Second Strong

Most Miamians feel proprietary about Mark Militello, the New World cuisine pioneer who has presided over Mark's Place in North Miami since 1988, and I'm no exception. He's ours. But hey, it's a reciprocal relationship. He fills our bellies with fare that reminds us of filtered sunlight, island trade winds, and the night perfume of jasmine plants, and we repay him by, well, paying him. Mark's Place ain't exactly cheap.

In mid-August, however, a rock called Mark's Las Olas was thrown into our idyllic pond. Suddenly we were no longer unique, no longer the only city to lay claim to Militello's magic. What was worse, we'd now be sharing him with Fort Lauderdale.

Self-involved as we tend to be, Miamians found this a difficult concept. Among those I casually polled, some were concerned that Militello might spread himself too thin and quality at Mark's Place would decline. Others gloomily predicted that business would fall off in North Miami and they'd be forced to make the drive to Las Olas just to bask in the vibrant eating environment they'd grown accustomed to. A few actually resented that Mark's Las Olas featured lower prices. One person worried about Militello's health, another about his ego.

Broward County culinarians (no, it's not an oxymoron) were uniformly delighted.

I've dined at both restaurants after Mark's Las Olas opened. One thing became clear immediately: I'm lucky. The North Miami original served our party a typically exquisite meal, while the Las Olas version, in its first month of operation, strived admirably to meet expectations.

With its slate-and-tile floor and coral-and-plaster columns and walls, Mark's Las Olas is a geologist's dream come true, literally appearing as if it were hewn from stone. Judging by the crowd waiting for tables, though, the eatery certainly isn't sinking like one. In fact, that horde accounted for the most niggling problem of the night: Our reservation for ten o'clock, somewhat late for that area, was not honored until eleven.

One solution for the agoraphobic diner is to snack in the cozy bar area. Though service is limited -- ice water and bread (a sweet onion-rosemary focaccia) must be requested -- seats were available. We ran into acquaintances who said they were perfectly satisfied to share a couple of appetizers at one of the few cocktail tables. "And," one of them added, "from here you can watch the TV."

Craving the total Mark's experience, we chose to wait for our seats in the dining room. We started with a crock of fabulous Caribbean turtle chowder, creamy with coconut milk and spicy with curry seasonings. Meaty chunks of farm-raised turtle dominated the thick, bay leaf-scented broth, which also boasted carrots, onions, and potatoes.

The Caribbean flavors continued with another appetizer, fresh cracked conch. Medallions of the mollusk were dredged in flour and lightly pan-fried until they were moist and tender, a difficult achievement when dealing with conch. A mildly spicy black bean relish added vigor, contrasting with a fragrant vanilla-butter rum sauce that reminded us, despite its excellent preparation, of melted Lifesavers.

We also chose a pizza from the brick oven. The combination of fresh tuna, roasted garlic and onions, aioli, oven-dried tomatoes, capers, and tiny Provence olives loaded the thin crust with a variety of strong flavors. The texture of the tuna, pink and supple despite its high-temperature treatment, worked better than we'd thought it would, though the pungency of garlic, capers, and olives canceled out some of the seafood's subtleties.

A tantalizing pasta dish of grilled pancetta-wrapped loin of rabbit was hardly meek, complemented with a concentrated tomato-basil-olive sauce and a scattering of goat cheese gnocchi.

No one prepares rabbit better than Mark Militello, which is why we stuck with our decision to sample it as a first course even after our waiter informed us that the menu price of ten dollars for this dish was incorrect. Upping the ante another six bucks for a comparatively small plateful of food was risky, we thought, but the succulent pieces of lean, boneless rabbit surrounded by crisp, salty pancetta were worth it. The gnocchi were both airy and dense, the tart, semisoft cheese working with the potato flour to create absolutely wonderful dumplings.

Surprisingly, the entrees were a comedown. In order to serve healthier, slow-roasted fare that relies on marinades for flavor (as opposed to sauces), Militello installed an oak rotisserie; this Texan method of cooking also differentiates Mark's Las Olas from Mark's Place. But the end of the evening may not be the best time to order these dishes. A lovely presentation of duck with a tangy mango-honey glaze was stringy, over-roasting having marred any potential enjoyment of the bird. A sweet potato-vanilla bean puree was an almost marshmallow-flavored side dish, the touch of vanilla a bit too cloying against the dried-out duck.

Similarly, a delicious plantain mash provided little cover for a main course of suckling pig, also cooked on the rotisserie. The slices of pork, which had been rubbed with an nicely understated sour-orange-cumin marinade, were as tough as the duck. A side dish of black beans, which apparently had been stewed until the beans had absorbed the cooking liquid and disintegrated, was far too thick and unpleasantly salty.

Two pan-roasted spiny lobster tails were succulent and juicy, covered with a delicate yet assertive Creole-conch sauce. Unfortunately the lobster was so briny it was inedible, tasting as if it had been fished from the Dead Sea rather than the Caribbean. Even the sweet relief of the aforementioned plantain mash couldn't overcome the seasoning.

Sesame-and-wasabi-crusted grouper, however, utterly restored our faith. Two flaky white fish fillets had been perfectly tended. Under their sinus-clearing layer of wasabi and nutlike coating of sesame seeds, the fillets were firm and generously fleshed, barely requiring a dip in the accompanying ponzu sauce. Side dishes of aromatic jasmine rice and stir-fried vegetables were equally well executed.

Like the rotisserie-prepared entrees, our dessert seemed to suffer from the late hour. A huckleberry pastry that had been listed on the menu with a white chocolate sorbet arrived with passion fruit sorbet instead. Our waiter, apparently tired from dealing with the crowds, offhandedly admitted that the kitchen had run out of the white chocolate. (The restaurant was missing quite a few dishes that evening, a situation the server told us about at the beginning of the meal.) We kept the dessert but found the berries at odds with the even more mouth-puckering sorbet.

Open barely a month, Mark's Las Olas still has some kinks. But the combination of tantalizing signature dishes and partylike atmosphere is also a kick, destined to knock Las Olas Boulevard into Ocean Drive status. Mark my words -- and his cooking.


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