Animal-rights activists make poor dining companions. They boycott tuna for the dolphins and shrimp for the sea turtles. They object to chicken, beef, and veal on hormonal or moral grounds. And, like a guest of mine did recently, they ask servers who are better equipped to describe the pesto butter melting atop it if the swordfish has been netted or speared. Now I don't mean to disparage their beliefs; we could certainly use a few more humane people in this world. But to dine with me, you need to be somewhat flexible.
On the other hand, I've found that human-rights workers make fine dinnermates willing to consume just about anything -- especially if it's called "Dish of Hope." This commendable idea, sponsored by the Design Industries Foundation for AIDS (DIFFA) in conjunction with local chefs, calls for participating restaurants to designate one menu entry as the "Dish of Hope" and to donate to the foundation all profits from the sale of that item. Our party did the Dish at Pacific Time, the upscale Lincoln Road eatery where the yearlong project was launched in May with an auction that netted $40,000 for the foundation. Pacific Time's version of the "Dish of Hope" is a pair of lightly grilled squid served with a sweet Asian salad of tat-soi and mazuna (two types of Japanese mustard green) and a hot-and-sour vinaigrette. Arranged on the symbolic-ribbon plate, the appetizer was expertly prepared, instilling at least as much hope for a fine meal as for rapid progress in AIDS research.
Thirty-three-year-old chef and co-owner Jonathan Eismann says he conceived of the fundraising idea when he spotted some red ribbon-emblazoned china while Christmas shopping two years ago, long before the restaurant opened. This month marks the one-year anniversary of Pacific Time, as well as Eismann's twentieth year as a chef, a double milestone he's celebrating by renovating Pacific Time. (Landscaping and more outdoor tables top the list of planned improvements, along with better air-conditioning and an increase of seats at the "kitchen bar," where patrons can watch the chef at work while they partake of drinks and appetizers.)
Pacific Time's innovative Asian-influenced dishes aren't in need of many adjustments, however. Eismann's method, which has won him acclaim from Esquire, Bon Appetit, and the New York Times, among others, has been to transport the Eastern-spiced fare of California and the Pacific Northwest to South Florida, incorporating a smattering of local ingredients. This year he was honored with a Robert Mondavi Rising Star of American Cuisine award; a television series is set to debut on PBS in October, the same month Pacific Time will begin serving lunch.
Though "Pacific Time pancakes of the night" may not compare philosophically to the "Dish of Hope," this starter certainly equalled the squid in execution. Two pancakes were rolled crepelike around pieces of duck, then dressed with sliced shiitake mushrooms in a pungent barbecue sauce. The strong-on-strong flavors of the topping complemented the duck wonderfully, while the mild pancakes were a pleasant counterpoint in texture.
"Pate imperial" was another dish that contrasted textures to good effect; unfortunately, it had little flavor. Steamed shrimp and crisp lettuce were wrapped in fine-grained rice paper, much like a spring roll, cut diagonally in two, and placed on a bed of shredded daikon and carrot. The accompanying dip, zesty but unnecessarily sharp with vinegar, was delicious over the root vegetables but overwhelmed the bland rice paper and its contents. A gratis dish of julienne summer squash and zucchini, marinated in rice vinegar and sesame oil and dotted with red pepper flakes, was a more masterful, refreshing introduction to an unquestionably fine meal, particularly when paired with the slightly spicy seeded flatbread that was piled into the bread basket along with crunchy Chinese noodles.
Back when Pacific Time opened, I had one quibble: Eismann's creations weren't nearly large enough to satisfy the appetites he awakened with his talent. A year later, that complaint is moot. Every entree we ordered was large and filling, starting with the honey-roasted Chinese duck, its breast meat arrayed in thick slices on a tangy sauce of fresh plums and plum wine, with the drumsticks propped up with Peking pancakes, supple crepes filled with shredded vegetables, rolled and arranged like sushi. The breast meat was rich and charged with flavor; the molasses-color skin crackled between the teeth like cellophane.
