To most Americans Danish cuisine means three things: herring, lots more herring, and Tuborg beer. And of the three, only the last really has caught on. Despite the fact that it is said Danes have a different herring preparation for every day of the year, none of the 365 has exactly sent Italian or New World chefs racing to the kitchen to rewrite their menus. Those who actually live in, or who have visited, Denmark realize there has always been more to Danish food. For some reason, however, the best traditional cuisine hasn't survived the translation from Denmark. Smørrebrød, the little open-faced sandwiches (in hundreds of varieties) that in their home country are as elegantly constructed as mini-still-life sculptures, are interpreted here as not much more than regulation deli ham-and-cheese sandwiches with the top slice left off. Ribbensteg? Right. Just try and find this supersucculent cut of pork rib roast with the crackling layer left on. Smorgasbord, aside from being more a Swedish than a Danish tradition, is here just one more buffet table -- with lots more herring.
As for what Continental cuisine has meant in the United States, well, to put it kindly, it makes American Danish cuisine look like Michelin three-star stuff. All those cholesterol-clogged cream sauces with haute prices to match -- it's enough to induce dread, plus instant psychosomatic heart attacks, in all taste- and health-minded American diners.
So when Bistro Zinc, featuring what many press releases described as "Danish/Continental" cuisine, opened about a year ago, I didn't exactly rush to reserve, fearing a double-deadly whammy.
17901 Biscayne Blvd., Aventura
305-935-2202. Open daily 5:30 to 11:00 p.m.
Fortunately I was dead wrong.
What Bistro Zinc serves up is less representative of traditional Danish and/or traditional Continental cuisine than of the sort of food new Danish chefs (in Denmark) have been trying out for the past half-dozen years, or the sort of inventive new Continental that one can find at Crystal Café. It's totally herring-free, lightened-up, mostly Mediterranean-influenced food, served in an upscale venue -- but at less than upscale prices. No, it's not cutting edge on a Norman's or Mark's scale. But it's quite tasty. And from the look of the many multigenerational tables I observed (among the predominantly octogenarian crowd one would expect, given the location) during a couple of recent meals there, Bistro Zinc is a place where all generations can be satisfied.
The first thing one notices, aside from the spacious room's stylish dark-red walls and less stylish wall-to-wall picture window view of Aventura Mall's parking lot, is that the wine list is fairly priced -- astonishingly so. A Laboure Roi Puligny Montrachet is $48; a Perrier-Joüet flower-bottle champagne is $125; the respectable if not great Sauvion Sancerre we ordered was $30. These prices are, at worst, not more than a third above what one would pay at a discount liquor store. Many upscale restaurants charge two and a half or three times retail.
The second thing one notices is that the warm bread -- cute crusty little "parent generation" dinner rolls and "our generation" herb-studded focaccia squares -- is quite good, and the garlic-packed olive oil that comes with it is even better. As a veteran restaurant reviewer, I learned long ago to try just a bite of the breads as a meal predictor (if the bread's great, the meal probably will be at least decent), not, as my late grandma always warned, to "stuff yourself on starches!" With Zinc's garlic dip, it was hard not to stuff. In fact it was hard to resist ladling the oil directly into my backpack to bring home. Sorry, Nana, wherever you are.
Among the eleven appetizers, the parfait of tuna and salmon tartar was a standout, despite the misnomer. It's not a parfait; it's one of those Nineties "stacked" cylindrical affairs, alternating good diced tuna and superdiced salmon with a spoonful of sturgeon caviar plus a generous portion of salmon roe. The exemplary raw fish is sufficiently seasoned by itself; a thinned crème fraîche dressing makes the dish much better than sufficient.
A single order of shrimp cigars was a terrific appetite-teaser for four. Small, perfectly cooked shrimp were wrapped, cigarlike, in lightly fried crêpe-thin flour tortillas: very festive finger food. The cigars actually were spiced enough to stand alone, but a drizzle of tropical fruit purée on the plate and an accompanying bowl of nicely balanced wasabi/mustard/mayo dipping sauce was even more fun to play with. An unexpected bonus minisalad of mesclun and baby artichoke slices, dressed in a lovely sweet/sour vinaigrette, made this dish seem like a complete light-bite meal.
The crab and shrimp cake, also available as a bigger entrée, was well spiced: no Old Bay overkill, slight heat, interesting herbs.
For those hoping for something crablike, though, the cake was disappointing. Shrimp were evident -- in fact, plentiful. So was very eggy starch filler. What wasn't evident, in terms of texture or taste, was crab. But the accompanying mango-papaya relish was hot-and-sweet zesty. And a small heap of barely wilted spinach provided a textural counterbalance to the patty's richness and the salsa's softness.
Given the great garlic-oil dip, we had high hopes for the entrée of pennette with garlic and olive oil, plus artichokes, fresh asparagus, pine nuts, baby peas, and grated Asiago cheese. Unfortunately it turned out to be a study in blandness. The penne was properly al dente, but there was, surprisingly, almost no garlic taste, no cheese taste, and little crisp vegetable presence. The bowl was filled with a big pool of salty broth, which tasted like meat bouillon, though I wouldn't swear to it. Whatever -- it was much too watery for the surface of any sort of pasta, even a ridged penne, to pick up as a flavoring ingredient.
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A special of sea bass topped with mushrooms was better. The sizable fillet had been gently sautéed rather than overdone to dryness. The mushrooms turned out to be a very assertive, mushroom-packed reduced brown sauce with the sort of boldness one would normally expect on steak, not fish -- but somehow it worked.
Although entrées come with generous vegetable garnishes (the bass was accompanied by steamed broccoli and a sweetened carrot purée as well as the garlic mashed potatoes mentioned on the menu), eight additional, modestly priced sides also are available, among them "thin sliced fried onions," which I ordered immediately, hoping for crunchy, homemade, thinly sliced, thinly-battered onion strings. And that's what I got: almost greaseless, impossible to eat just one.
Of the "homemade" desserts, tartufo was nothing like the classic at Tri Scalini in Rome (bittersweet chocolate ice cream with a riot of whipped cream), but would satisfy those who prefer very sweet white and milk chocolate flavors. The mandarin orange sorbet in another dessert actually was imported from Italy -- not homemade and also not refreshingly tart enough for my taste. But the dish was a fun finisher, the sweet sorbet stuffed inside a sugar-glazed, hollowed-out tangerine, accompanied by biscotti and what looked like citrus wedges but turned out to be real orange skins with "pulp" reconstructed from cherry and orange Jell-O ... a little something for the inner child in all of us.
This "Danish/Continental" cuisine was skilled enough in its execution that we can't help wondering: Hey, what about that ribbensteg (Cubans would love it) and those smørrebrød (Aventura ladies who lunch would love 'em)? And, for all Aventura's Jewish retirees, not to mention us retiree wannabes, could a little herring hurt?