The Young Man and the Seafood
You know what kind of guy Pilar is. Nice guy. Good-looking, quiet. Dresses well, not flashy. Solid, honest; no cheesy come-ons. Other guys might have more money, a fancier car, firmer pecs. But when it comes time to stand and deliver, well, let's just say he stands up straight and delivers all the satisfaction you can handle.
The guy behind Pilar, which is actually a sleekly handsome restaurant in an Aventura strip mall, is chef-owner Scott Fredel. Now I can't vouch for his car or his pecs or his ... you know, but I can say his restaurant delivers plenty of foodie satisfaction at remarkably wallet-friendly prices.
It's been four years since Fredel left the kitchen of Rumi in Miami Beach to head north and create the kind of serious yet affordable neighborhood eatery that no neighborhood can have too many of (too many South Florida neighborhoods don't have any). And while the bell has tolled for Rumi and a few dozen other onetime SoBe hot shots since then, the sun has risen over Pilar, which goes to show that abs of steel and swell pick-up lines are no match for a movable feast.
Much of the good food at Pilar is seafood — no surprise, for Fredel is an avid fisherman who named his restaurant after Ernest Hemingway's boat. But whether or not you have a taste for pulling your own dinner out of the water, the seafood at Pilar is a pretty good catch.
Start with one of the best crabcakes around, a thick coin of (mostly) crab and (minimal) binders, crusty and golden on the outside, tender and tasty and flecked with itty bits of red and green pepper on the inside. The plate looks rather forlorn — a single crabcake on a bed of undressed greens, puddled with a nifty red pepper tartar sauce — but everything tastes great.
Fredel's kitchen also does an admirable job with a trio of rock shrimp spring rolls, generously portioned with the relevant shellfish and then crisply fried and drizzled with a sweet-salty soy-based syrup.
There is a modest roster of wines — too modest, given the quality and ambition of the food. Still, most bottles cost less than $30, and there are several adequate if not exciting choices, like a 2005 Ca' del Sarto Pinot Grigio, boasting a firm Meyer lemon acidity and the smoky minerality characteristic of Italian whites.
Entrées ramp up the elegance quotient without straying from affordability. A quintet of meaty scallops, seared to a mahogany color on top and placed on a bed of lightly cooked fresh spinach and firm corn kernels, was accompanied by a light, brothy citrus butter. A tangle of wispy, crisp onion strings, exhibiting unnerving addictive potential, supplied crunch.
One of the restaurant's signatures — slow-roasted salmon on a truffled red potato salad with a tangy coarse-grain mustard sauce — was as good as ever, though the truffle flavor was more whisper than declaration. It's a pity few restaurants treat salmon to the low 'n' slow roasting method, which when done right (like Fredel does it here) results in fish cooked a rosy medium-rare, with a delicate, almost molten texture and flavor unobscured by the grill or excessive amounts of fat that so much salmon on the market today seems to contain.
Only dessert was a disappointment. A square of apple-walnut crumb cake tasted like it had been made days earlier and reheated in the microwave, wasting thick wedges of slightly al dente, cinnamon-infused apples by wrapping them in pastry that had gone limp and lifeless. It was an atypical offering from this nice, quiet, honest Pilar — a forgivable one, though, for a restaurant that stands so straight and delivers so much.
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