The House Restaurant recently opened in a renovated 1930s residence, giving it an automatic built-in appeal -- after all, one of the best things you can say about a dining establishment is that it makes you feel at home. The welcoming attitude of the staff here reinforces homeyness, although this certainly doesn't look anything like my house, and unless your abode has all blond wood walls and is filled with nothing but blond wood tables and chairs, it probably won't remind you of yours, either. That's about it in terms of décor, except for a backlit photographic mural of trees that adds a bit of color to one of the rooms. Sounds dull on paper, yet the minimalist Zenlike space is actually quite lovely, the music soothing, the organic ambiance in harmony with the restaurant's concept of healthy cuisine. Guess you can say The House has a few things going for it. Unfortunately food and service aren't among them.
Most restaurants housed in homes serve some sort of Continental-based fare, the rationale being that if you're going to provide a homey environment, you might as well offer the hearty sort of meals associated with such. I have no qualms with The House taking a healthier approach to dining; my wife and I have been searching in vain for a decent natural food restaurant to eat at since we moved here years ago. Wish came closest to providing us with stellar vegetable-based fare, but Tony Goldman chickened out, or shall I say chickened in, dropping the concept before the place had a chance, turning his boutique hotel restaurant into just another overpriced and underwhelming tourist trap. So my problem with The House isn't that it leans toward wholesome foods, but rather that it can't seem to commit fully to this or, for that matter, any type of cuisine. The menu isn't just a culinary-confusion travesty, it contains not a hint of creativity or imagination.
You can start things off with miso soup (which I wouldn't recommend owing to its bland and lukewarm nature), or Vietnamese summer rolls (rice paper wrapped around mostly watercress, with a few slivers of carrot and red pepper), or a Mediterranean platter with hummus and tabouli, or grilled vegetable pizza, or Ensalada Botana (really just nachos) composed of store-bought organic tortilla chips topped with a smattering of refried beans and melted cheese, sparse shreds of lettuce, diced red and yellow tomatoes, black olives, and a couple of chopped cilantro leaves. Or how about a "traditional shrimp cocktail?" Never mind that there's nothing salubrious about eating this scavenger crustacean, but why bother including this steak-house standard at all?
The Cobb salad provides a microcosm of the wrong-headed approach. An authentic Cobb contains chopped chicken, bacon, Roquefort cheese, hard-boiled eggs, avocado, tomatoes, and greens. One option would be to take out the unhealthy ingredients (chicken, eggs, bacon, cheese) and just forget about having a Cobb altogether. An alternative would be to leave all the good stuff in and offer the real deal. The version here keeps the chicken and eggs, dumps the bacon and avocado, and substitutes cheddar for Roquefort, meaning it's bound to satisfy no one. For that matter, why include pizza on the menu? The pies here certainly are not as edifying as you'd find at a pizzeria, or any restaurant with a wood-burning oven, so why not make some sort of vegetable pie that, rather than weakly mimic, can stand on its own? Speaking of veggies, you'd think this would be the sort of spot to take advantage of the limitless array of exciting produce available, but there isn't a trace of any exotic or even interesting vegetable; they hardly utilize fresh herbs. And could they possibly have come up with more wishy-washy pastas than linguini with tomato, garlic, and basil; or red-pepper linguini tossed with Parmesan cheese and heavy cream?
When The House does tilt toward health food, it does so in the stupefyingly insipid manner that gives nutritious dining a bad name. A gingered stir-fry of vegetables and tofu contained only yellow squash, carrots, and celery. This house may not have any bedrooms, but that doesn't mean it can't lull you to sleep from the sheer boredom of its offerings. A different macrobiotic meal is offered daily, as is a vegan standard, which on one occasion was a bland yellow squash gratin with roasted beets and a small underdressed salad on the side. Our waiter brought, upon request, a metallic cup of what he described as vinaigrette, but because nobody bothered mixing the dressing before pouring it into the cup, it was more of an oilagrette.
On another visit we started with four grilled jumbo prawns served chilled with the shell still on atop chewy strings of sodden rice noodles caked in garlicky cilantro pesto. Main courses were better, but barely so. Grilled mahi-mahi was deftly done, with a fat basmati rice croquette and sautéed greens on the side. The accompanying citrus caper salsa, though, was just pieces of grapefruit and orange with capers and whole pink peppercorns -- our local restaurants can't seem to resist applying the misleading label "salsa" to any topping of two or more ingredients. Salmon also comes grilled, with puréed cauliflower, French beans, and lots of olive oil (as if salmon isn't a fatty enough fish by itself). Perhaps the best entrée was pepita-pesto filled ravioli, pan fried and plopped over a sweet bright orange purée of butternut squash. The six round homemade disks were quite tasty but could've used some greens on the plate to make it more main course than large appetizer.
It really makes no sense to fry the ravioli instead of simmering in some light stock, and to offer pasta with cream-based sauce, and to serve shrimp cocktail, pizza, and roast chicken for dinner, and then offer desserts made without sugar or eggs. Yet that's just what they do here. Notwithstanding this lack of cohesion, pastry chef Anata Trompeter deserves kudos for creating surprisingly gratifying treats, like a key lime pie made with tofu, and a tall delightful coconut cake with lime frosting and mango sauce.
To be fair, the food here is freshly prepared, and chef Maria Rossi and her staff apparently care about what they're putting out. They just lack the culinary know-how to make it as good as they want it to be. The wait staff also tries hard to please, though with equally little success. On one occasion our waiter was very efficient, but subsequent visits found the slack, unprofessional service that has become something of a South Beach trademark (water glasses not filled, entrées brought while appetizers are still being worked on, not knowing who gets which dish, and so on). Pricing, too, is typical of the area, meaning you pay much more than you should for what you get. For lunch two of us shared one soup, one salad, two entrées and one dessert; the tab, including an automatic 15 percent gratuity, came to $25 per person. Had we shared a bottle of water and had a coffee apiece with our half-dessert, it would have been $30 each. For dinner an appetizer, entrée, dessert, beverage, and coffee, with the same tip, is more than $40. I don't know what market The House is aiming for, but gourmands won't be satisfied with this cuisine, and at these prices, locals looking for health over haute won't be returning too often either.
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