Dedicated to the proposition that all restaurant customers are created equal, I have a recurring dream: I walk into Mark's in the Grove, where I have made a reservation, and don't have to wait more than half an hour for my table, buying seven-dollar glasses of wine at the bar. And the middle-age men also waiting for a table don't stare at my ass; it's not nearly so special as the ones on their eighteen-year-old companions.
I dream I am seated inside the subtly lighted and handsome 85-seat dining room where the power people play with their food, rather than on the more casual, breezy, 65-seat veranda where the hoi polloi (i.e., those not wearing a dark suit) are ushered without the polite question "Would you like to sit outside?" Where the kitchen, too, is located, positioned next to Biscayne Bay as if the chefs wanted a view. Still dreaming, on my way through the restaurant I don't note several other empty tables that could just as easily have accommodated my party.
I dream the manager drops his mincing "ladies lunching" mien when I take a girlfriend to dinner. Women can eat A or at least order A as well as men.
In short, I dream that when I walk into Mark's, I'm judged not by my cachet, clothes, or the company I keep, but by the appetite and appreciation I'm bound to display. For despite my complaints about the general aura of the restaurant, the New World fare here is dreamy.
Since chef-restaurateur Mark Militello opened this restaurant in October, I've been told that he's lost his stuff. That, overworked and overreaching, he's not up to his usual brilliance. That the Grove Isle location of the new place (his third, joining Mark's Place in North Miami and Mark's Las Olas in Fort Lauderdale) is too hidden, a deterrent to dining there. That crowds are not being drawn.
Based on my two visits, none of these whispers is true. Granted, diners must explain themselves to the security officers that guard this exclusive island, a private complex, in order to pass through the gates. And the restaurant is out of the way, housed in the fourth of a series of high-rise condominiums. But I asked for and received detailed directions when I made my reservation, so I didn't feel lost. Nor did I feel isolated. Even early in the week, the restaurant was full.
The menu, which changes daily, is arranged according to category: appetizers, salads and pizzas, pastas, and entrees. The influences, as they are at Militello's other restaurants, are Caribbean, Asian, European, and Mediterranean, all vying for attention in a single dish. But menu descriptions seem deliberately dense, without helpful hints, which may impress teen escorts but tends to frustrate those of us who are of age (not to mention culinarily inclined). Noted for his use of hard-to-find ingredients, Militello crosses the line here -- into obscurity. Fortunately the presentations seem simpler, less dramatic and easier to handle. We loved a starter of pan-seared duck foie gras, for example, crisp-edged and meltingly tender. A bed of tiny French lentils, perfectly cooked, provided nice textural balance, while an Asian pear gastrique (a term of Militello's invention meaning a vinegar-sugar reduction) heightened the rich foie gras. The combination was lovely.
A dollop of creamy vegetable risotto topped with a pair of seared blue spot prawns was also delicious. This species of farm-raised freshwater shrimp from Texas were medium-size, tightly curled, breaking between the teeth with a good clean snap. Truffled split pea broth, a thick, musky finishing touch, made this appetizer unusual and appealing, though a little stingy for the eleven-dollar price tag.
Served on a bread board, large oblong pizzas are a better value; two different combinations are offered nightly. On one visit we chose a savory pizza topped with warm brie and slices of poached Granny Smith apples. Clumps of baby leaf spinach brightened the pie, while lacy shavings of tender, salty prosciutto enlivened the mild cheese. Other pizza combinations might include baby spinach, pear tomato, and mozzarella; grilled vegetable and mozzarella; or quattro formaggio with pancetta and truffle oil.
We stayed in the Mediterranean region with an odd and not entirely successfully rendered plate of ravioli. Homemade, mauve-colored pasta pockets were stuffed with delicate shreds of "peky toe" crab, a blue crab from Maine. The filling was tasty but seemed too light, missing a base. Chopped portobello mushrooms and an underlying presence of creamed leeks failed to contribute stronger flavors. Taken separately, a pick-up-sticks pile of freshly fried, greaseless shoestring potatoes were some of the best pommes frites I've ever had, but over ravioli they were weird, starch on starch.
Fish selections dominate the entrees, which is apropos given the restaurant's picturesque locale. Marinated in sprightly lemongrass, yellowfin tuna was fabulous, an inches-thick steak seared like tataki and left a deep ruby red in the middle. Meaty and vibrant, the fish perched on black Thai rice, firm nutty grains like shards of onyx. The vegetable spring roll served alongside comprised two sections of rice-paper-wrapped julienned raw carrots and squashes. Pickled ginger, a garnish, and tangerine ponzu sauce unified the elements of this dish into a satisfying whole.
Crisp-skinned sea bass propped over parsnip mash was excellent as well. A flat fillet, the bass was flaky and white, with one side still attached to crunchy pan-fried skin. Chopped calaloo salad, jewel-green and kale-like, edged the plate. A sorrel flower sauce was a light and unobtrusive complement, more aroma than added-on fancy.
Rack of lamb with grilled aubergine, goat cheese mash, French beans, and a picholine-merlot sauce sounded enticing, as did a grilled veal chop with truffled George Blanc potatoes, asparagus, and a cognac-hazelnut sauce, but at $38 and $37 respectively, too rich. For those of you who don't make a habit of carrying Larousse's Gastronomique with you, here's the translation: lamb chop with eggplant and olive-red wine sauce, and a veal chop with Idaho potatoes named after the famous but misspelled chef Georges Blanc. A great alternative for the game lover was a five-spice duck breast and confit duck leg. Medium rare and buttery as filet mignon, the breast was presented sliced and fanned out, rimmed by a small and tasty layer of fat. The duck leg was stunning, chunks of falling-apart dark meat held together by a skin of deep-fried coating; not only was the duck breast rare, so was the novelty of enjoying all parts of the bird equally. Pearly Egyptian couscous, larger and rounder than the Moroccan variety, was a pretty centerpiece, and a drizzle of Asian pear sauce was again a sweet but not overpowering layer of flavor.
Entree portions are generous enough so that dessert is not a necessity, but a silky chocolate crepe layer cake, like tiramisu in texture and Boston cream pie in taste, was too hard to resist.
Going to bed after such a fruitful meal is a recipe for REM sleep. After both meals I had at Mark's in the Grove, I spent the night in rapt moving-picture attention, reliving the complex fare over and over again. But given the management's pompous disregard for the clientele, and the false sophistication of those same customers, a great dinner at Mark's is one thing to dream about and quite another to actually experience.
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