The Young Man and the Sea
Houston's, the Cheesecake Factory, and other popular dining chains manage to attract packs of hungry Aventura residents by offering comfortable settings and consistent fare that challenges neither palate nor pocketbook. So when Scott Fredel, former co-chef of Rumi, decided to enter this neighborhood with his own dining establishment, he charted out the menu accordingly. The restaurant is Pilar, and it surpasses said competition by offering a compact medley of fresh, uncomplicated American/Mediterranean cuisine at prices that even an employee of New Times can afford.
Fredel, an avid angler, named Pilar after Ernest Hemingway's fishing boat, and the focus here is decidedly hooked on fresh seafood -- but that's as far as the fish theme swims. There are no nets or lobster traps hanging from the rafters, no multispoked steering wheel or ossified starfish mounted on the wall. Matter of fact, the décor is the very opposite of fish-joint clutteredness, the handsome 82-seat dining room a minimal composition of neatly aligned modern artwork on pale olive-taupe walls, track lights on the ceiling, a hardwood floor with a couple of potted palms, and gauzy shades drawn over the storefront windows to mask a strip-mall parking lot outside.
The menu matches the décor in simplicity. A basket of rolls and very fetching raisin-pumpernickel crisps launched the meal, and from there we set sail with a medium-sized bowl of Whitewater mussels that, like the political scandal of the same name, turned out to be less sensational than the billing. The broth boasted a buttery white wine flavor brought up by garlic and tomatoes, but without hint of the promised chili peppers that might have made the mussels more memorable. No such problem with unforgettably good Bahamian conch fillets, the tender cutlets pounded, panko-breaded, plunked atop a crunchy, creamy slaw of fresh hearts of palm, and surrounded by a bright sauce sweetened with tropical fruits and spiced with mild curry kick.
We split a main course of pappardelle pasta as a starter, ribbons of perfectly cooked egg noodles tossed with diced "Homestead" tomatoes, slivers of basil, and freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese in a pleasantly mild tomato-cream sauce. The dish was also to contain roasted garlic, though that flavor barely registered.
A fillet of sautéed yellowtail snapper arrived pristinely sweet and juicy, with a plump potato-leek croquette underneath like a giant, extra sumptuous Tater Tot. A "warm tomato-herb vinaigrette" was invisibly soaked into the fish, making for a dull-looking dish (even with a tomato and blanched garlic bulb garnish), but it did provide the requisite bite to brighten the taste.
Black grouper with "roasted garlic and almond crust" did not, as I had hoped, showcase a sizzling, Spanish-inspired collision between garlic and nut; instead it put forward a pasty, parsley-garlic-almond pesto -- not crispy, and garlic-heavy for the lean and delicate grouper, which possessed enough satisfying succulence for success on its own. Didn't care for accompanying "grilled vegetables" either, little seared tidbits of carrot, zucchini, and yellow squash drizzled with the omnipresent goo known as "sweet balsamic reduction" (which I think of as being to serious cuisine what a red plastic clown nose is to serious acting).
A thick, center-cut Angus New York strip steak was flawless, the freshly cut meat offering the sort of clean, pure beefy satisfaction that could cause a real carnivore to one day look back upon its consumption with the same sort of wistful joy that a lifelong beauty contestant might feel upon recalling a particularly dazzling cowgirl outfit she once wore. A side of Yukon gold mashed potatoes was flavorful, a quartet of shiny, buttery asparagus spears nicely crunchy.
There are fine homemade desserts here too, including a deliciously moist "apple walnut coffee cake" and a dark, dense "chocolate chip banana cake" effectively flecked with fresh ginger. Both come capped with hand-whipped cream, and allow you to close your meal in relatively light, not-too-sweet fashion.
Local restaurants have recently embraced the "trickle down" theory of menu pricing, the philosophy being that if entrée prices are lowered while starter, dessert, and beverage prices maintained at their elevated levels, diners can save $5-$10 per meal and, capitalizing on this generous windfall, will eat out more frequently and keep the restaurant industry robust. Pilar is for those who don't like to be trickled on, the menu being across-the-board affordable -- a dinner of house salad with lemon vinaigrette ($4), appetizer of rock shrimp spring rolls ($6), main course of the pappardelle pasta ($9), and chocolate chip banana cake for dessert ($6) would cost, for the mathematically challenged among you, $25 (please note this total doesn't include tip, and you'll be tempted to leave a generous one as the team of personable, well-trained waiters offers unusually attentive service).
A largely West Coast wine list is kept in line as well, most bottles under $40 and many premium vintages available by the glass. So reel in a great deal at Pilar, and enjoy your catch.
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