Yvonne Helmick may not have done herself a favor in naming her five-month-old Kendall Plaza (on U.S. 1 south of Dadeland) bistro Food by Trolls. Most Americans, after all, think of trolls as malformed creatures that live under bridges and practice extortion. Or, perhaps, as kewpielike dolls with perpetually surprised expressions and wild neon hair. But certainly not as symbols of good luck.
Yet the Swedish-born Helmick is so convinced of the mythical beings' charm that she has positioned a sculpture of a troll to stand guard over the 30-seat dining room A otherwise decorated with antique clocks and a 150-year-old mahogany piano A and she is currently awaiting the arrival of five more such statues. Whatever their reputation, Helmick figures, trolls will bring in curious customers. Well, it worked with me.
Then there's the immediate association of the restaurant's name with things Scandinavian, the fare Food by Trolls ostensibly emphasizes. But 42-year-old first-time chef-owner Helmick, who teamed up with her friend Janice Marsh and her boyfriend Orlando Naranjo to open the place, was worried that an exclusively midnight-sun menu wouldn't provide a sufficient lure. So the partners hired a Greek chef and augmented their Swedish specialties not only with pasticcio and moussaka, but also (ignoring the considerable competition from next-door neighbor Botticelli Trattoria) with a variety of pasta preparations. To boost the bistro appeal, they also recently instituted a prix fixe "Gourmet Night" on Mondays A six courses for $25, excluding wine, tax, and tip. The result is an improbable mix of northern and southern European cuisines, an eclectic tableful of dishes that do not complement one another. Like retsina and gravlax. Hummus and Swedish meatballs. Sangria as a foil for creamed herring.
Still, an order of the aforementioned herring was so good we nearly overlooked those errors in judgment. An outstanding homemade version, this comprised six well-cured strips of herring smothered in sour cream with chives. Rings of bright, fresh red onion provided sharp counterpoint; boiled potatoes and thin wasa bread were appropriate starches -- certainly more so than the complimentary pita served at the beginning of the meal.
Baked brie with fruit was a delicious wedge of runny, oven-roasted cheese topped with walnuts. Slices of crimson-skinned apple, a bunch of sweet grapes, brown bread, and carrot sticks proved choice accompaniments. Soup of the day, a cream-based carrot puree, was another warming, colorful starter. Enriched with a touch of nutmeg, it offered a delicate pleasure despite an abundance of heavy cream. Stuffed mushrooms, served in a casserole dish, were dense and juicy. "Guess the secret ingredient," the waitress challenged us, referring to the bread-based stuffing. We couldn't. "Anchovy," she revealed, accounting for the appetizer's unidentifiable tang. A cream-and-butter sauce lightened the unrelieved darkness of mushroom and stuffing, providing pretty, as well as tasty, contrast.
Similar richness continued with the entrees. A dozen bay scallops, broiled and garnished with paprika, perched on a heady Florentine base of chopped spinach vibrant with Parmesan cheese, cream, and a spike of lemon contributing a touch of tartness. Though a side of yellow rice provided some balance for the scallops, it failed to enliven Swedish meatballs. Draped in a fragrant burgundy sauce flecked with dill, the chewy meatballs would have been paired nicely with egg noodles or dumplings. Still, the main focus was satisfyingly authentic, a hearty meal.
"Popeye's special," a Greek-influenced pasta, fell down in comparison. (Perhaps this is because the chef quit three weeks into the operation, calling Helmick from the airport on his way back home.) Slightly mushy spinach fettuccine was topped with olive oil, basil, garlic, chopped tomatoes, and hunks of feta cheese, but lacked lively seasoning. A shake or two of salt, a grind of pepper, and a huge endowment of Parmesan cheese helped tremendously. Also based on pasta, "chicken blues" was made of meaty strips of boneless chicken breast, some too dry. Coated with garlic and pungent gorgonzola, the dish had character that was undermined by a too oily linguine.
Pina colada cheesecake sounded like a natural finisher, given that our sangria glasses had been drained by this point. High and fluffy, the cheesecake was shot through with threads of coconut, but wasn't nearly as alcoholic as the sauce on the fresh fruit dessert option: wonderfully crisp apples, succulent orange sections, ripe bananas, and kiwi slices enhanced by an aromatic, if potent, vanilla sauce.
A sailor for years before jumping yacht to settle in Miami, Helmick also has worked as a highway safety specialist in South Florida. Going solely by the quality of local drivers, it's obvious she's had her share of adventures. Still, I can't help but feel that, with the introduction of scarcely more recognizable fare, she and her partners are playing this latest venture safe. In fact, the restaurant's greatest fault lies in this overweening desire to please too diverse a crowd. I say take the risk. Miami boasts only two Scandinavian restaurants of import: Fleming and Tivoli. Trim the Greek cuisine and other distracting elements, and Food by Trolls could well be the third.
I recently made my father-in-law panic. "I have bad news," I told his answering machine. He called me back at midnight, his voice shaded with fear.
"What?" he asked. "What's happened?"
"Brace yourself," I said.
"Is it my son? Is he hurt?"
"No, nothing like that," I said. "It's Scott Howard. He's left Martha."
Stunned silence on the other end of the line. Then -- I swear -- choked weeping.
Trained by Norman Van Aken in the ways of New World cuisine, in the kitchen of the original a Mano, Scott Howard had won all kinds of praise for his efforts as executive chef of the Hollywood restaurant Martha's Tropical Grille. He also had a loyal fan club, of which my father-in-law was practically president, introducing his friends to the restaurant one by one. Now, after fifteen months, Howard is gone.
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But not forgotten. And not even on vacation. He returns to the Miami Beach scene May 5 via Lure, a 60-seater at 805 Lincoln Rd. He's already there, actually, working on the menu as Studiolido president Carl Myers (the designer responsible for the gorgeous Nemo and the Van Dyke Cafe) works on the room. A sushi bar and an open kitchen that allows for seventeen people to sit and watch the chef will be the restaurant's primary focuses. As for the fare, Howard says he'll be departing from his signature game dishes and bringing in more Asian -- particularly Vietnamese -- influences. That means plenty of fish (hence the name), noodles, and vegetables -- healthy, light ingredients suitable for kicking off the summer "season."
By November, Howard says, the restaurant space will be twice its current size and open for lunch. Until then we'll have to make do with dinner, which is to be served from 6:00 p.m. until midnight. Call 538-5873 for info and reservations.
"And don't forget to tell your father-in-law," Howard told me over the phone.
Don't worry. He already knows.
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