Old Flame

During the era when Og the caveman speared a woolly mammoth, hacked the carcass into chunks, and carried his kill back to Ug and their cave-rats, there was only one known method of preparing the meat: Toss it into a roaring fire. After all, Emeril Lagasse had yet to arrive and popularize woolly mammoth carpaccio with white truffle oil and shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Yet even in today's truffle-oil-and-Parmesan-loving suburbanite, there is still something about cooking over an open flame that ignites a powerful, primeval urge. Is it the gloriously savory aroma of meat caramelizing on the grill, the piquant sizzle of fat dripping into a fire, the earthy, exotic infusion of subtle smoke flavors? Or is it the tightrope nature of flame cooking: One minute too long or too little could ruin the meal.

How the heck should I know? Who do you think I am, Margaret Mead?


Louie's Brick Oven

15979 Biscayne Blvd, North Miami Beach

305-948-3330. Open Sunday through Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to midnight.

Whatever the reason, ever since some enterprising caveman figured he could set a few rocks around his fire pit and charge fellow cave-dwellers $12.95 per person for all-you-can-eat woolly mammoth, restaurants have traded on our fascination with open-fire cooking.

The latest arrival in this restaurant genre is Louie's Brick Oven, a handsome space located in one of Biscayne Boulevard's innumerable shopping malls. Although born of Lou and Debbie DiBono, industry veterans of China Grill and the late Suva fame, Louie's aspires to be your favorite neighborhood café, offering exceptionally friendly service, modest prices, and immodest portions. The fare features a selection of pizzas, sandwiches, and entrées, most of which are cooked on/in a red-oak-and-wild-cherry-fired grill and, naturally, a brick oven.

The menu also lists a few nonfire-cooked dishes for the more highly evolved among you. The classic wedge of iceberg lettuce salad is a great example: half a head of this newly hip vegetable doused with a rich blue cheese dressing, bits of applewood-smoked bacon, fat hunks of blue cheese, and a helmet of crisply fried onion wisps.

There's a decent fried calamari too, though it's more than one hungry person can reasonably eat. But I'd skip the insipid sweet-and-sour dipping sauce and what I consider to be inappropriate marinara. I'm sorry, but if God didn't want us to eat crunchy circles of deep-fried squid, He wouldn't have invented tartar sauce.

Entrées are served with a choice of several sauces and side dishes. You've already passed on the sweet-and-sour, but the peppercorn sauce paired with a perfectly grilled slab of skirt steak was better, though it lacked a peppercorn kick. The meat, however, was surprisingly tender and almost large enough for two. An accompanying side of "loaded" mashed potatoes translates to topped with bacon, scallions, and a crust of golden cheddar cheese.

Pizzas looked good coming out of the oven — the crust properly blistered and blackened — awash in molten cheese and generously studded with your choice of garnishes. And they tasted divine. The dough beneath those toppings was impossibly light and boasted a wonderful crisp-chewy texture. Try the meatball; it's a caveman kind of thing.

Apple crisp was oven-cooked in a fetching little cast-iron pot. Although there was plenty of the duskily caramelized former, sadly there was almost none of the latter, which had an unpleasantly gummy texture.

Nevertheless I really enjoyed the food at Louie's Brick Oven, and I think you will too — or my name isn't Margaret Mead.


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