Somewhere Between Hope and Hopeless
As we entered Chef Curtis's Village Café in downtown Miami Shores, inattentiveness manifested itself immediately in terminal yellow roses on the tabletops, barely clinging to life in chintzy vases. A coffee-shop counter runs in an L-shape across one long and one short wall in this rather charmless dining room, stainless-steel coolers behind it exhibiting so many smudges it looked as if the FBI had recently dusted for prints. For those diners who like confirmation that the bread they're eating is not made on the premises nor particularly fresh, on both visits we saw a tall stack of large, rectangular, sun-dried-tomato focaccia loaves piled upon the counter for perusal (toasted strips of which are served before each meal). Balanced atop the focaccia tower was a gray plastic silverware tray. Once seated, my guest was brought a glass of water in which a few sugar ants were, um, doing the backstroke?
Anyway, now we were ready to eat. The eight appetizers offered here are for the most part familiar Italian standards: fried calamari, steamed mussels, beef carpaccio, bruschetta, an antipasto plate. Unfortunately familiarity breeds easy comparisons, and these proved to be pale renditions of the real deals. Eggplant rollatini satisfied with a red-pepper-sweetened, fresh tomato sauce and appropriately oozy melted mozzarella cheese, but one of the four strips of rolled eggplant was an end piece of black skin, another chewily undercooked. I'd bet a Red Stripe beer that the eight fried balls of moist, pleasingly seasoned, and almost conch-free conch fritters were scooped from a premade batter available through restaurant wholesalers. Lots of places use this product (it's tasty, and for the restaurateur inexpensive and labor-saving), but you'd expect that a café with such an easy, abbreviated menu could afford the time to tackle conch from scratch. Same goes for the "remoulade sauce" that accompanied the fritters -- so easy to whip up there's no need to buy the cloying, gooey, mass-produced stuff sold by the bucketful. I'm not saying Village Café served this inferior type of remoulade; apparently they made an error in their bucket order, as it was clearly tartar sauce.
An exception to the nonexceptional starters came by way of a pan-fried crabcake, its moist, filler-less, mildly seasoned interior wrapped in a golden, crystalline crust. Thin, cayenne-spunked onion rings were gratifying too, as was a caper-studded, roast-tomato beurre blanc pooled below.
Our starter plates were lifted from the table simultaneously with the arrival of entrées. I object to this practice, which is quite common, not simply because it represents flawed kitchen timing or rushed service, but because I really do enjoy the opportunity to breathe in and out at least twice between courses. Perhaps they made the quick switch with a strategy in mind: to distract us from a black ring left on the white linen by the underside of an appetizer plate.
A main course of snapper sautéed with white wine, tomatoes, and basil was creatively described as yellowtail "aqua pazza" ("crazy water"). Though competently cooked and crowned with a pair of garlic-imbued shrimp, there was nothing wacky or distinctive about it -- unless you take into consideration mismatched accompaniments like an Asian stir-fry of snow peas, sprouts, zucchini, and yellow squash, an ice cream-scoop of sugary mashed sweet potatoes, and another of bland, regular mashed that was steamy hot in some spots, cold in others. Use of a microwave and ice cream scoops of mashed potatoes are generally more emblematic of cafeterias than chef-driven restaurants.
A plump, juicy, attractively grilled chicken breast arrived speckled with black pepper and blanketed in clumps of blue cheese, a side of fresh fettuccine steeped in "gorgonzola mushroom fondue" -- or thin blue-cheese cream sauce flecked with white mushroom slices. The chicken was a hearty, generously portioned plate of food at a friendly price ($13.95, which is $8 less than the snapper), but having both components goosed with gorgonzola is a conceptual faux pas that pummels the taste buds with unrelenting pungency.
Roasted Long Island duck was considerably easier on the palate, the skin relatively crisp, the dark meat moist, served with an orange-apricot sauce rather like marmalade but well suited for the peppery bird. Salmon piccata brought a thick plank of fish peppered and grilled with diced, garlic-drenched tomatoes, a lemon-caper "beurre blanc" that was really a cream sauce, and "artichoke and mushroom rissoto" that, besides being overcooked and misspelled, was actually a saffron risotto, not a bad mistake if you like these perfumed pistils, but if you don't, well.... Incidentally, other letter-challenged terms on the menu include "entrés," "chiffinade," "fettucini," and "buerre blanc."
Alternative variations on snapper, salmon, and chicken breast are offered as main courses as well, plus a trio of red meats (filet mignon, New York strip, rack of lamb), pork tenderloin with apple-ginger glaze, and a quintet of pastas. Penne comes tossed with the eggplant rollatini ingredients, or with olive oil, spinach, garlic, pine nuts, and sun-dried tomatoes; angel hair is also served with a garlic/olive oil base, but with the addition of shrimp. Pasta "du jour," our amiable waiter informed us, was ravioli filled with chicken or spinach "in any sauce." When pressed to elaborate, he said, "Tomato, alfredo, or pink sauce."
Desserts are predictable: cheesecake, tiramisu, crme brùlée, bourbon pecan pie, and chocolate bombe. The selection of crêpes was admittedly a surprise, though I'm afraid their inept preparation was not. I was leaning toward a banana-Nutella combination paired with vanilla ice cream, but ordered instead the caramelized apple and walnut crêpe because its cinnamon ice cream sounded more alluring. The ice cream turned out to be vanilla anyway, but that was only a secondary letdown. Unbelievably the ice cream was placed inside the crêpe before heating, then the apples and an avalanche of warm caramel syrup poured on top. Crêpe in apple-cream soup, anyone?
The proprietor of Village Café, Curtis Whitticar, is a graduate of Johnson & Wales, a resident of Miami Shores, and previously worked as executive chef at Restaurant St. Michel in the Gables. Had he summoned his talents and reached higher, perhaps this restaurant could have been viable as a high-end café. But the informal service, low-end fare, low-rent décor, and lowbrow wine list (the selection of bottles short and mundane, by-the-glass picks shorter and mundaner), quash those aspirations. The Village Café might also have succeeded as a friendly neighborhood place to grab a tasty dinner on the cheap, but by putting "Chef Curtis" in the restaurant's moniker, white linen on the tables, and à la carte prices that add up to more than they should, it doesn't cut it this way either. The address may read 9540 NE Second Ave., but Chef Curtis's Village Café is gastronomically stranded in the middle of nowhere.
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