The Grill Next Door

To many people the approach of Memorial Day means the approach of summer. In the northern states, where winter's last spiteful fits often mar spring's hesitant nods, residents regard Memorial Day as the herald of change. At last the celebratory parades; at last the soothing heat; at last the white shoes and pastel wardrobes everyone wears until Labor Day.

In Miami, needless to say, summer is not marked so definitively. Changes in weather, particularly the temperatures, are subtle, and some people wear white shoes year round. I notice summer approaching when thunderstorms take over where the symphonies left off, when the supply of stone crabs finally runs out, when suddenly I can find a free parking space in Coconut Grove on a Friday evening. I notice summer when the tourists go home.

Many local restaurateurs, especially in South Beach and the Grove, view summer with dismay. The stream of money that poured in with abandon during the season will diminish A to a mere trickle at some establishments. It can be a time to make repairs to the restaurant or changes in staff and menu. For others it means closing for vacation.

Unless that restaurant is the recently opened sidewalk cafe Coconut Grill, which was designed not to depend on tourists for survival. Sylvano Bignon, owner of the Grill and the adjacent Greenstreet Cafe, is probably one of the few Grove restaurateurs who view Memorial Day as just another celebration in the sun, not the day visitors realize they can get the same warmth at home.

Occupying a prime corner location on Main Highway, Coconut Grill epitomizes the typical Grove bistro, placing the emphasis on sidewalk dining. In fact, only under the fluid duress of rain does the Grill move a few tables indoors. Otherwise a slice of sky serves as the roof, passersby paper the walls, and the moon, on a good night, provides the lighting.

The Grill, according to Bignon, considers itself a neighborhood restaurant, opened specifically for Miamians who live and work around Coconut Grove. To that end prices are kept astonishingly reasonable; a recent weeknight special consisted of three herb-encrusted lamb chops for $12.50, partnered by sauteed vegetables and a traditional mint jelly. The lamb was the most expensive available entree, topping even the menu's eight-ounce sirloin steak and a grilled and blackened fillet of dolphin. I fear, though, that some psychological ploy operates here A prices are just odd enough to be suspicious. The fettuccine with sun-dried tomato pesto, for example, is $9.60 instead of an even ten dollars; the aforementioned dolphin is $10.80. Key lime cake is $4.45. Did Bignon attend some sales seminar? "Good Restaurateuring: How To Make Your Prices Look Lower." And of course the more attention I devoted to it, the more the menu began to read like Italo Calvino's Cities, in which each chapter is supposedly arranged according to an elaborate mathematical formula.

Like the prices, service is resident-friendly, kind and sweet, though a bit condescending. Our waitress had a tendency to assume we needed explanations for even the most common preparations. Spinach fettuccine was "a flat noodle that's colored with spinach, though it doesn't taste like spinach." Alfredo sauce was "a cream sauce with cheese." But she did have a lovely understanding that customers can be like Biscayne Bay sponges A constantly soaking up liquids. She unflinchingly attended to the refilling chores with wine, iced tea, and the complimentary French bread as well.

Despite the tropical flavor of the name Coconut Grill, and the testimony of a divinely spicy order of grilled Jamaican chicken wings, the menu does not claim the Caribbean as its main culinary persuasion. A variety of influences makes itself apparent, from Mexico's salsa and homemade chips appetizer to New Orleans's Cajun chicken breast on a bun to Italy's tiramesu dessert. Designed for repeat customers who want variety, the menu mainly consists of bistro-style fare: pastas, sandwiches such as chicken salad with pineapple and walnuts or tuna salad on croissants, and entree salads. A small selection of main courses allows for one fish A the dolphin A and one chicken dish, a boneless breast with a tomato garlic basil sauce. Some lamb and beef specialties are also offered. Manager Roberto Zamora insists everything is made on the premises.

We began our meal with a remarkably good guacamole, tangy and buttery. Considering that local Mexican restaurants are insisting avocados are out of season, this was a refreshing choice. Nicely paired with the guacamole (besides the delicate tortilla chips) were dolphin fingers, flaky, deep-fried, and barely greasy spears of fish in a heat-sealing batter. Fish sticks. It's not gourmet dining, but sometimes I find this kind of finger food a good match for outdoor dining, and satisfying to that inner child about whom (and from whom) I hear so much. These reminded me of fish and chips, missing only the malt vinegar and the greasy brown paper wrapping. A British friend with whom we were dining, however, had little use for them. He was too busy pondering the pleasure/pain of the Jamaican chicken wings. "Are you getting that tingle?" he said of the spicy starter. "Does it make your mouth tingle?"

Though tempted by the only creative menu item, the lamb burger with goat cheese, we opted instead for the enticing lamb chops. A superb choice, the tender, herbal preparation of these shanks convinced us of chef Frank Dubois's positive leanings toward French cuisine. In fact, Dubois is French, cooking here for the first time on American turf. If his lamb is any indication, Coconut Grill would definitely benefit from a concentration of dishes from the chef's native country rather than the scattered list it now offers.

The spinach fettuccine Alfredo, so painstakingly described, was indifferently styled. Ostensibly enhanced by gorgonzola, the sauce was sweet and sticky, clinging to the noodles like a bad reputation. The proffered grated cheese was also rather bland. A shot of pungent, salty parmigiana would have been welcome, cooked into the sauce itself.

Also on the sweet side, the fettuccine with marinated chicken breast was lacked the zest of the advertised tomato garlic sauce. But the thinly sliced chicken breast was threaded into a generous amount of fettuccine; for the price this proved a worthwhile investment. The grilled chicken salad, on the other hand, arrived boring and limp, two qualities that, in a date or on your plate, are never a bargain. Though I may be guilty of generalizing, the salad seemed as typically French as any I've had in that country, neglected in favor of more interesting cuisine. A mix of chopped romaine and iceberg with a random piece of tomato and the even scarcer kernel of corn was tossed with the house dressing, a vague, indecisive Dijon vinaigrette. Some garlic, vinegar, or lemon might have supported this oily venture. And while I hardly ever accuse poultry of playing tricks, I believe the chicken was deliberately hiding.

While crunching through the pecan pie we had ordered for dessert, a much-needed diversion appeared. A drunken woman lurched through the cafe, settling at various tables despite the discomfort of customers still sitting there. This can certainly be a disadvantage to sidewalk dining (there aren't many). One upset customer stood by the hostess stand to be reseated after the uninvited guest decided to take a nap -- at his table.

Walking back to the car from the restaurant, we experienced several more encounters that convinced us a full moon lurked above us. In each case, the confrontations were initiated by homeless people, all of them clearly in need of mental health facilities and professional help. Largely empty of the party people that night, Coconut Grove presented a vivid picture A not of frenetic playfulness but of permanent desperation. Nothing makes me feel more uneasy than having the paid privilege of complaining about a meal when any one of those Grove denizens would have been happy just to eat it. For me it was the final reminder of the coming summer. Now that the crowds have disappeared, we can see who is left behind. And they've been here all along.


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