A whole farm-raised catfish, stuffed with aromatic ginger and lightly fried in a tempura batter, was served with a gingery "sizzling fish dipping sauce" on the side. Among the least attractive of finned critters, the catfish was served with both its prehistoric head and tail hanging over the edges of the oversize plate, testament to its prodigious size. In contrast to its fierce appearance, the fish was exceptionally mild, chunks of clean-flavored flesh coming easily off the backbone.
Two fish fillets were also deliciously prepared. Striped bass, farm-raised in Florida, was grilled to fragrant flakiness, served with a handful of tiny, tender steamed whitewater clams and baby artichokes. Soft, tarragon-scented noodles completed the dish. Szechuan-grilled Florida Keys grouper was similar in appearance and texture to the bass, and just as tasty. A garnish of tempura-battered sweet potatoes, slightly stale and greasy-tasting, couldn't obscure the delicate spicing of the grouper, which resounded with subtle notes of sake, shallots, and ginger.
Purists will admire Pacific Time's penchant for informing the diner as to the origins of each fish, whether farm-raised or line-caught. In the case of the wok-sauteed line-caught tuna, this information will no doubt be of comfort to the animal rights-conscious. Slices of rare tuna were seared around the edges like Japanese tataki and laid out like flower petals on a mound of miso noodles. Scallions and tomatoes enlivened the sublime, meaty fish.
The restaurant's premier preparation might well be the oven-roasted whole Maine lobster. Its body was split fra diavolo-style down the middle, and the meat, cut into bite-size pieces, was placed symmetrically on a bed of jasmine rice inside the halved shell. Thai-spiced coconut milk and peanuts were the dominant flavors in the palate-challenging rice; though the rice lacked any balancing sweetness, the butter-smoothness of the lobster adequately compensated.
At $32, however, this dish seemed pricey, given the one-and-a-quarter-pound lobster I was served. Another, far more unpleasant revelation, was the small fly I discovered on the side of the plate after I'd taken a few bites. When we called over the waiter, he apologized, whisked away the plate, and returned with a new one -- but with the same partially eaten lobster and without a word of acknowledgement from the kitchen.
In my several visits to Pacific Time, this was the single negative note. I'm not about to blame the restaurant for an insect that may not have found its fatal way onto my plate until after the dish had left the kitchen; it could have happened anywhere. What I do take issue with is the management's halfhearted response.
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Perhaps I'm especially irked because I only recently returned from a trip to Seattle, a birthplace of the cuisine Pacific Time brings to South Florida. One element of the Pacific Rim philosophy doesn't seem to have survived the journey: hospitality. At Seattle's Dahlia Lounge, for example, a popular restaurant (and deservedly so), the management treated my companion and me to a free appetizer and a free glass of wine -- because they were fifteen minutes late in seating us, despite the fact that we'd made a reservation. At Pacific Time, a bug on my dinner didn't even draw the chef out of the kitchen.
But then, that's typical of South Beach, where you can wait 45 minutes to be seated at the table you reserved and not be offered so much as a glass of water.
Besides, dessert was almost enough to make me forget all about it. Pastry chef Jennifer Warren's dazzling array of sweets is enough to drown any diner's pique in a caloric frenzy. Our favorite, the baked-to-order chocolate bomb, was a small, souffle-shape cake that the waiter opened at the table with an accompanying "Kaboom!" as the melted dark chocolate filling spilled forth. Corny, yes. But captivating. Bittersweet chocolate sorbet laden with cocoa and doused with an intense raspberry infusion was likewise matchless. Frozen lemon "fraeche," a citrus-perfumed scoop of light yellow cream surrounded by poached blueberries and topped with an upright construction of sugared shortbread triangles, was yet another fine end to a summer evening's meal. And a Tahitian vanilla creme brnlee with candied ginger and a delicate caramelized crust was the smoothest, most delectable version of this traditional dessert I've tasted recently.
Expertly prepared Asian-touched cuisine has earned Pacific Time inarguable local status, and a full house even in the slowest season. Odds are its second anniversary will bring additional kudos -- the kind of buzz inspired by great cuisine and not the proverbial fly in the soup.