This is a warning: Don't dine outside. Not this summer, anyway.
Forget that an actual TV forecast the other night stated that the following day would feature "sweltering heat and miserable humidity." Forget that the current weather patterns have spawned so many tornadoes we could be living in Kansas. Forget the flash floods, sewage leaks, and sinkholes. Wading through a tidal pool that used to be a restaurant's parking lot has become such a regular occurrence that I've taken to wearing dresses whenever I go out in order to avoid rolling up the cuffs of my pants.
Still, the occasional clear, dry (if humid) night will arrive, and you'll be tempted to sit on a patio and gaze at the hazy stars while you sup. Do so at your own risk. Because even as you're dining, you become dinner -- to mosquitoes.
I admit, at first I pooh-poohed the predictions that this would be a banner year for the pests, that the standing water has provided the most fertile breeding grounds in years. I live on the ocean, and the tradewinds, I figured, always blow the clouds of plasma parasites inland. But after being dive-bombed by those hungry newborns this past week at Grove Isle, the indoor/outdoor "nouvelle international" restaurant that sits right on the bay in Coconut Grove, and scratching so hard that I had to down a Benadryl nightcap, I'm a convert: No matter where you live -- or eat -- mosquitoes suck.
It didn't help that we were actually luxuriating in the plush 80-seat dining room at Grove Isle (formerly Mark Militello's Mark's in the Grove). The outdoor kitchen is located at the rear of the 80-seat patio, which means that servers are constantly opening the glass door that separates the two to bring in the food. Each successive course brought a new wave of bugs (even though the management fogs every night after closing).
Fortunately, the skeeters are the only pesky things about the place. Noble House, a corporation that general manager John Riccardo describes as specializing in "high-end boutique properties," took over the hotel, marina, and pool facilities back in January (the condominiums are still owned by the HMG Corporation, which also owns the island), and soon added the restaurant. The result is a calm, smoothly running operation. South Floridians might be familiar with the company; it also owns the Little Palm Island resort on Torch Key, a facility that Conde Nast Traveler consistently votes among the top in the world (this year it was third nationwide and tenth worldwide).
Aside from ownership, little seems to have changed from Mark's days. The wine list -- mostly American but some international offerings -- is still overpriced ($9 for a glass of Calera pinot noir, and $42 for a bottle of Madfish Bay chardonnay from western Australia that would run you about $17 retail). Dishes too are pricey; much as I love the stuff, for $17.50 I couldn't summon up enough enthusiasm to order a foie gras appetizer. And though Riccardo, who worked for three years as an assistant manager and server at Mark's Place in North Miami, affirms that changes in decor are inevitable, so far the interior -- etched glass, overstuffed Deco booths, blond wood tables, and floor-to-ceiling storefront window panels that highlight the choppy water and lightning dancing outside -- remains the same.
The menu is also familiar in philosophy, owing largely to the fact that head hat Doug Riess is a Militello protege who worked alongside the master for ten years at his North Miami restaurant (which closed last week), six of those years as executive chef. He came to Mark's in the Grove in September 1996 and stayed on after the transfer of ownership, joined by pastry chef Rick Griggs, who hails from the distinguished Mansion on Turtle Creek restaurant in Dallas. Militello devotees will recognize the New American ingredients, including the use of fig gastrique (reduction) and French lentils with the Sonoma foie gras, the Alaskan halibut wrapped in potato and spinach, and the sweet corn sauce and roasted Yukon gold potatoes that accompany the Idaho trout.
One way to ensure a Riess-created meal is to order those dishes that are preceded on the menu by diamonds that designate the chef's signature recipes. Hearts of romaine salad was a good example. Though a bit awkward to eat -- the hearts were presented whole, reminiscent of those old-timey wedges of iceberg topped with Roquefort dressing -- the salad was fresh and delicious. Red onion transparencies were draped over the lettuce, and slices of ruby-hued plum tomatoes, roasted pumpkin seeds, and sourdough croutons were great garnishes. A fabulous buttermilk dressing, aromatic with notes of lemon and roasted garlic, played off the ingredients beautifully.
