To say that Mark Militello's closing of his landmark North Miami restaurant was a surprise would be fair. Though his publicist Barbara Raichlen told me he had been thinking for two years about giving up the place, his decision -- announced to his employees on a Thursday last month, appearing in the media the following day, and acted upon the day after that -- seemed abrupt at the very least.
To say Militello's move was a bad business decision might also be just. The James Beard Award-winning chef renovated his ten-year-old restaurant only six months ago, sinking a quarter of a million bucks into the building and parking lot. And though whispers about the possibility of Mark's Place being for sale may have preceded the closure, the restaurant served its last meal without a buyer having been lined up.
But to say Militello's actions amounted to a desertion, as I have heard some whisper, would be a trifle harsh. Sure, I feel proprietary about the man's talents; when people ask me about the dining scene in Miami, his name always elicits nods of recognition. Yes, I am disappointed that I'll have to travel to the Las Olas location to savor his unique New American style. I regret, too, that some of my most formative dining experiences in Miami are now a part of the culinary past rather than the present.
Fact is, we've lost a number of bright young chefs over the years. Nuevo cubano pioneer Douglas Rodriguez left ages ago to crunch into the Big Apple (and now Puerto Rico). New World guru Robbin Haas took off for Mark Miller's venture in San Francisco, though rumor has it he's back in town; Kerry Simon
quit Denis Max's now-defunct Mercury for Jean-Georges Vongerichten's (JoJo, Vong, and Jean-Georges in New York City) hot property in Hong Kong. Two others remain in the area but have temporarily vacated the kitchen scene: Scott Howard, who is now consulting, and Jake Klein, who is working on getting himself a new restaurant (both served as executive chefs at the erstwhile Lure).
Despair not, I say to myself -- count the Jonathan Eismann, Michael Schwartz, Allen Susser, Norman Van Aken, and Johnny Vinczencz blessings we have left. And don't fear change. For every Rodriguez, there's a Claude Troisgros (coming to the Delano this summer); for every Haas a Doug Riess (Grove Isle); for every Simon a Frank Randazzo (new exec chef at the Heights in Coral Gables, which was formerly Jonathan Eismann's Pacific Heights).
And to compensate for the loss of Mark's Place in North Miami, welcome chef Marilyn Frobuccino and partner Linda Rosell to Regions.
At least that's what I told myself before I went out for two meals at the posh four-month-old spot in the Promenade Shops on Biscayne Boulevard in Aventura.
A graduate of New York Restaurant School's eighteen-week program and a veteran of two summers cooking in Lyon, France, Frobuccino made a Mediterranean splash as the executive chef at Mimosa in NYC, when she was written up in Gourmet and asked to cook at the James Beard House. Before that, she headed the kitchen at the Southwestern restaurant Arizona 206, after working as a sous chef for three years at Arcadia. Her impressive credentials -- which are framed on the wall at Regions -- led me to expect a wondrous eating experience.
Unfortunately, I was merely left wondering. The partners have produced a beautiful 80-seat dining room -- terra cotta-color keystone floors, a bar inlaid with chips of blue and green tile, patterned blue banquettes and metallic chairs, butter-yellow walls, and burnished sconces. But an oddly matched selection of paintings and sculpture has the eye stumbling: Modernism vies with classical influences, realism with surrealism.
The disjunction carries over to the menu. Describing her formula as "21st-century Mediterranean cuisine," Frobuccino gleans ingredients and recipes from the diverse regions (hence the name) that border the Mediterranean Sea. Thus spaghetti with ricotta salata and daily risottos are featured entrees, along with lamb and artichoke daube and fideua (seafood paella made with vermicelli rather than rice). But while the fare is inventive for this well-worn century, none of it speaks to the one to come. Unless we're talking a decrease in the literacy rate, as evidenced by innumerable typos on the wine list and the repeated insistence upon spelling napoleon napolean.
Restaurateurship is an admirable undertaking, the quest for excellence at a high level even more so. But in the face of uninspired execution, intentions easily become pretensions. On top of all that, we were left standing at the reservations desk for long minutes, and then lingered without drinks, menus, or even a how-do-you-do once we were seated. Though Regions has been open since March, management seems to be having a hard time predicting the evening crowd; on each of my two visits, the service was knowledgeable but harried.
I wondered whether the kitchen was short-staffed as well. That might explain why half the dishes, so promising in description and appearance, suffered from easily correctable errors. Starting with the complimentary white bean puree: Rimmed by a house-made olive oil tinged with chives, basil, and parsley and served with three different kinds of fresh-baked bread (focaccia, pita chips, and Parmesan toast), this was a delightful garlicky spread one night but a pasty, bland lump the next.
