat more than compensated.
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Accused by my companions of northeastern snobbery when I zeroed in on the Maine lobster, I submitted to peer pressure and ordered the twin Florida lobster tails instead, two enormous specimens broiled with butter, lemon, and a tinge of paprika. I did enjoy them A any lobster is better than no lobster, and these tails were sweet and tasty. But given the choice again, I would order my usual, and I would even pick it out from the tank in the foyer.
Accompanying all entrees is a baked potato, which the waiter garnishes with butter, sour cream, and chives as per the diner's preference. A green vegetable such as asparagus hollandaise or creamed spinach can be ordered as a side dish, as can steak fries, sauteed onions and peppers (only the "Slice" is garnished with these goodies), and sauteed mushrooms. We tried sauteed spinach, the fresh green leaves deliciously limp and dripping with melted butter.
Surprising relief from the plethora of rich, buttery dishes came with dessert. Fresh strawberries and blackberries were served with whipped cream, which proved necessary to counteract the somewhat sour berries. We also sampled a tart key lime pie that was worthy of any South Florida dessert tray and an apple crumb-and-custard pie that sounded the sole low note, brought to the table too cold and tasting vaguely of freezer burn.
With a solid steak house, Linda B. has found a market that is underdeveloped on Key Biscayne and in Miami, and one that is bound to benefit from the nation's return to meat-and-potatoes eating A not to mention our seeming willingness to splurge on the cash while we're scarfing the calories. The price tags here rival the gold standard set last year by Nick's Miami Beach. But the merchandise on sale in the lobby, from souvenir ashtrays to T-shirts and deluxe pepper mills, is pure Brooklyn. So much so that if Linda B. were to bottle a signature steak sauce, it would likely put an end to the twice-a-year pilgrimages transplanted New Yorkers make to that hallowed borough -- she'd be this town's Peter Luger's.