Steak House Chic
Back in 1915, the year Miami Beach became a city, Brown's Hotel was the place to hang out. Actually it was the only place to hang if you insisted on amenities like a place to sit down or a roof over your head. Joe's Stone Crab, predating the city's founding by two years, was already wildly popular, but was merely a wooden bungalow. That structure is long gone.
For more than half a century everyone thought Brown's, the Beach's first hotel, had been demolished too, according to architect Allan Shulman. But the two-story pioneer building wasn't gone; it was simply forgotten under layers of stucco that had been slathered over its original clapboards during a Thirties Art Deco-era modernization. In 1992 Hurricane Andrew's winds peeled away enough of the outer shell to reveal that the original wood was still intact (even the most formidable termites don't like to dine on steel-hard Dade County pine). Still the building's interior was a mess, so much so that it remained boarded-up for another decade.
But Brown's is now back in business -- with a vengeance. Raised several feet above its original elevation and moved back thirteen feet from the sidewalk to allow for the original outdoor porch to be reinstated, it has been restored by Shulman and renovated in a very sexy futuristic/frontier saloon-chic style by interior designer Alison Antrobus. Since this past December it's been known as Prime One Twelve, a steak house where noncarnivores get equal representation on the menu. And once again, Brown's Hotel is the place to hang out in South Pointe -- and small wonder given that it's operated by Myles Chefetz of the highly successful Nemo/Shoji Sushi/Big Pink empire in the same neighborhood.
But the restaurant's popularity is not necessarily a plus if you're there for the food. This was a lesson I learned on my first visit, when I showed up without a reservation -- foolish on a Friday night perhaps, but it was early. Even at 7:30, though, the restaurant was fully booked except for seating at the bar. (If you want a seat in the main dining room, it's advisable to reserve weeks in advance, unless you don't mind eating at 6:30 or after 11:00 p.m.) Was it possible to eat as well as drink at the bar? Yes, certainly, said the friendly maitre d'. Fine. When dining alone, I often eat at restaurant bars with no problem; they're great places to polish off a tasty trashy novel.
An hour and a half later (and exactly two sentences into my book), when I plaintively asked the bartender if I could please have my food packed up to go, he burst into laughter. "So you can eat in peace?" he chortled. "You were getting it from both sides there. I thought that was really quite funny."
So did I. The guys to my right and left at the bar were instantly engaging and high-spirited. By South Beach standards I'm a good twenty years too old to qualify for babehood, so I'm pretty sure they weren't interested in me. It was more likely my Kobe beef hot dog, a Deep Throat-size frank that was apparently an irresistible icebreaker to single males -- though none of my talkative bar buddies took me up on my offer of a nice big bite. Just as well for them. The monster link, while aggressively spiced, was a waste of Wagyu beef (the proper name for the type of pampered, massaged, beer-fed cattle from which Japanese and American Kobe beef derives). It is, after all, Wagyu steaks' fine fat marbling that give them the buttery, fork-tender touch that makes the stuff worth a fortune (currently $60 to $120 per pound). Ground up uniformly in a $20 hot dog, the famed texture was lost.
A salad of Fanny Bay oysters, spinach, frisée, and smoked bacon was also disappointing. The four cornmeal-crusted, fried West Coast oysters were impeccably fresh but the salad turned out to be just the usual mesclun mix. And the sherry vinaigrette that dressed the greens was overpoweringly vinegary.
Much better was the signature chopped salad I tried on a second visit, a mix of romaine, spinach, cucumber, hearts of palm, celery, tomatoes, asparagus, and bacon chunks. Large enough for three or four people to share, the salad was dressed with a strongly herbed version of old-fashioned Green Goddess dressing (a mayonnaise-based concoction flavored with anchovies plus green stuff -- primarily tarragon, parsley, and chives -- that was invented in San Francisco shortly after Brown's was originally built). This salad did lack the lovely oysters, but an à la carte raw selection of oysters, at two dollars each, allowed the Fanny Bays' brininess and cucumber overtones, the Blue Points' mildness, and the Kumamotos' fruity creaminess to come through better than had they been cooked.
In fact the entire second visit -- when I concentrated on steak-house classics while seated at an actual table -- was more gratifying. From a list of eight USDA prime steaks, a twenty-ounce T-bone was outstanding. Steak-house veterans generally adore the T-bone (or the Porterhouse, which is exactly the same but with a larger-diameter tenderloin section) because this cut from the cow's short loin is like getting two steaks in one: on one side of the T-shaped bone a small, super-tender tenderloin (when cut off the bone it's known as a filet mignon or tournedo); on the bone's other side, a slightly chewier but much more savory top loin (New York strip steak when boneless). Cooking with the bone left in makes beef tastier (the menu offers a choice of four bone-in cuts), and so did Prime One Twelve's policy of dry-aging its steaks for 21 to 28 days. An order of very smooth, rich hollandaise sauce, for an extra two dollars, was wonderful but not necessary. Unlike most restaurant steaks these days, this one was great unaided.
A friend ordered the "chef's composition" entrée of grilled salmon, which was equally flavorful not just because it was topped with a bracingly assertive lemon nage (only slightly thickened) but because the featured king salmon was wild, not a bland, farmed fish.
While the above fish "composition" was accompanied by whipped caper potatoes and asparagus, the beef dishes stand alone, as is the norm at steak houses. All side dishes, known here as "accessories," are separate -- and expensive. But the good news is that each eight- or nine-dollar order easily serves two to four people.
On the list were more than enough nearly irresistible and unusual creations for a strict vegetarian to cobble together a formidable feast: sautéed broccoli rabe with chilies, garlic, and lemon; sweet potato and vanilla bean mash; fried green tomatoes; rum-baked sweet plantains; four-cheese truffled macaroni.
But you won't go wrong here sticking with steak-house side-dish standards. House-made tater tots, actually more grown-up-size tater teens, were a skillfully seasoned mix of mashed and shredded potatoes that should make Mrs. Paul hang her head in shame. Onion rings were genuine cornmeal-crusted rings of onion, not that nasty onion-flavored batter that too often passes for the real thing. And the creamed spinach -- barely cooked so it was still crunchy and vibrantly green, topped with crispy shallots -- was the best I've ever had. Anywhere. Including, yes, even the Forge's top-secret recipe.
If you've left room for dessert -- always a good idea at a Chefetz eatery, since his pastry chef is Hedy Goldsmith -- selections are all-American comfort sweets, upgraded. Imagine, for instance, chocolate pudding in the form of a warm, runny-centered fudge cake with sweet cream and liqueured amarene cherries (tart, wild Italian). No room? No problem. The just-baked chocolate chunk cookies, warmed up at home in a toaster oven, are an even better bedtime treat than anything you might bring home from Prime One Twelve's bar.
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