That same inconsistency echoed throughout the appetizers. Colossal shrimp in garlic sauce were tasty, though hardly worth their ten-dollar price tag. Three large (but by no means enormous) shrimp were sauteed in an almost creamy garlic sauce accented with giant, vinegary caperberries. But the croutons that filled out the traditional terra cotta tapas dish were stale, so the pungent romesco (red pepper) sauce that dressed them was wasted. Similar croutons, these scented with cinnamon, were soggy in a bowl of chilled melon soup. Save for that one crummy aspect, this was a delightful puree of cantaloupe and vanilla ice cream. I might prefer this for dessert or as a refresher between courses, but on a steamy summer night it proved to be a pleasing preliminary.
Frobuccino seems fond of tableside presentations, and after watching a square of saganaki (Greek cheese made from sheep's milk) doused with a shot of cognac and flambeed at the bar, my guests and I decided to order it for ourselves. Big mistake. The Kefolagraviera cheese was burnt and leathery and tasted of nothing but salt. The accompaniment, "charred" okra and red onion, was precisely that, and while the vegetables may have provided an interesting counterpoint to a melting slab of cheese -- akin to the deliberately burned outer coating of a marshmallow over the campfire -- this was not at all the case here. The impression was one of eating the campfire itself.
Another dramatic appetizer, however, did succeed. A goat cheese and endive salad with potato looked at first like a whole endive standing on end. But with the touch of a fork, the pale green leaves fell away to reveal a pretty center of baby greens hiding several slices of briefly cooked potato smeared with rich goat cheese and tiny, crisp green beans. A thyme- and shallot-infused sherry vinaigrette wrapped the salad.
The simplest starter -- a grilled portobello mushroom cap in a tangy sherry-garlic sauce -- was the most effective. Slices of meaty, not-too-spicy chorizo augmented the earthy aroma of the succulent and juicy mushroom, while a sauteed scallion, tied in a knot, competed with buttery pine nuts as a flavorful garnish.
Entrees exhibited the same unevenness of flair. What would otherwise have been a lovely fillet of black grouper was overpowered by a nutmeg-heavy carrot puree and vinegary sweet-and-sour shallots. Pan-roasted in a cast-iron skillet, the fish was topped with Parmesan breadcrumbs and an ingenious kale pesto. Served underneath, white truffle-chive mashed potatoes tasted like neither of the billed ingredients but were rich and delicious all the same. A little less going on here would help.
Lamb and artichoke-heart daube, a take on the classic French stew of beef braised in red wine stock, featured four chunks of boneless lamb, two of which were dry and overcooked. But the real drawback on the plate was the celery root-potato griddle cakes. Golden brown on the top but soft, these would have been an ideal side dish had not the woody celery root been virtually unchewable, wasting a perfectly delicious red wine sauce that was fragrant with rosemary.
Rosemary played an important role in the swordfish main course -- it served as the skewer for succulent medallions of fish. Chunks of tomatoes, zucchini, and onions were also threaded onto the sturdy herb before grilling. A saffron pilaf made with orzo, the rice-shaped pasta often used as a side dish in Greece, was a slightly sweet, bell pepper-studded base. An unqualified treat.
An Avignon specialty, chicken cooked in a clay pot with 40 cloves of garlic, was unavailable both times I visited. We did try charcoaled chicken, the centerpiece for a color wheel of complementary flavors. Though a bit too dry, the crisp-coated boned half-chicken was tasty, having been rendered slowly over a low flame and napped with a wild mushroom-thyme sauce. Soft and creamy polenta spiked with pancetta "pinwheels" and slow-roasted plum tomatoes added beautiful desert reds to the oranges.
A rich, mellow risotto flavored with artichoke hearts and hunks of skinless roasted chicken was surrounded by the same oil that lent flavor to the white bean puree. Frobuccino certainly has a good hand with the demanding arborio rice. A dish of fettuccine with polpettoni, a signature meat loaf made with ground veal and turkey, was also engaging. The pasta sparkled with cherry tomato halves and green peas, though the homey -- and homely -- polpettoni might have been more effectively presented as smaller meatballs rather than the dense, muffinlike form we encountered.
A round of white chocolate cheesecake dressed in petals of phyllo dough was a terrific, rich dessert. Frobuccino, who does the baking as well, says sorbets and ice creams are made in-house, but a server told us differently, which might explain the scoop of anemic mango sorbet we sampled.
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Frobuccino's approach and her reputation give Regions plenty to work with. But the place has got some growing to do. In the meantime, when I next get the impulse to head north for dinner, I think I'm going to bypass Aventura and head straight for Las Olas, where Mr. Militello thinks he's shut of us.
20475 Biscayne Blvd, Aventura; 935-9860. Lunch Monday -- Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Dinner Monday -- Thursday from 5:30 to 10:00 p.m.; Friday and Saturday until 11:00.
Endive and potato-goat cheese salad
Lamb and artichoke daube