Operating a new restaurant is a real bitch, and making a profit while doing so is damn near impossible. Still, there are certain things rookie restaurateurs can do to increase their odds of success. For instance, answering the phone is helpful. When I recently dialed the month-old Stone Grill 95 in Surfside to make reservations, the telephone just kept ringing and ringing. At all hours. For five days (and continuing as of this writing). We never made contact, instead taking a gamble of a drive. It was open. And if they answered the phone, there might have been more than two other patrons on a Saturday evening. (Adriana and Specchio restaurants next door on Harding Avenue were bustling.)
Stone Grill's website promises to bring "an archaic style of cooking to the new millennium," by which it means, "using lava rock to sizzle meat at the table," leading to "an experience, not just a meal." Okey-dokey, I was in — even if the gimmick of preparing one's own dinner at a restaurant tends to make me anxious about doing the dishes later. And even if the person who runs the kitchen here is a Texan called Punchy. I mean, if nothing else, it sounded like fun.
"Punchy" Ryan began as a butcher, working with chefs John Suley and Jeff McInnis at the Ritz-Carlton South Beach and then helping to open Café Joley with Suley in Boca Raton, according to a bio. When Shore Club SkyBar manager Donato DeMartiis and philanthropist Linda Rinaldi needed a toque to tackle their new Stone Grill 95, they picked Punchy and his "global gastronomy."
Stone Grill 95
9487 Harding Ave., Surfside; 305-868-7667; stonegrill95.com. Lunch and dinner daily 11 a.m. to midnight.
The 34-seater is cheery thanks to bright-red leather banquettes lining the right side of the rectangular room and large, color-splashed portraits by Parisian artist Caroline Herail that adorn the white wall above. Dark cherry wood panels cover the opposite wall. Beer and wine are poured at a marble-topped bar in back.
A predinner breadbasket contained a few thinly sliced circles of French bread (sans butter, olive oil, or anything else) — hardly enough to sop up the flavorful juices of the best dish we sampled here: über-plump mussels spicily steamed with pickled jalapeños, chopped chorizo, tomatoes, and peppers. Another starter, tempura vegetables, was not "seasonal" per se, but the disks of eggplant and yellow squash were tastily battered and served with sweet chili sauce. Pulled pork "bruschetta" brought tenderly braised strips of meat tossed in a sugary, Open Pit type of barbecue sauce sweetened with mango purée; there were puffy rounds of rosemary focaccia beneath and melted provolone on top. It was filling and satisfying in a school cafeteria sort of way.
For main courses, we ordered the signature mixed stone grill, a grilled seafood assortment, and spaghetti with veal meatballs (one of three pastas proffered). We were surprised to see waiters carrying plates of food to our table with no lava stone in sight; already-grilled meats on the stone grill platter confirmed our worst suspicions. When we questioned the waiter about the lack of rock, he summoned Ms. Rinaldi, who came over and explained, in lengthy detail, why only a certain number of guests may partake of the volcanic stone-sizzled dinner each evening (limited size of kitchen and ovens) and why they must reserve that right — by phone! — in advance (it takes more than an hour to properly heat the lava rock and then quite awhile to cool it for the next round). She apologized, said she would change the website's wording, didn't charge us for the meat platter, and had our waiter bring two rounds of chilled port wine after dinner. This went far in terms of atonement but didn't begin to describe how a restaurant concept could have gone so wrong. The motto ought to be "All fired up and not ready to go!"
Which brings us to another note for novices in the dining game: Do not base your entire menu conceit on a particular dish or cooking style that you are incapable of preparing.
During her talk at the table, Ms. Rinaldi complained that the Nice Palms blog post about her eatery had been misleading ("If you can't afford the airfare to Akita, try Surfside's newest ishi-yaki-style restaurant, Stone Grill 95, where a searing lava rock is placed on your table to flash-grill steaks, chops, and sausages"). She didn't say why Stone Grill 95's site still links to it, as well as to other similarly deceptive posts by Thrillist Miami ("a hot volcanic stone from Vesuvius is plopped on the table for you to cook your own thinly sliced skirt steak, lamb chops, or merguez sausage, searing it with 'special volcanic flavor'") and Urban Daddy ("servers will come out with this big, sizzling lava stone on a wooden board, put it on your table, and you'll toss your strips of meat on the stone for about 40 seconds on either side"). Then, of course, there's the name of the restaurant: Stone Grill 95.
Be that as it may, the so-called stone grill brought a very skinny flank of nicely charred skirt steak, two exceedingly insubstantial lamb chops, and a pair of lukewarm merguez sausages the size of Jimmy Dean breakfast links. Dabs of roasted red pepper purée spotted the plate, but we weren't offered a choice of accompanying sauce mentioned on the menu (Dijon, horseradish, red wine jus, or cognac peppercorn). Nor were we informed of blackboard specials that, upon our exit, we noticed posted outside. The staff was otherwise competent and inarguably hospitable.
The mixed seafood grill arrived as a colorless arrangement containing two pieces each of shrimp, squid-like sepia (cuttlefish), and scallops. Only the last were thick and juicy; the other ordinary components were grilled with little trace of garlic, lemon, moisture, or spice. Other entrée options include braised short ribs, Colorado lamb chops, sesame-seared tuna, and grouper in corn vinaigrette ($17 to $25). The price covers choice of two side dishes, which isn't bad. We tried workmanlike mashed potatoes, decent creamed corn (if not very creamy), and "chef's mix," described as a creative assemblage of fresh, seasonal vegetables that translated to corn with peppers, onions, and some snippets of artichoke heart. Only French fries excelled — the crisp, skinny sticks sprinkled with Parmesan cheese and herbs.
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The less said about the meatballs, the better. Four desiccated spheres of chopped veal are served atop stiff strands of spaghetti barely moistened with bland tomato sauce. If chef Punchy thinks this is the way to serve pasta, maybe we ought to refer to him as chef Punch Drunky.
Our dessert of chocolate molten lava cake came without the lava. Just kidding. We didn't order that one, nor did we ask for chocolate brownie with ice cream, or tiramisu. Instead, we chose French toast with caramelized bananas and a shmear of Nutella — a sweetly pleasing dish that would make a swell breakfast.
If Stone Grill's telephone is working by now, you can call in advance and arrange for stone-top cooking of the mixed grill or of one of four steaks also seared on the rock: a six-ounce skirt or filet mignon, a seven-ounce flat iron, and a nine-ounce New York strip ($16 to $23). As for the lack of lava cuisine during our dinner: After dessert, our guests invited us over to their place to finally get stoned.