In the late 1980s diners from the San Francisco Bay Area, the birthplace of French-influenced Chez Panisse -- and, from there, the entire New American food revolution -- suddenly became disgustingly health-conscious. The rest of America's restaurants followed. Obsessed with cholesterol and weight, restaurant clientele rejected France's creamy dishes (Julia Child was reduced to defending butter as fiercely as if it were her first-born child) for the olive oil-based cuisine of "the Mediterranean" -- whatever that means.
After all, we're talking about more than a dozen countries with thousands of years of very distinct culinary histories, and little in common except a shared shoreline along the same humongous body of water: Spain, France, Greece, Turkey, Tunisia, Morocco, Israel, Lebanon, Libya, Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Cyprus, and Lord knows how many other islands. We're also talking about Italy, which barely considers itself one country. In fact a few years ago I was assured in Modena that it would be impossible to find the true aceto balsamico di Modena in Bologna. (It was possible.) Still if one town in a Mediterranean country considers its cuisine so distinctively different from that of another town a 25-minute train ride away, how credible is a restaurant that purports to represent "Mediterranean cuisine" in general?
When Elia opened in the upscale Bal Harbour Shops, the restaurant faced several additional problems. One was its location, directly across the sidewalk from Carpaccio, a place where neither I nor anyone I know ever had a truly terrific meal but which is unquestionably popular. Elia may be only a few feet away, but its space seems to be one of those jinxed spots of urban legend, where nobody, including Petrossian and Dennis Max (whose eponymous eatery closed after six short months) can seem to make a go of it.
Bal Harbour Shops, 9700 Collins Ave, Bal Harbour
Open Monday-Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 11:00 p.m., Sunday to 10:00 p.m. Call 305-866-2727.
But the chief issue seemed to be classic "too many cooks spoil the broth" confusion. Owner Athanasios Barlos (proprietor of the well-known Boschetto in Athens) and an executive chef from Greece, plus two consulting chefs from Italy and France, plus local star Rebecca Puro all added up to a restaurant with such an identity crisis that Puro, whose status as a quality creative chef is matched by her reputation for equilibrium, departed in record time.
Since September, though, a remade Elia has been guided by chef Kris Wessel, formerly of the late lamented Liaison on South Beach. Since Liaison's cuisine was basically New Orleans, one could imagine Elia's original potpourri of traditional Greek, watered-down Italian-esque, and dietetic American "eggless caesar salad" dishes turning into a Three Stooges parody: blackened feta gumbo?
Not at all. Wessel has reinvented the former Mediterranean mishmash as "New Mediterranean" cuisine, inspired by Greek, Italian, and Middle Eastern tradition but just as strongly by seasonal local ingredients and personal vision.
While puzzling over the menu (which really is a bit hard to decipher because esoteric words in many languages, like filone, are not translated), my dining companion and I soothed our stress with a mixed Med appetizer plate. A few of the items among the generous sampling, however, seemed different from their menu descriptions. Truffle artichokes, for instance, had no discernible fungus flavor and tasted more like Jerusalem artichokes. And the savory filling of a pastry-shelled oyster pie, while absolutely delicious, was a dead ringer for ground meat, quite like a beef mini-empanada. Taramasalata, the Greek carp roe spread, was as fluffy as whipped cream and nicely nonfishy but regrettably was oversalted. So was an otherwise well-seasoned chunky tapenade. Hummus was less heavy than the traditional preparation, almost fluffy in texture, and its strong lemon accent made the chickpea purée especially good when spread on bread that had been dipped in Elia's intensely fruity house olive oil.
Prosciutto tasted like the soft-textured real thing from Parma. Feta cheese tasted like it had been made minutes before. Olives were strongly flavored imported specimens. Two mystery items on stems, not mentioned on the menu, turned out to be caper berries (the fruit of the caper bush, as opposed to more common caper buds), and while their crunch was welcome, their sourness made my throat seize up. White anchovies -- not the salty, oil-packed tinned fillets but pickled fresh fish -- were much less vinegary than usual, allowing the taste to come through.
Tunisian-spiced lamb spareribs were a smaller but filling starter and very tasty, spiced much more subtly than I'd expected -- no fiery harissa sauce, just hints of parsley, garlic, and cumin, maybe a little coriander. One caveat: Those not accustomed to eating lamb that's fattier than most pork spareribs should skip this dish. Only one riblet on the plate of half a dozen was lean enough for my dining companion, and the roughly one-to-one meat-to-fat ratio of the rest was a bit too rich even for my taste. (I generally love what fat does for ribs' texture, moisture, and flavor, but lamb fat is much more strongly flavored than pork fat.) Luckily the bracing "yogurt cucumber rinser" that came in a cordial glass on the side helped cut the gamey grease -- once we flagged down someone who could tell us how to use it. Was it a dip? A sauce to be poured on? Neither the employee who delivered the dish nor the next two we asked was knowledgeable enough about the food, nor did they speak enough English, to know that the tart, thin whey was meant as a mouth-cleansing chaser.
Those who have only eaten sardines out of cans owe their misled taste buds an order of Wessel's grilled fresh sardines. Fishy flavor was minimal and grilling transformed the fillets' considerable oiliness to moist succulence. A mix of barely sautéed crisp fennel and spinach was a contrast to the sardines' sumptuousness.
Preserved lemon was featured in an entrée of homemade linguine topped with tender pieces of baby conch and whitewater clams in the shell, a welcome change from standard pasta with clam sauce. This lemon pickle, a Moroccan specialty that conveys a uniquely super-citrus essence to whatever it garnishes, is utilized relatively rarely even in America's professional kitchens because the traditional four-to-six-week brining process is a royal pain. (Imported preserved lemon is prohibitively expensive.) But the salty, flavorful tang gave the perfectly al dente pasta concentrated flavor without heavy saucing.
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A roasted organic baby hen came with the breast meat cooked slightly too long, rendering it dry, but the dark meat was perfectly done. Those who are somewhat squeamish about confronting the source of their meat should be warned that the chick is served whole, making it difficult to escape the disquieting sense of tearing apart a cute baby bird. The fowl also had little flavor on its own. Perhaps age does have advantages. Fortunately the chicken's glaze, a bittersweet blend of orange and thyme, had plenty of zip, as did an unusually good accompaniment of thin green beans and crunchy baby squash.
Atkins addicts as well as seafood lovers will be pleased to know that Elia has a raw bar, with a small and pricey but high-quality selection featuring stone crabs, lobster, whole sea urchin, and cold-water northern oysters. The Kumamoto and Island Creek shellfish on my platter, accompanied by three dipping substances (red cocktail sauce, a rather dense balsamic mignonette, and lemon), were plump and thoroughly enjoyable, except for the annoyance of having the latter oyster misidentified by our server as being from Washington State; Island Creeks are from Massachusetts. (My dining companion and I were both fans of West Coast oysters.) Another boon for high-protein people: Except for dishes centering on pasta or rice, most starches are served as extra sides, so it's easy to stick to your diet.
Well, until dessert. One wouldn't want to miss Elia's ethereal layered mousse of hazelnut and El Rey dark chocolate. And with a good half of the wine list priced under $50, abstinence would be another mistake. Even the house's cheapest bottle, a Protocolo Tinto for an unbelievable $14, was an elegant indulgence, especially considering Elia's posh indoor/outdoor setting.
On both my visits Carpaccio was still far more crowded than Elia, but diners with discerning eyes and noses will soon begin to look, smell, and slip across the jinxed sidewalk.