The Morgans Restaurant in Wynwood offers homespun breakfast, brunch, lunch, and dinner in a quaint 1930s house
Morgans holds court in a renovated two-story 1930s house, freshly painted white, with black-and-white striped awnings and a wrap-around porch; it's so very pretty and quaint. The block and neighborhood haven't yet been gentrified, but the restaurant is just a few blocks south of the glittering Shops at Midtown Miami, so you're not exactly in no man's land — plus there's a sizable parking lot that makes coming and going secure. Still, the bright country home looks incongruous, as if accidentally dropped onto a sparse urban side street.
There's plenty of seating on the outdoor porch, although the inside dining room is much smaller (20 seats) than you'd expect from gauging the exterior. Walls are a polished pearly white, matching the chairs, six-stool bar, and balloon lamps dropping from the ceiling. The floor is poured cement, chair and stool legs are chrome, and woodblock tabletops gleam with a lacquered finish. Yet all of these cool, neutral surfaces somehow add up to a warm environment. Having the room packed with people helps too.
If the menu looks familiar, it's likely because owner Barclay Graebner served the same bill of fare at her Blu Dog Café on Española Way a decade ago. When that place closed, the mother of five opened Blu Dog Bakery at 50th and Biscayne; she turned that into a nail salon (!), sold it, and followed up with the Art of Food in the Co-Op in Wynwood — a raw food joint that was quickly cooked. With the debut of Morgans in December, she finally has a place of her own.
"Modern comfort food" is the tag line, meaning slightly jazzed, occasionally Asian- or Mediterranean-inspired versions of what one might imagine John-Boy Walton would have had on his dinner plate. There are panko-crusted cubes of "coconut essence" tofu pooled in apricot-soy glaze. Oops, bad example. But it is a tasty starter whose crisp half-dozen squares carry a maximum of soybean curd flavor. Sugar cane-skewered shrimp isn't really what we think of as comfort food either, nor is vegetable tempura or antipasti. Among starters, only a thin, cleanly flavored lentil soup laced with spinach and herbs would qualify as homespun. Yet Morgans comes home with American main course favorites such as spaghetti and meatballs, roast chicken, and meatloaf. The last arrived as a wide, thin, workable slab with tomato glaze on top. Smooth "smoky mash" comes alongside, and we added à la carte coleslaw — deliciously fresh and dotted with sun-dried cranberries.
Cap-shaped "little ears" pasta (orecchiette) was cooked just right to the bite and tossed with broccoli rabe and numerous patty pieces of savory homemade turkey sausage in garlic-scented broth described as having a "hint of red pepper" — which is like saying Grandpa Walton exudes a hint of old age. Still, it was a solid rendition of this classic Italian dish and proved even better when we flagged a waiter for some Parmesan cheese to sprinkle on top.
While weekday lunches and dinners were paced in a leisurely and competent fashion, a Saturday-evening visit turned into a fiasco. The place was packed and service was greatly delayed; some folks were getting up and leaving. Worse, the kitchen crew, perhaps rushing to serve patrons who remained, put out dishes that were undercooked, overcooked, missing things, and who knows what else. Waiters kept carrying plates of food back to the kitchen, the restaurant equivalent of running the ball the wrong way.
As for our dinner for two: Ouch. It began with the pleasant lentil soup and a trio of sugar cane-skewered shrimp shining with sweet, fruity glaze. The shellfish were translucent inside, as if undercooked (perhaps caused by a lengthy and sugary marinade), yet tasted toughly overcooked. It was a strange, not especially pleasant textural experience, which mango chutney cut with lime couldn't remedy.
The kitchen was out of short ribs as well as spaghetti and meatballs by 8:30 p.m. (dinner runs until 11) A main course of "Moroccan-style" stew encompassed everything the menu description implied: chickpeas, tomato, onion, green and black olives, dried apricots, and preserved lemon slices. But the bowl was mostly taken up with swollen pellets of large, pasta-like Israeli couscous and precious little broth. Plus the flavor was bland. We had ordered the stew's supplementary merguez sausage but had to request it a second time before the nicely charred link finally arrived.
Two thick, double-ribbed lamb chops (not organic, although beef used here is grass-fed) burst with juiciness and boasted a great grilled flavor. Beneath the chops came what can be described only as steamed home fries — which the menu described as "minted potato salad." When we asked our waiter for potato salad in place of the hot tubers, he returned with a steamier plate of the same. When we caught his attention later, he insisted the menu stated "red bliss potatoes sautéed with onions" — then after checking and seeing that wasn't true, tried to convince us the sauté really did constitute a salad. To his credit, he readily admitted there was no mint.
Service was undeniably awful, but you can't pin it on the staff. There simply weren't enough troops to get the job done properly — only three waiters for inside and out, no bussers, plus a bartender who tried helping but, to put this as nicely as possible, should never be allowed to leave the confines of the bar. We learned afterward that manager Vinny Cartiglia hadn't made it to work.
There's an old restaurant saying: The only way to take a weekend night off is to call in dead. The reasons for this axiom were more than apparent.
After main course plates were removed, the bartender handed us a check. When we asked about dessert, she answered the kitchen had shut down 15 minutes beforehand, so she'd have to see. I didn't say anything, but we were still a half-hour from closing time. We were especially looking forward to dessert because of an exceptional praline bread pudding we had relished on a prior visit. The pastry chef is Juan Corporan, Barclay's ex-husband and father of her three oldest children.
A waiter came by minutes later with a slice each of carrot and coconut cake, both very fresh and coated in sweet cream cheese frosting; the coconut one was especially buttery and delectable. He informed us that because of all the screwups, dinner was on the house — the most effective means of mitigating a dining disaster. Prices are otherwise so-so: Starters are too expensive ($9 to $14); entrées are more reasonable (most $17 to $26).
Lunchtime at Morgans features hamburger on brioche bun, chicken potpie, and an oozy grilled cheese sandwich with white cheddar, Gruyère, and Brie plied between buttery slices of sourdough. Weekday breakfast brings a great deal: Coffee or orange juice and any breakfast entrée for $6.99 — such as organic eggs from free-range chickens scrambled with cheddar cheese and accompanied by multigrain toast, butter, fruit preserves, and home fries that, like so much else here, come fresh off the griddle. Add free Wi-Fi and you're pretty much set.
À la carte weekend brunch is likewise a charm. Diners are started with a basket of mini Danish, followed by choices that include eggs Benedict with an impeccable Hollandaise sauce, fluffy raspberry flat cakes, and six triangles of brioche French toast touting perfectly custardy interiors and a soft sphere of maple butter melting on top. Omelets are French-style: thin, delicate, and lightly filled — or, as my dining partner from Jersey put it, "skimpy."
There's a lot to like about Morgans, Saturday-night massacre notwithstanding. No restaurant should make diners suffer such sloppy service, but from time to time, this sort of thing occurs — especially at places that have not been operating for very long. That said, we enjoyed the place more for breakfast and lunch. Maybe it's the pleasure of sitting on that idyllic porch in the lemonade-colored sunshine, which is downright Waltons-esque — or would be if we were inhaling the flatulence of cows rather than cars.
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