Key West shrimp bound in soba noodles wasn't as worthy of its gemstone. Three large shrimp that didn't taste entirely fresh were tangled in a nest of deep-fried noodles, though the menu didn't specify that the prawns, their heft reminiscent of Maine lobster claws, would be fried. (Grammatically speaking, the menu is atrocious; the lack of hyphens and the number of misplaced modifiers, not to mention misspellings, makes it a challenge to decipher). Hidden in the garnish of baby bok choy, a supposedly spicy peanut-curry sauce was scallion-heavy and a bit lacking in piquancy.
We lost interest in the shrimp as soon as we tasted the charcoaled bobwhite quail. Also known as partridge, this species is meatier than one might expect, a healthy portion of mild game bird. Quartered over an earthy combination of woodsy morel mushrooms and potatoes (sweet and white) minced to look like risotto, the quail also featured two ingredients that have begun making a comeback in forward-thinking restaurants: Coiled fiddlehead ferns, which according to Uncommon Fruits and Vegetables author Elizabeth Schneider are not one particular species but rather a young growth stage of any fern (and which have also been found to be a carcinogen), were sauteed to peak flavor, slightly bitter like endive with a snap like green beans. And ramps (also known as wild leeks and harvested only from March to June) were grilled and presented whole, resembling scallions in both flavor and appearance.
Main courses were exemplary, particularly the rose wine duck. Riess makes this Vietnamese style: Glazed with a rose wine (a high-alcohol wine actually made from roses), maple syrup, and chipotle marinade, then sauced with tamarind and ginger, the medium-rare duck breast was at once succulent and hearty, texturally like a perfect filet mignon. The two plump legs were also ideally cooked, slow-roasted to a lovely crisp-skinned juiciness. Whole baby carrots and corn, along with cinnamon-scented cashew rice, were fragrant with soy sauce and sesame oil.
Australian lamb loin was a richer choice, five inch-thick boneless coins of musky meat crusted with goat cheese atop a fennel root "marmalade" and boiled fava beans. The entree was accompanied by dollops of an intense, almost fruity reduction of pitted Provence olives and three sumptuous gnocchi fashioned from butternut squash.
Mild-mannered snapper made no great impression after the vibrant duck and lamb, but the quieter palate will appreciate its subtlety. Breaded and fried, the fish was delicate yellowtail dressed with half-tones of lemon grass and ginger (a squeeze from the garnishing wedges of lime and lemon provided most of the flavor). Coconut rice didn't taste much like coconut but had a light appeal, brightened with diced red bell pepper. A smoky, woody aroma brought our attention to a hearts-of-palm side dish, stewed with tomatoes.
We were bemoaning the loss of some diners who paid their bill and left -- more of our flesh for the mosquitoes to feed on, less of theirs -- but decided to stick it out for dessert. Good thing, too. Griggs has a great hand with homemade ice cream, and he cranked out a banana-chocolate chip variety that was generously scooped into a wonderful almond tuile. Also notable was the vanilla ice cream and whole fruit compote that partnered a warm blueberry napoleon, though we found the round, flat so-called napoleon a little grainy.
Although not so much is new since Mark's days, Grove Isle seems definitively to have improved in at least one aspect: a less-showy grade of clientele. The former version was always jammed with a flash-your-money-clip crowd of businessmen with rented companions. A recent advertisement about the restaurant alludes to Riess and Griggs: "Perhaps you should discover these two before they get attitudes." A better idea would be to leave your own at home.
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But bring the insect repellent.
4 Grove Isle Dr (in the Grove Isle Club & Resort); 857-5007. Open daily for breakfast and lunch from 7:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and for dinner from 6:00 to 10:30 p.m. (until 11:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday).
Australian lamb loin
Banana-chocolate chip ice cream