Revisiting Here in Allentown
Since opening in Loehmann's Plaza eighteen years ago, Chef Allen's Restaurant has raked in prestigious dining awards the way most of us accumulate bills: rated "best restaurant in South Florida" by Gourmet magazine, voted "best food in Miami" in the 2003 Zagat, winner of Wine Spectator's Award of Excellence, recipient of four stars from Mobile Travel Guide, four diamonds from AAA, and four of whatever-else-goes-one-to-four. Chef/owner Allen Susser has, on a personal level, achieved national recognition as one of the founders of New World cuisine, and further flamed that fame with a trio of well-received cookbooks: New World Cuisine and Cookery, The Great Citrus Book, and The Great Mango Book. It is safe to say that no chef is more closely associated with the mango, not even other members of the so-called "mango gang," than is Mr. Susser. Surprisingly, there are not that many mangoes on his menu.
Allen contends that there are three essential components to every recipe: techniques, ingredients, and the cook. The food at his restaurant succeeds precisely because of its detailed attention to this triad. Techniques are based soundly in the classical mode, with emphasis on summoning freshness and clarity of flavors. Ingredients are cross-culturally connected to landscapes linked by their tropicality -- Latin America, Pacific Rim, Caribbean, and Mediterranean (Allen now calls his food "Palm Tree Cuisine"). And the cook, or in this case "cooks," are an obviously skillful lot led by executive chef Craig Berkower. You can observe them at work through a 25-foot-wide smoked glass window in the main dining room. Chef Allen can also be glimpsed orchestrating matters in the kitchen, but you'll likely get a closer look during one of his forays to the front of the house.
I hadn't been to Chef Allen's in quite some time, and was a little taken aback to see it looking as it did on my last visit. On that occasion I had brought a friend from out of town, one who was keyed into the national restaurant scene enough to have heard about the place before coming down. I remember the incredulous look on his face as he surveyed the room, turned to me, and said, "This is Chef Allen's?"
My friend had apparently been expecting the sleek, contemporary design so prevalent in widely recognized urban dining establishments. Instead Chef Allen's exuded, and still does, a decidedly Old World ambiance, which was, and still is, perplexing for a place that specializes in New World cuisine. Something else hasn't changed much: During that initial visit, the flowers on our table were gasping their final breaths. This time around the flowers could be described as "livelier" only in the way the Pope is livelier than Bob Hope.
While I find the room a bit dowdy, others think it just dandy -- particularly the older, more distinguished patrons who make up part of the clientele here. Regardless of taste in such matters, the space is comfortable to a noteworthy degree, with cushy chairs and large tables spaced generously apart. Two computer screens sitting on a shelf facing the main dining room, upon which the Chef Allen logo relentlessly blinks, represent an unwelcome distraction.
We were started out with a ceramic canister of extra-long bread sticks and a dish of Chef Allen's famous mango ketchup. It's a great tasting product, but I find it too barbecue-sauceish a startup for so sophisticated a restaurant. Butter is provided for those who agree, and fresh slices of olive, sourdough, and fruit and nut breads are served as well.
Chef Allen's classic dishes have been appropriated by so many restaurants that his originally original ideas don't seem as fresh anymore. Until, that is, you bite into them, at which point you realize that Susser makes them much better than anybody else. Turks and Caicos's baby conch ceviche is stunning and pristine, brightly surrounded by snappily acidic yellow gazpacho and a mini scoop of invigorating cucumber sorbet tucked into a cumin-flecked wafer. It's the perfect appetizer for a sultry evening, which is, after all, the very idea behind indigenous dining -- we eat mangoes, Eskimos eat whale blubber, and everyone's body temperature remains in sync. Or something like that.
Too often restaurants try to make foie gras portions look larger by serving two skinny discs, but Chef Allen's plunks down one thick, compact, crisply seared piece, thus retaining the meltingly moist properties of the meat. A marmalade of mango and candied onions, an impeccably browned round of pancetta, and a freshly toasted brioche point supported the foie gras with a pleasing confluence of flavors. Less successful was a salad of wild greens tossed with red and yellow tomato wedges and assorted nuts and berries (straw, rasp, and blue) in a bland roasted lemon vinaigrette that lacked the assertiveness necessary for pulling such uncommon bedfellows together.
Chef Allen's wine list is so broad and exceptional as to be virtually unvilifiable by vinophiles of even the most critical nature. "Wine flights" are available for $45 per person, though the waitstaff is well enough versed in the grapes they're selling that they can be quite helpful if you choose to fly on your own. Service was, overall, polished and professional, though at one point our waiter got caught up taking a large table's orders, leaving us stranded with no manager on the floor to come to our rescue. When the waiter finally made it over, he politely apologized for the delay.
More proof that the original is always better than the remake came via the now omnipresent Floribbean standard: pistachio-crusted black grouper. The fillets were sparkling fresh, the nut crust crunchy and firm, and the smart adjoiners a fricassee of succulent rock shrimp, sweet bursts of mango and leek, and an ethereally delicious coconut rum sauce. Sauces are a Susser strength, whether it be the sumptuous vanilla beurre blanc lifting a rich Bahamian lobster and crab cake, or classic reductions smoothly steeped in deep, full flavors derived from professionally prepared stocks -- like the luxurious foie gras sauce draping roast garlic-painted filet mignon, or the sacred pool of Zinfandel-kissed demi-glace in which Dijon-crusted lamb chops marry a portobello goat cheese strudel.
Mustard sauce, once a staple of restaurants everywhere, has gone the way of fondue in recent years, but when you taste how well it complements a big, lush veal chop you'll wonder why it ever disappeared. The juicy chop arrived propped upon a sublimely executed pine nut risotto, a tangle of wild mushrooms completing the heartily rewarding repast.
Pastry chef Jennifer Brown puts out a textbook crème brûlée, and adds doodads like a chocolate-coconut truffle and buttery biscotti. Still $11 seems steep for even as deft a version as this, especially since the nightly soufflé, for two people, costs $16 -- on one occasion a roasted peach and Grand Marnier version sporting a voluminous golden cap that spouted steam as the waiter poured in a shot of crème anglaise.
The Kit Kat bar dessert is still as richly chocolatey, hazelnutty, and gimmicky as ever, lifted by an orange mint sauce and mini scoop of potent espresso. I am aware that small scoops of ice cream are in vogue, but I want a portion big enough that I can't put the whole thing in my mouth at once and still be able to talk coherently (or at least as coherently as usual). As it turned out, it was more difficult to enunciate with the ball of ice cream tucked into my cheek than I had supposed, but I did manage to blurt out (of the blue) a short declaration to those at my table: "Four scoops!" Rather ambiguous, as no one was quite sure whether it meant I wanted three more scoops of ice cream, I thought the restaurant deserved four of whatever-goes-one-to-four, or I was a bit batty from too much wine. In fact it was all of the above.
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