Despite the arrival of November and its early nightfalls, the foliage of South Florida typically remains unmarked by the golds and rusts of organic rot. Migratory birds tread the Earth as if they changed their minds about flight. Breezes groove to a tropical beat. As told by the landscape, little in Miami reflects the dramatic cyclical changes elsewhere associated with this season.
Time, then, must be measured by other means. Winter is marked not by the arrival of snow but by the arrival of "snowbirds," with models and tourists flocking to the shore. The harvest and consumption of stone crabs resume at expeditious rates; and operas and symphonies descend like passing storms. Miami may not be a city drastically marked by equinox and solstice, but it does have its season.
And this season a change is apparent in the Heat. The intensity of basketball fever has spared few. Support for the team, a result perhaps of its stint in last year's NBA playoffs, almost eclipses the enthusiasm of Dolphins fans.
Even Jose Luis Pawelek, general manager of Brasserie Brickell Key, is affected by it. Like his clientele, he attends the games. On the night I dined at the Brasserie, I overheard him arrange to meet one of his most ardent supporters at halftime.
It's easy to overhear in the Brasserie. The dining room is bright and immaculate, painted a conspicuous goldenrod. It echoes like a gymnasium with Pawelek's directions to the staff, with the customers' enthusiasm for the upscale (in price), home-style (in preparation) food.
It resounds with excitement for the game.
On reflection it doesn't seem strange that half the diners were Heat fans, enjoying a pregame warm-up of spaghetti carbonara ($11.00) and linguine puttanesca ($11.50). Located on the exclusive Claughton Island (also known as Brickell Key, off SW Eighth Street), a "time-out" away from the Miami Arena, Brasserie Brickell Key is only a neighborhood restaurant by virtue of its being the only restaurant in the neighborhood. And upscale is as upscale does. Pasta may be pricey for outsiders but absolutely average for the in.
Minimalist high-tech furnishings reflect the super-structure condos and apartments of the island and possibly even the modern living rooms of those contemporary heights. Families dine here before doing family things, such as taking in a stupendous three-pointer by Glen Rice or the freshly reacquired talent of Grant Long.
For those without the good fortune (and I do mean fortune) to reside on Claughton Island, the Brasserie is still a wise choice. The young professional can partake of mussels with pesto ($6.50), escargots burgundy ($6.25), or carpaccio di manza ($6.50) with a glass of house merlot, effectively filling the hours between the close of the market and the opening tip-off. And because Claughton Island, like the sports arena, is veritably downtown Miami, there's no traffic to tango from gatehouse to game.
Also, the Brasserie serves until 11:00 p.m., whereas most downtown eateries close with the day. This fact alone makes the trattoria a convenient choice for enthusiasts of events other than basketball. Dade County Auditorium, which houses the opera, is fifteen minutes away. The James L. Knight Center, site of theater and other performances, lies almost directly over the Brickell Key Drive bridge, as does the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts. What this means is that Brasserie Brickell Key is not an evening out, but it's a good start to one.
For all its brightness, the dining room is not a warm place, too functional in furnishing and display to be inviting. Service, while elegant and well directed, was so speedy our garlic-laden linguine with white clams ($12.50) and finely tuned chicken paillard ($14.00) had barely been whisked away before the dessert menus were laid before us like portfolios. When our waiter was unavailable to take an order, another was sent in his place. Lone diners and children may cheer this synchronized squad; couples looking for romance may want to avoid it.
Comparatively, the menu is as disjointed as the staff is focused. Shrimp cocktail ($6.80) shares time with mozzarella caprese ($6.80), a salad of tomatoes and mozzarella discs. France battles Italy's zuppa di pesce ($16.00), a seafood main-course soup, with a veal chop in a rosemary demi-glace ($19.75). Swiss cheese tops the scaloppine Florentine ($15.00) and the chicken gypsy ($14.50), chicken breast in a tomato sauce with white wine, onions, mushrooms, peas, and roasted peppers, as well as an unusually tasty version of French onion soup ($3.00) boosted by a tomato base.
I attribute this array to two things. Most of these dishes originated in areas of Italy and France that border the Mediterranean. It could be said that Brasserie Brickell Key offers a Riviera menu, appropriate for a city that is known abroad as the American Riviera.
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My second interpretation is not as kind. Pawelek and chef Alessandro Lozzi are former first-stringers from Nino Pernetti's Caffe Baci. And while the interior design of Brasserie Brickell Key hardly resembles that of Baci, the menu likewise departs from Baci's, perhaps to avoid comparisons. But the restaurant has wandered too far afield regionally and not far enough creatively. The end result: a barely cohesive gesture that lacks imagination.
Regardless, the cuisine more than flatters the palate. Portions are perfectly sized to avoid leftovers and encourage dessert orders (which, beyond the first bite of various sumptuous chocolate creations, need no further encouragement). My chicken paillard, a pounded breast that is commonly overcooked and dry, was a light yet filling dinner, served moist with sage and lime. A caesar salad starter ($5.50) contained crisp, sweet romaine and croutons that were airy as good matzo balls.
And despite the ritzy location, I sensed no pretense from staff or clientele. Rather, everyone seemed concerned about the ultimate success of the Brasserie, whether they were rooting from their seats or the kitchen line. With this generous neighborhood support, Brasserie Brickell Key may well outlast the lure of the Heat and draw its own faithful crowd.
BRASSERIE BRICKELL KEY 601 Brickell Key Drive, Miami, 577-0907. Dinner Monday -- Saturday 6:00 p.m. until 11:00 p.m., Sunday 6:00 p.m. until 10:30 p.m. Sunday brunch 11:30 a.m. until 3:00 p.m.