Have you ever eaten at a restaurant where a new convert to healthy eating plunks an unadorned ear of corn on your plate, raving about how much more flavorful it is without the distraction of all that melted butter? Well, I have, and it's not a place I want to revisit.
Health food can be terrific, but from a food critic's standpoint, it seldom is. Oftentimes the genre's practitioners think more like doctors than chefs; they don't consider taste to be equally important as, let alone of greater significance than, nutrition.
This is just my opinion of course. Perhaps that also explains my semi-appalling cholesterol levels and the reason why I'll probably die younger than those diners whose eating habits prioritize low fat over high flavor. Frankly, when I ponder those predeath moments, when it's said your life flashes before you, and try to envision my list of regrets, the possibility of dying a bit prematurely because of an excessive consumption of cheeseburgers distresses me less than the idea of my last thought being, Damn! Those burgers would have been so much better with extra mayo.
959 West Ave, Miami Beach
305-534-4211. Open Sunday through Thursday 11:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., Friday 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
At Gourmet Carrot, burger bunnies don't have to choose between taste and health, though none of the menu's four gourmet burgers is made from beef. In addition to vegetarian and vegan specialties, this natural food restaurant serves poultry and fish, but no red meat. The eatery is also kosher and therefore offers no pork, shellfish, or dairy. Actually, cheeseburger aficionados might want to go naked this once; the Carrot's melted soy cheese is no match for the real thing. But a remarkably juicy Pacific Rim chicken burger needed no extras, thanks to skilled spicing including sufficient salt plus impeccably fresh vegetable garnishes (arugula, romaine, tomatoes, red onion) and an appealing briochelike toasted bun. Accompanying hand-cut fries were gloriously greasy odd, but I'd be the last diner to complain about such succulent sins.
An add-it-yourself container of subtly exotic housemade ginger mayonnaise transformed what would otherwise have been merely tasty, healthier fast food into casual yet unique gourmet fare. The same was true of a luscious mahi-mahi taco, several fillets of precisely grilled local fish wrapped in a soft flour tortilla with mixed greens, tomatoes, and Hass avocados (misspelled "Haas" on the menu, but better under any name than Florida's watery specimens).
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All of the homemade dressings sampled were exceptional. This is especially a boon considering that the restaurant's green garnishes are not simply a standard plate trim consisting of several undressed leaves, but substantial mesclun side salads that transform the Carrot's sandwiches, melts, and wraps into full meals. Alternatively, choose a dinner-size salad, such as the sprightly honey mustard-dressed heap of albacore with shredded carrots, baby spinach, grape tomatoes, sprouts, and cukes "The best tuna fish item I've ever eaten," according to my dining companion.
For budget diners, homemade soups, like a belly-busting bowl of savory vegetarian lentil with all the heft of any ham-enriched version, cost less than $5. For big spenders, Carrot offers a host of more elegant entrées, including tamarind-glazed mahi-mahi accompanied by sautéed mushroom-topped vegetables and a starch, for $10 to $15.
Gourmet Carrot's cuisine is not creatively cutting-edge or in the same league as Afterglo's beautritional health food, and it's not a place you'd select for a glam night out the eye-poppingly orange umbrellas outside and cartoonish posters of buck-tooth rabbits lining the interior walls give the impression of a children's soda fountain.
No cholesterol-packed milkshakes here, but Gourmet Carrot's rich smoothies many of which are unusual, such as the Chilled Lych: litchi juice, bananas, and housemade ginger-pear and litchi sorbets are so good you barely miss the bad-for-you alternative.