Baleen was an instant hit when it debuted at the Grove Isle Hotel & Spa in March 1999, and for good reason: The heavenly outdoor patio, with white gauzy curtains billowing in the breeze, proffered a panoramic vista of Biscayne Bay that was, and still is, difficult to beat. The indoor tropical/steak-house décor was comely as well, service stunned with uncommon efficiency, and legendary local chef Robbin Haas orchestrated a smart, lip-smacking menu of oak-grilled steaks and seafood. Since then, the restaurant has seen a succession of chefs, but it has never come close to the heights of Haas's original. Just the same, one has to marvel at the level of consistency Baleen has maintained over the years. It really ought to receive some sort of lifetime underachievement award.
We arrived to an almost completely empty outdoor patio, just in time for sunset. But the best tables, lined up along the water's edge, are exclusively for two. An unoccupied six-top beckoned from just a step up, but that wasn't offered to us. It was still empty when we left. Still, the uppermost level is lovely, and we were happy campers despite a view that was partially obscured by trees — and especially after a waiter brought over some urgently needed mosquito spray.
The waitstaff performed other tasks with variable degrees of competence, but in a clumsy, unpolished manner. "Can I bring wine glasses over and you can order a nice bottle of wine?" one asked. Another had trouble with the concept of two people sharing three entrées. A busperson poured the wine, which isn't proper etiquette, but at least he didn't miss the glasses like our waiter, who with wine bottle was to tablecloth what Jackson Pollock with squeeze bottle was to canvas.
Grove Isle Hotel 305-857-5007. Open daily for breakfast 7 to 11 a.m.; lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.; dinner Sunday through Thursday 6:30 to 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 6:30 to 10 p.m.
Baleen's questionable menu concepts get passed down from chef to chef like a set of bad genes. The food is called boutique new American cuisine. I wasn't certain what boutique implied before dining here, but now I know it means "very expensive." Appetizers consist of one soup, three salads, and six other starters; seven out of 10 contain seafood. Prices for the nonsoup/salads range from $15 to $19. Nightly luxe specials such as Kobe beef and caviar cost considerably more.
If low prices prompt forgiveness, high ones magnify missteps: smudged menus, stained linen napkins, water-marked tableware, a jaggedly chipped dish, and olive oil and balsamic vinegar served in greasy white pourers. The latter tasted cheap and acidic, the former like canola oil — although it was probably a blend. Their quality proved inconsequential, because the loaf of Parmesan/rosemary bread they were intended for arrived inedibly old, with dry white mold-prefacing streaks running through it.
The rest of the food was at least fresh, starting with a sizable appetizer of two plump, juicy sea scallops that were tasty in tandem with an especially meaty strip of fried pork "chicharrón." Charred cauliflower "risotto" beneath it was regular rice puddled with parsley-and-truffle-oil-accented broth — plenty of flavor, but cauliflower might be one vegetable best left unblackened.
Three oblong Vietnamese-style patties of minced pork, skewered with sugar cane spears, were assertively seasoned and salted and accompanied by a petite dish of naturally salty nuoc cham — altogether too saline. Another dysfunctional combination would be Asian street food with lobster bisque, or with caviar, or with "boutique" cuisine in general.
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Main courses include a three-pound butter-poached Maine lobster, ostensibly for two ($125); porcini-dusted fillet of beef; and aged New York strip loin. Neither of the meats is organic or grass-fed, but achieves at least some distinction by dint of a $50-plus price tag. We selected a relative cheapie, the "six-hour pork osso buco," which at $32 works out to what seems a reasonable $5.33 an hour. The shank was flavorfully braised, if not particularly moist, and plated with petite lentilles du Puy, whole baby carrots, and braised red cabbage — all in a pleasantly sticky, natural jus.
Six à la carte entrées listed on a separate page comprise smoked and braised short rib of beef; fig-and-Roquefort-crusted pork chop; sea scallops with lemon herb butter; steamed mussels; and roasted mahi-mahi with "crab, avocado, and summer tomato gazpacho." The last translated to a pristine, properly cooked wedge of fish submerged in a bowl of cold tomato-soupy gazpacho, alongside shreds of crabmeat in a ripe half-avocado. The mahi leaked its fishy flavor into the gazpacho; the soup did nothing but chill the fish. The menu encourages diners to "add seared foie gras," a $22 "supplemental," to one of the aforementioned main dishes, but the fatty liver doesn't match up with much.
À la carte courses, excepting mussels, are $38 to $42; sides such as potato gratin, spinach with garlic and lemon, and asparagus with sautéed mushrooms run $9 to $14. Bottles of red wine start at $65 and quickly escalate. We ordered a cheerily cherry 2006 La Crema Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir for $75; it retails around $20.
The best treat came last: two crisply caramelized crêpes brimming with bananas and dulce de leche, with a tuile of mild cinnamon ice cream on the side. Other sweet denouements include molten chocolate cake, key lime pie, and a round of buttery pastry topped with almond frangipane and glazed, papery-thin apples. These are the same desserts Baleen offered the last time I was here, in 2005. Guess some things never change. Like the sun setting over Biscayne Bay each day. Like Baleen always being in the dark.