I don't ever want to be mistaken for a tourist in this town. Unless I'm on Ocean Drive, in which case I don't want to be mistaken for a local.
On Ocean Drive, tourists have the advantage. They don't get asked for directions. They don't get annoyed when boutique-keepers ask them what the weather is like in Manhattan this time of year.
My friends and I were forced into this approach one recent evening when our other South Beach plans fell through. It was the first fall cold snap, and there we were: five women dressed like NYC-ers. Deciding to be the vacationers we resembled, we scouted Ocean Drive for dinner. Admittedly, we weren't going totally blind. But even if I hadn't been deluged by phone calls, faxes, and press releases, we'd probably still have settled our black-clad butts at the Boulevard Bar & Grill -- the only full house on the block.
Formerly Mad Max's, Boulevard supplies a versatile menu. Moroccan-born Chef Arcoub (his full name), a South Beach resident who has worked at Charade and La Voile Rouge, draws on his background to create Mediterranean dishes with incongruous tropical and Asian accents (ginger-pesto sauce over ravioli, for instance), as if to keep the Boulevard in the requisite pan-Pacific vogue.
Since it was chilly, we opted to sit inside, with a view of the patio and sidewalk. The space is fairly plain, with brightly striped banquettes the only source of color. Perhaps managing partners Bruce Upthegrove and Edgar J. Glenn felt that the passing parade would be decor enough. Two appetizers seemed to complement the room's austere, Northeastern mood: Maine lobster bisque and Maryland crab cake. A brick-color broth, the bisque was unpleasantly floury, clinging to the back of the spoon like the skin on old-fashioned cooked pudding. The essence of lobster was in evidence as a scent, though we couldn't detect it in the soup itself. The pan-fried crab dish was far more inspired. Set in a thick lemon-butter that had the rich consistency of cream, the single, inch-high cake was all meat, not padded with breadcrumbs. Chopped red and green peppers heightened the taste of the crab without overwhelming it, while a garnish of capers added a vinegary sting.
Goat cheese baked in a volcanic burst of phyllo dough and served over salad, a third starter, was a Mediterranean novelty ($8.00). Dotted with scallions, the warm and pungent cheese oozed irresistibly from the crackling shell. A couple of quibbles: The bed of peppery arugula could have used some trimming (the mature leaves were too stalky) and the balsamic vinaigrette could have used some sharpening. Still, the meld of flavors was lovely.
Fried green tomatoes, gleaned from a section of the menu labeled "Small Dishes," brought us back to the American South. Five rounds of juicy tomatoes were a little too firm for my taste, but the surprisingly crisp, grease-free batter pulled them through. A jalapeno-and-tomato sauce endowed the pale slices with red and green hues and ripe zest.
Pastas were notable for their value -- portions were so generous we could have split one plate for dinner, and the prices put nearby Italian restaurants to shame. The sole conceit indulged in here might have been the employment of all-Italian names, a strange pretense given that the rest of the menu is in English. No matter what language you said it in, though, penne al salmone was good ($11.00). The slippery pasta tubes were tossed with chunks of fresh, tender salmon and green peas, with a balanced, well-seasoned cream sauce that was neither anemic nor stultifying.
A tomato sauce was employed with ultra-abandon in pappardelle tricolore, turning the dish into a game of hide-and-seek. Mixed in with the wide, ribbonlike noodles, the sauteed white-meat chicken and asparagus were difficult to locate. Fortunately the chunky sauce was delicious, low in acid and high in sweetness. The chicken, on the other hand, was dry as this newly arrived season, while the mushy asparagus harked unpleasantly back to the rain-drenched summer.
Stuffed breast of chicken, a special on the evening we visited, hadn't suffered such maltreatment. Roasted with the skin on to seal in the juices, the boneless white meat was an example of good poultry cookery. We found fault with the filling, however A the puree of walnuts and garlic was so potent it would have kept vampires on the run for days. Good thing the stiff-peaked mashed potatoes on which the chicken reclined were gentle enough to soothe our numb palates. A tumble of sauteed peppers, onions, and squash sparkled at the side of the potatoes, and a fragrant tarragon sauce edged the entire preparation.
Inspired, perhaps, by the success of the chicken, Arcoub repeated his technique with the red snapper, a fillet that was sauteed with the skin still attached ($15.00). Served flesh-side up, the meaty, mild fish was laid on the mashed potatoes, though this time the mattress was sheeted with fresh sauteed spinach, and the side serving of mixed vegetables was rimmed by the same lemon, butter, and caper sauce that had pooled around the crab cake appetizer, the flavor of which became cloying after a while.
A double veal chop and rack of lamb were tempting, but the plethora of fish dishes indicated the chef's partiality. We sent back a grilled yellowfin tuna, however: Ordered medium to suit the taste of one of my guests, it revealed a shockingly pink center. We were glad to find the wide, flat steak still succulent and juicy upon its return, despite the fact that the extra fire had burned off a billed honey-ginger barbecue sauce we'd been looking forward to ($17.00).
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Ice-cold coffee was the only other glitch in an otherwise pleasantly served meal; it was worth every penny of the automatic fifteen-percent gratuity to see the busboy stick his finger in the cup and announce, "It is cold!"
In keeping with the rest of the menu, wine at the Boulevard is moderately priced, though the low end (under twenty dollars) is limited. The list was in flux when we visited, but the manager was happy to detail for us all of the vintages he had in stock. We wound up with a '92 Chalk Hill ($28), a crisp chardonnay with enough body to stand up to chicken (minus the garlic stuffing) and enough subtlety to complement red snapper.
Judging by its consistent crowd, the Boulevard has become a favorite with residents as well as out-of-towners who want to do the Drive. The chef's local standing is certainly a draw; if not always startling in intensity, his cuisine is clean and simple. Little touches -- bunches of grapes hanging over the edges of the bread basket, for instance -- are homey, welcoming. Boulevard may well be the best on the Drive. But I can't help remembering the dazzle of places like the Colony Bistro right next door; all we saw as we walked past were empty chairs. And I can't help thinking how easy it is for one sun to shine when the others have already set.
Boulevard Bar & Grill
740 Ocean Dr, Miami Beach; 532-9069. Open daily from 7:00 a.m. to midnight.