SoBe or Not SoBe
Tom Tresh was a talented baseball player, but he was never able to live up to expectations that he could be the next Mickey Mantle. The same hopeful hype would haunt about as many other subsequent Yankees centerfield prospects as there are South Florida neighborhoods that have failed to become the next South Beach. Which is to say a lot. North Beach is, and has been for some time, one such SoBe wannabe, with Ocean Terrace, a stretch of clean, palm-lined streets that runs one block east of Collins between 73rd and 76th streets, vying to be its mini-Ocean Drive. Now, with the opening two and a half months ago of Baraboo, at last and at least the Terrace can tout a restaurant -- with outdoor tables no less, which were filled on a recent Saturday night visit, as were the 50-plus indoor seats. Still, you won't confuse the street scene with that of Ocean Drive. For one thing Baraboo sits all alone. For another there aren't nearly as many people walking by. Also: plenty of free parking after 6:00 p.m.
Baraboo takes its name from the Wisconsin town in which Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus was first performed, though excepting lovely papier-mâché clown and acrobat sculptures that hang whimsically from fenestras between two dining areas, there is no discernible carnival theme (or so I thought; I'd learn differently later on). The restaurant, owned by Argentine natives Dario Tellado and Juan and Maria Pino, is in what once was the lobby of a Modernist Fifties hotel. To the right as you enter is a bar; to the left a lounge with huge, cushiony black leather chairs. The main dining area, just beyond the front room, features high ceilings, terrazzo floors, subdued lighting, and an open kitchen well stocked with uniformed cooks wearing those practically obsolete paper toques on their heads. (Admittedly it does make for a more professional-looking crew.)
We were promptly seated and then greeted with a complimentary sample of chilled gazpacholike tomato-orange soup, served with a spoonful of sour cream and a tiny sprig of fresh thyme; each bread plate was graced with a sun-dried tomato wafer and two slices of sesame-dotted baguette. On a Saturday sojourn, these breads were dutifully refilled by an alert, personable, and informally dressed staff that did everything just right. A subsequent Sunday return, this time dining outdoors, found equally pleasant but somewhat less effective service. Our entrées, for instance, were brought out by one server as another simultaneously removed our empty appetizer plates. Perfect timing! chimed the cheerful waiter, though I prefer taking in at least one full breath between courses.
Head chef Paulo Barroso de Barros hails from Brazil but is French-trained, the latter nation's influence evident in a duo of duck dishes. One was a starter of rare muscovy breast slices, grilled and tossed with raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries atop lightly dressed greens, accompanied by a good sweet-and-sour sauce of caramelized sugar, lemon juice, duck broth, and curry. Duck breast also anchored an inventive main course, surrounded by a confit leg, feuilles de brick (read: crêpe) filled with apples and shiitakes, and an emulsion sauce rife with cognac and vanilla beans.
The Italian side of the menu scrumptiously showcased an appetizer of one large, dome-shape, homemade ravioli filled with spinach, ricotta, and an egg yolk that sumptuously spilled out upon the fork's impact. The ravioli was to come finished in truffle butter, but instead sat in a cream sauce with only a faint whiff of fungi. No such problem detecting the aromas of a gratinée Parmesan sabayon sauce that blanketed eight flourless corn gnocchi, which really were more like airy quenelles of polenta mousse. The Parmesan punch was too overpowering for my taste, though others at the table disagreed. We all liked the slightly crunchy risotto with Parmesan, slivers of champignon and shiitake mushrooms, and whispers of truffle.
Among the ten nonpasta/risotto main courses: osso buco with creamy polenta; grilled beef tenderloin topped with foie gras, raisins and pine nuts; and a boneless baby chicken, corn fed and raised without the use of steroids, antibiotics, or growth hormones. This last was coated in a flavorful crust of grainy mustard, with a diavol sauce tasting like a jumped-up jus of the bird. Tasty, but three pieces each of blanched asparagus, polenta fries, and old, off-tasting, undercooked baby carrots were not. You'd think my major disappointment would lay with the offensive carrots, but in fact the stinginess of three polenta fries stung more.
Catch of the day comes crusted with potato and served over a saffron nage. On this occasion it was sea bass, but we tried a menu version of the same fish instead, a thick, rectangular cut crusted with ground almonds and yielding succulent semitranslucent flakes. Underneath, a quick sauté of fresh artichoke bottoms and fresh hearts of palm, each firmer and crunchier than their canned counterparts. A sauce of basil puréed with a touch of fish stock exquisitely complemented the other ingredients.
The circus theme came alive with scary suddenness as a ballet-dancing mime pranced and danced through the dining rooms to the strains of Somewhere over the Rainbow. Luckily he started just as we were about to leave (I would've preferred a fire-eater, an acrobat, even a juggler), but if you're entertained by mimes or a strolling magician, performances begin when the house is fairly full, usually after 9:00 p.m.
Mimes in the aisles? Now that's South Beach. So are dessert prices, at $7.95 apiece. The waiter claimed they're homemade, but the petite gateau au chocolat, a warm chocolate cake with a hot oozy center, looked suspiciously like others I've seen elsewhere. Prepared on the premises or not, it's a decent, if extremely sweet treat. Portofoglio, a buttery, slightly custardy almond tart, would have matched up well with a pear sauce as described, but instead was paired with a disappointing mango purée. Like the gateau, it was too petite and one-dimensional for the money.
This is a neat neighborhood restaurant with very good food and friendlier-than-average service, but paying South Beach prices sort of deflates the rationale for not sitting on the more glamorous Ocean Drive or Lincoln Road. Appetizers and entrées aren't by themselves totally unreasonable -- starters run from $9.95 to $12.95, pastas and risottos are about $15, and most main courses range from $21.95 to $25.95 -- but a bottle of water costs $5.50, glass of draft beer is $5, and, as I've mentioned, desserts are $7.95. By the time you share one bottle of water and partake of a glass of beer or wine, an appetizer, main course, and dessert each, skipping coffee but not tax, an extra resort tax, and tip, you'll be spending about $60 to $70 per person. A sober and more modest meal can be had for $45 to $50 apiece, but that's still quite a bit in light of the address reading Terrace, not Drive -- and with Baraboo at this point being more Tom Tresh than Mickey Mantle.
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