It's no secret the waiting room in the doctor's office is the most aptly named space on Earth. But one experience there left a long-lasting scar. Over the course of several presurgery appointments to fix a broken knee, I checked my watch and clocked the waiting period at no less than 90 minutes each time. So I thought nothing of the one evening I was going to be five minutes late. After all I was obviously handicapped, I had been this physician's patient for more than a year, and he was surely expecting me; the staff even called to confirm my appointment as I was leaving the house.
But when I arrived they wouldn't buzz me into the building. Because I was late. We shouted over the intercom. I even cried. Still, I was not allowed to see the doctor. Soon thereafter I received a legal document in the mail stressing that I was not to return to the office unless I desired to be placed under arrest. (I later found out that the doctor had not even been in the building at the time: He'd left an hour before my arrival to get ready for a banquet in his honor.)
In an effort to cheer me up, my husband took me to the then-new Crystal Cafe on 41st Street in Miami Beach. Talk about tender loving care. The staff not only helped me to a table, they stowed my crutches so I could concentrate on a terrifically meaty osso buco rather than on my discombobulated knee. I realized then you don't have to eat a chef-proprietor's food to discover if he's any good. If he cares about his customers and his meals, then his staff will also. The front of the house will be courteous on the phone, the host will greet and seat you promptly, the servers will be friendly and knowledgeable. As in a doctor's office, the training the restaurant personnel receives says a lot about the owner's personality.
Five years later I'm not surprised to find that chef-proprietor Klime Kovaceski's house staff is still a direct reflection of him: well schooled, exquisitely mannered, good-humored, and quick with utensils. And his award-winning powers (his cafe is regularly named a top destination by Florida Trend magazine) are just as healing now as they were when he opened. I, for one, find his New Continental cuisine, including the shrimp-cake appetizer (a pan-fried treat aromatic with basil and tomato sauce), and the marinated duck breast entree sweetened with raspberry sauce, more rehabilitating than lifting leg weights in the gym. Kovaceski even answers the phone to take reservations and chat with potential customers during the day (the restaurant's only open for dinner). He once killed a deal to open a second restaurant on South Beach at the last minute, losing $20,000 in the process. "I came to the saddest conclusion," he shrugs. "You can't have a signature restaurant and own two of them." Fortunately for Miami diners, a job well-done is more important to him than a job well paid.
Kovaceski has been honing his culinary talents, along with his people skills, since he ran a hotel kitchen in Yugoslavia when he was just 21 years old. After immigrating to Miami in 1984, he cooked at Jama in North Miami for a decade before it closed. In 1994 the 38-year-old native Macedonian opened Crystal Cafe. The 70-seat eatery, with its mirrored walls, black Lucite furniture, and abstract art, looks like a living room in an Aventura condo, which, for better or worse, can make you feel like you're dining with your grandmother. As does the kitchen, a narrow slip of a room with one six-burner stove. "I used to go around saying 'Excuse me' and 'Pardon me' all the time," Kovaceski laughs. "Now I just say 'Hot stuff,' and people move out of my way much faster."
Given the cramped quarters, I'm always amazed by Kovaceski's extensive menu of a dozen starters and three dozen entrees, which bridge the Old and New Worlds. He explains his menu choices by way of his history: Schooled in Croatia at a French culinary institute near Italy, he was exposed to what he calls a "heavy Roman Catholic" influence. Thus his passion for Italian innovations, which recently translated into a playful "seafood osso buco risotto." He fashioned the "bone" of the osso buco with sea scallops, winding braised salmon around them to comprise the "meat," and served the dish on a bed of tomato-infused risotto. Not just cute and creative, but delicious.
Blend his home region's proximity to the Middle East and northern Europe with his adopted city's Latin-Caribbean flavor, and you're as likely to discover a beautifully rendered Wiener schnitzel with a light, buttery crust as you are a fragrant Chilean sea bass oven-roasted with ginger-lime sauce. Kovaceski updates one of my new favorite entrees, the chicken Kiev, with goat cheese. On a recent visit, a boneless cutlet was rolled around the cheese, breaded, sauteed in butter, and topped with radicchio, arugula, and basil. He also worked the goat cheese into a special appetizer that night, dipping great, pungent chunks of the stuff into crushed pistachios, then setting them atop a pile of braised endive and chopped tomatoes. He surrounded the concoction with a tangy drizzle of balsamic vinegar. Taste and texture. Point, counterpoint.
Yet Kovaceski's most recognizable signature is his quality control. His hands are on everything from the rich, hearty veal barley soup, which tastes like my mother's meatballs mashed up with a little broth, to the frothy sabayon over strawberries he serves for dessert. He's quick to relinquish credit, however, to his French-Canadian mother-in-law, who makes strawberry-rhubarb pie for him while she's in town, and to his sous chefs, who do most of the actual cooking these days. "I plate the food, I test it, I send back half," he says. He has to keep a keen eye on the details: With every entree except for pastas, Kovaceski offers a choice of three side dishes from a long list that includes lightly creamed spinach, mashed potatoes with mushrooms, and white and wild rice with leeks (my current standards).
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He also changes shirts three or four times per night, he admits. That way, when he goes from table to table greeting diners, he looks clean and fresh. Presentation is clearly important to him. "This business is like going onstage," says the former musician, whose old new-age group Anastasia still records in Europe (without him). "It's exciting, it's unpredictable -- if you like it. But if you don't like it, do anything. Sell shoes. Just don't do this." Now, if only some doctors would follow his advice, we'd all be in a healthier way.
Crystal Cafe 726 41st St., Miami Beach; 305-673-8266. Dinner only Tuesday through Sunday from 5:00 till 10:00 p.m; Friday and Saturday till 11:00 p.m.
Mixed salad $7.95
Shrimp cakes $9.95
Chicken cutlet Kiev $17.95
Duck breast $18.95
Veal chop $24.