Poetry to the Palate

This week I asked my elementary school creative writing students to compose a haiku about their favorite food. I explained to them that because haiku are so short -- three-line poems with five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, and five in the third -- every word counts. It's especially important to use descriptive words, I said, so you can get your point across in a small space. They nodded agreeably enough and took up their pencils, complaining only when I said yes, the poems had to be in cursive.

Now, I don't expect my kids to be Matuso Basho (a Japanese poet of rare distinction). I certainly didn't think they'd write about foie gras and caviar, either, nor would I want them to. So when the 70-odd haiku were turned in, I wasn't surprised that most of them in one way or another were about pizza.

A big fan of passionate purple prose, I was, however, a little disappointed in their choice of adjectives. The cheese wasn't gooey or melty or elastic or stringy, it was yummy. The sauce wasn't sweet or garlicky or juicy, it was yummy. And the crust wasn't crisp or soft or tender, it was yummy. In fact, a standard haiku written by a nine-year-old, I discovered, goes something like this:

I like pizza 'cause
it's yummy with cheese and sauce
Yum yum pizza yum

No, no, no, I told them, handing back their poems. Use words that have a smell to them, a flavor. You want your reader to experience the pizza as you experience it, to taste it the way you taste it.

I don't understand, they said in one voice. One great big whiny voice. Obviously I was asking for the impossible; after all, there aren't any words in the English language more descriptive than yum. Unless it's yuk.

Communication between teachers and students breaks down easily in an elementary school. Clearly, I had to stop reacting like a food critic and start thinking like a kid. I needed to remember how I was speechless when served that most delicious of meals, pizza and Coke. I needed to touch base with my teachers, to redefine awe for myself.

Enter Two Chefs.
Located in the Dixie Pointe Shopping Center on South Dixie Highway and Ludlam Road, Two Chefs is the culmination of an extremely profitable partnership. A couple of years ago, San Francisco emigre chef Jan Jorgensen closed down his namesake Coconut Grove restaurant, Janjo's, and teamed up with local legend Soren Bredahl, former chef-proprietor of Food Among the Flowers, a Design District hit. The two chefs, both Danish and with a common background in European cookery, took a break from the crushing labor of running restaurants and opened Two Chefs Cooking, a culinary institute for nonprofessionals. (Their poetic motto includes the lines "We may live without friends, we may live without books/But civilized men cannot live without cooks!") The school also sells cookware, appliances, and a range of homemade goods, giving JoAnna's Marketplace (in the same shopping center) customers an alternative for spending their dough.

Maybe that retail experience is why the adjoining 75-seat restaurant looks like a page from the Williams-Sonoma catalogue. Exceptionally well designed, the space is elegant and sleek without pretensions; a California bistro in atmosphere, the entire restaurant is nonsmoking. Decorative plates and copper cooking utensils hang on the molded white walls, as does practically the entire series of framed food posters from Ten Speed Press, depicting everything from chili peppers to varieties of eggplant. The open kitchen in which Jorgensen was hard at work on the night I visited is fronted by a wood-burning brick oven that emits lovely aromas to those sitting near enough (we were).

Our table was one of the only two bad ones in the house, angled off to the side of the main dining room, where they stick ladies lunching and poor relations. All night long I got dripped on, from either a leaking roof or an overworked air conditioner. That wood-burning oven made up for it, though, baking everything from the dense country homemade bread served in a ceramic tart pan with butter and light green olive oil to the crisp pizzas to nutty garlic to game birds.

The fare is a conglomerate of the chefs' varied experiences. Bredahl, who graduated from the Copenhagen Restaurant Institute and served as private chef to Princess Grace of Monaco, adds a regal touch with traditional ingredients. Jorgensen, a veteran of the famous San Fran eatery Stars, provides some California whimsy. Both men are innovative and like to use regional goods and purveyors. If we had to label it, we could call the cuisine Califloropean. Or, like my students, we could simply say, "Yum."

The menu changes every two weeks, so the seared prosciutto-wrapped foie gras with huckleberry jam and parsnip chips or the baked Malpeque oysters with pine nut and reggiano- sabayon custard starters might not be around for long. No matter. They'll be replaced with something as good as the oxtail, braised in a dark, wine-rich sauce. Served in a bowl, garnished with collard greens, and earthy with leeks, the sections of oxtail were a fabulous appetizer, lean meat sliding right off the bones like lamb shank. Of course, bread-dipping opportunities were at an all-time high, especially considering the spongy homemade loaf.

