When Morgans announced that it was opening a South Beach location in the old Joe Allen spot, more than a few people wondered what it would be like.
Normally when a restaurant closes and another opens in its place, there's not much conjecture about whether the new restaurant will fill the old one's shoes. Unless, of course, the restaurant was iconic Joe Allen, hangout for New York expatriates and locals wanting to escape the bustle of Collins Avenue and Lincoln Road.
As frequent visitors of Joe Allen, we had to pop over to experience the first Sunday brunch at Morgans' new space. The exterior is the pretty much the same. Joe Allen never did much in the way of announcing itself to the world, save for just a small blue neon sign. Morgans on the Beach's only proclamation of its existence is a black painted logo on its facade.
The plaster Labrador retriever still greets guests at the walkway, but gone is the no strollers sign on the front door, which we and others at brunch wished would make a comeback when a baby in a stroller started screaming at the bar.
The simple and masculine interior really got a girlie makeover. White dining chairs, acrylic chandeliers, and a lavender paint job brightened up the joint, turning it from a haven for businessmen to a place for "ladies who lunch." Even the bar was girliefied, with purse hooks added so your Fendi won't have to touch the ground.
A large group of women, obviously celebrating a birthday or imminent wedding, took over a quarter of the dining room. We sat at the bar to wait a few minutes for a table, as no one answered the phone we called for reservations, and ordered a bloody mary. We eventually decided to eat there,.
Turns out, the bar was filled with Joe Allen regulars unable to stay away, be it from curiosity, nostalgia, or want of a good meal. There was a buzz about the food and service. Strangers became friends as we bonded over our shared loss (the matzo chicken forever gone), anticipation of meals yet to come and the decor. (Did you know the ladies room has complimentary salt water taffy in jars?)
As our meals arrived, we noted slight changes that were made, biting our tongues when the phrase "Joe Allen would have" slipped out, like the name of an ex-lover that escapes on a first date.
Prince Edward Island mussels with french fries ($19) contained oversized mollusks swimming in a spicy ginger broth, but could have used more bread to sop up the warm liquid gold.
The egg white tortilla with sweet corn, queso fresco, and salsa verde ($10) was large, but chintzy on the salsa verde. When we asked for a little more on the side, it took a while to get a small condiment cup of the green sauce. Our server also noted that the kitchen was running low on the salsa.
We ordered the crab cake, poached eggs and asparagus with hollandaise sauce ($16), whereupon the bartender asked us how we liked our eggs. Confused, we said the menu stated "poached" and he said, yes, but we could have them any way. We stayed with poached. Another diner to our left had the exact same conversation with the bartender, which left her as confounded as I was.
We asked for a side of sweet corn grits ($4), which were served, along with our toast, to someone else. We finally claimed said grits, which were a little lumpy and sticky. The crab cake, however, was tender, full of crab and light on oil and excess breading. The poached eggs were sufficiently runny enough to dunk the multi-grain toast in. Next time, I'll ask for the hollandaise sauce on the side, because there was a river of it on my plate.
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Since Joe Allen (there goes that name again) made some terrific desserts, we couldn't help but order something sweet. We went with the coconut cake ($8), which was something that Joe never made. The cake was moist, with a lemony cheesecake note in the white cake. Served with fresh blueberries, this was one amazingly delicious treat.
It was at the second biteful of this dessert that we started to look forward to a new relationship with Morgans on the Beach. Though we'll never forget Joe Allen and the wonderful years we had together, it's time to move on.