"Wow. This really sucks." My companion gazed at the brokenscape that is now Lincoln Road: muddy rubble where red sidewalks once were, chicken wire and barricades to keep pedestrians at bay, hardhat-yellow heavy machinery parked everywhere. "When did Lincoln Road become Biscayne Boulevard?"
Jackhammers broke ground on the $16 million Lincoln Road improvement project late this past summer. Reconstruction could last until December. Though the mall is said to have needed help -- new water and sewer lines are being installed, lighting is being upgraded and pavement replaced -- for the time being it's a mess, and businesses are suffering from the lack of foot traffic.
You might expect the Paramount Cafe to be among the most vulnerable. Opened last April, the 40-seat indoor/outdoor restaurant dished out its fresh, French-influenced American fare for only a few short months before pulling in its chairs to make way for bulldozers. But the Paramount has a couple of things working in its favor: 1) Attached to the 1934 Art Deco Colony Theater, the cafe is the landmark's official caterer, hosting theater-related events and selling refreshments at intermission; and 2) the food is that unique combination Lincoln Road has been waiting for -- inexpensive, consistent, and good.
Colony Theater-goers don't eat at the Paramount just because there's nowhere else nearby to go. Owner Jeffrey P. Kant, a caterer from Chicago who spent two years negotiating with the city for a lease and then designing the space (formerly a storage facility), and his partner, Jesus R. Salgueiro, keep costs down and quality high. As a result, on the nights the Colony isn't booked (when tables at the Paramount can be at a premium), the cafe is peopled with locals.
With copper-plated light fixtures, a terrazzo floor, textured walls washed in the blue-green hues of oxidized metal, bright murals, patterned dark wood tables, and wrought-iron swivel chairs cushioned with plush velvet, the Paramount is chic without being overdone, and comfortable to boot.
Roasted yellow pepper risotto cake was a pretty appetizer ($5.95). Arborio rice was molded with diced peppers into a patty, pan-fried until crisp, and served beneath three large, plump shrimp, with a scampilike sauce composed mainly of lemon and garlic. Conch fritters were just as good ($5.50). Like matzoh balls, fritters often disappoint by being leaden and too chewy, but the Paramount's version -- five springy, elastic, practically buoyant deep-fried balls of seasoned breading and mild conch -- set a new standard of excellence. A nasal-clearing horseradish cocktail sauce served on the side was an appropriate but unnecessary condiment; the moist fritters had flavor enough on their own.
The pastas, unfortunately, did not continue the culinary fun. In the "penne pesto" we split as a starter, the tubular noodles were nicely al dente and flecked with a good supply of fresh basil. But the sauce was oily and bland, with no evidence of pungent Parmesan cheese or buttery pine nuts. A blackboard entree of black bean ravioli -- the small menu is supplemented by daily specials -- was also mediocre: six spinach-colored casings stuffed with mashed and seemingly unseasoned beans. Carbohydrate-heavy, the ravioli were covered with a poblano chili/tomato puree that might have supplied some tangy notes had it not been obliterated by the spiciness of the pepper.
A limited selection of salads includes the tomato-mozzarella cafe standby as well as a house salad of mixed baby field greens. But we opted for a lovely spinach salad with an appealing balsamic vinaigrette, sharp green leaves "sectioned" into wedges by (slightly dry) boneless chicken breast meat that had been marinated in tamari and fresh herbs, predominantly rosemary ($7.25). Strips of fire-roasted red peppers and chopped walnuts were mixed throughout.
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The above-mentioned chicken breast can be ordered as a sandwich with citrus mayonnaise. Forgoing poultry, we went for the tuna steak sandwich cushioned on a French roll and served with the same condiment. Grilled rare as requested and served with French fries, the sandwich proved a tender bargain at $6.25. The skin-on steak fries are in themselves worthy of mention, perfectly fried until just crisp while the potato inside is rendered moist and flaky. A garnish of house salad completed this meal.
The same side dishes accompanied a terrific beef burger, a hefty disk encased between slices of Italian bread and topped by cheddar cheese. (Brie and goat cheese are other topping options.)
Slightly more upscale main courses include the tuna steak in a caper-butter sauce and half a roasted free-range chicken; the blackboard usually lists an additional fresh fish such as grouper or salmon, and a pork loin. We chose another special, a pair of soft-shell crabs sauteed in the caper-butter ($13.95). Coated with fragrant capers, the crabs were impressively meaty; the sauce might well have been the same lemony garlic mixture that had syruped the risotto cake appetizer. A melange of grilled squash, onions, and bell peppers, and a timbale of white and wild rices made a colorful background.
Desserts, comparatively expensive at $5.25 apiece, were the meal's only true disappointments. A wedge of flourless chocolate cake had a burned flavor, and a hunk of white chocolate-praline cheesecake was grainy rather than rich. In bistro lore, desserts make a cafe. Prevailing with savory appetizers and entrees, perhaps the Paramount is the exception that tests the rule.