Wood-oven-baked white asparagus and lobster cassoulet with baby artichokes was a prettier presentation. Sections of Maine lobster, including an entire claw, gleamed pink among the green artichoke bottoms and pearl onions. The only problem we detected was a noticeable absence of white asparagus. Still, this dish was beautifully light, tasting mostly of full-flavored, natural juices accented by a dose of white wine.

A tartlet of snails blew it away. The best starter I've had in a long time, this was a pastry dough, dense and buttery, done in the oven and topped with spinach, golden chanterelles, and a smattering of rich, succulent, garlicky snails. Roasted shallot butter moistened the little pie, which lured everyone's attention away from the rest of the dishes.

Pizza drew our focus back to the rest of the meal. We ordered it as an appetizer, though it's filling enough for the main course. At least three varieties are offered nightly; we opted for the pizza with chicken and pureed eggplant. Roasted before being minced, the eggplant acted as a sauce and was the base for poached cloves of garlic.

Main courses highlight the methods of preparation rather than the preparation itself. In other words, the mindfulnessthese two chefs give to the process pays off bigtime. Even something as simple as penne pasta with sauteed jumbo shrimp, baby artichokes, shiitake mushrooms, and tomato-eggplant sauce was heavenly, given the quality of the shrimp and the perfect texture of the vegetables. Mahi-mahi, a steaming white fillet garnished with separate pineapple and black bean concoctions and red peppers steeped in coconut milk, sounded delicate but was actually pretty hearty. Like the oxtail, this dish reminded us of Janjo's Caribbean sphere of influence; also like the oxtail, this fish was better than anything I've had on the islands.

Count on wood-oven-roasted game to show up once in a while. We were delighted to encounter a fantastic rabbit fricassee. Hunks of white-meat, on-the-bone rabbit were lightly sauteed, then stewed with red and yellow peppers and root vegetables like carrots and turnips for a fragrant result. Nothing gamy about this game, just mild, tantalizing -- okay, tastes like chicken -- rabbit.

A menu wouldn't be complete without red meat, and between the two of 'em, Bredahl and Jorgensen know how to cook just about every kind to a T. Hence a great grilled filet mignon, thick and juicy and tender enough to entice even the strictest vegetarian. The steak was rimmed by a Yukon gold potato mash and set on a mouth-watering porcini mushroom gravy. Asparagus, green instead of the billed white, was bundled with salty, crackling pancetta and served on the side.

Pastry chef Peter Noel presents a seasonal assortment of baked desserts. We enjoyed the plum gingerbread pudding, a crusty affair bursting with fresh plum sections and topped with a dab of cinnamon ice cream. But nothing could compare to the white chocolate souffle. We had to wait for it, as one must for all good things; waiters might want to consider offering it as an option at the start of the meal. But it was worth every second. The custardy round was hot from the oven, filled with air and framed by two sauces, a tart-sweet raspberry and a milky chocolate ganache. Bittersweet cocoa truffles, which were left off the souffle by accident, were served separately.

I have high standards, but I'm always willing to ignore a few peccadillos in pursuit of the truly spectacular. Gifted students sometimes get away with poor behavior; gifted chefs (especially in this city) get away with making me buy seven-dollar glasses of wine at the bar while I wait for my reservation to be honored, or with charging me for valet parking in a municipal lot. At Two Chefs, I was startled to realize there was nothing to ignore except the drops of water bouncing me into a bad hair night. The do-it-yourself parking lot is wide open, and the bartender bestows free champagne should you simmer too long while your table is readied. Militello, Susser, Van Aken, Eismann -- they haven't had enough challenges lately. We could all take a lesson from these Two Chefs as we welcome them back to the honor roll:

I like Two Chefs 'cause
Soren and Jan make good food
Yum yum Two Chefs yum

Two Chefs
8287 S Dixie Hwy, South Miami; 663-2100.
Lunch daily from noon to 2:30 and dinner from 6:00 to 10:30 p.m.

Tartlet of snails
Pizza with pureeed eggplant and chicken
Filet mignon
White chocolate souffle


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