To Have and Have Haas

Does the difference between success and failure in the restaurant world boil down to those who have versus those who have not? Those who have, after all, are able to afford an experienced management team and name chef to come up with clever menus and slick modi operandi. They can pump money into an effective PR campaign, and some more money into hiring extra staff to ensure a smooth-running shop when the public relations pays off. Well, money does make money, but plenty of well-financed restaurants flop every year. Seems as though the food has to taste good as well.

Baleen, which opened just over a month ago in the Grove Isle Club and Resort, is definitely one of the haves. It's also one of the goods. Baleen's key ingredient is Robbin Haas, who is serving as executive chef and developer in what is to be the first of a series of Robbin Haas restaurant concepts. Ever since his stunning stint at the Colony Bistro in 1992, through his years at Bang, Bex, and now Baleen, Haas has been lauded by national food glossies as one of the country's top chefs. He's also credited with being an originator of New World cuisine, though the distinction loses some luster when you realize that culinary movement has as many founding fathers as the nation itself.

Baleen has other things going for it, like the setting. Grove Isle Restaurant and Mark's in the Grove used to sort of occupy this space. But the entranceway, dining room, bar, lounge, and outdoor patio have been so radically altered it's hard to imagine these past incarnations at all. The metamorphosis is for the better. Oak-paneled walls, antique appointments, a deep-red and dark-green color scheme, and power booths around the perimeter of the dining room suggest a steak house sophistication, but light bamboo floors and South Sea accents infuse an airy, more tropical feel. The dining terrace outdoors is even breezier, with billowy white curtains and an exquisite view of Biscayne Bay.

Food's good, too. Very good. The concept is "upscale seafood," which sounds simple enough. But the devil is in the details of the execution: homemade parmesan herb bread, served hot from the oven; ample oysters with exotic names shucked tableside; an appetizer of cornmeal-crusted fried oysters plunked back into their shells atop puffs of horseradish cream; and the peerless preparation of a velvety and robust lobster bisque, with tender nuggets of lobster meat and just the right mellowing presence of creme fra”che. While Haas contributes concepts, credit executive chef Jeffrey Nimer (husband of talented Tantra chef Michelle Bernstein-Nimer), pastry chef Kevin Kopsick (formally of Norman's), and a very adept kitchen crew for turning his fine ideas into fine cuisine.

I try to know the names of the chefs involved because I ordered menu items that pay homage to them, like "Jeffrey's Crab Cakes." I figure such dishes should be pretty tasty, as chefs generally are too ego-bound to lend their moniker to a less than stellar item. In this case my confidence was justified: The two plump, exemplary crabmeat patties were complemented by a ripe green avocado and tomato salad, a gleaming balsamic glaze with hints of vanilla and pomegranate, and a swirl of herb, annatto, and curry oils. Like most of the starters, it was almost too pretty to pick at.

I passed on "Robbin's Caesar Salad." I'm so tired and weary of caesar salads that I don't care whether they're Robbin's or Julius's. Instead I chose a salad of asparagus with portobello, shiitake, and black trumpet mushrooms (which look like their name), all warm, oak-smoked, and tossed over a mound of balsamic-dressed watercress. Delicious.

The lobster martini was also quite tasty, and looked lovely in its stylish glass. But if you tossed the contents onto a plate you'd find a lobster claw the size of a cockscomb, a few pieces of lobster meat, three black olives, and a puddle of white horseradish cream -- too small and uneventful a starter for $19.50. Steer your craving for this crustacean instead toward one of the best appetizers, the lobster with egg fettuccine. There are more morsels of the sweet meat here than in the martini, and they're sauteed with tomatoes, basil, and an intriguing infusion of fresh vanilla bean.

Baleen has the potential, however, to land you in the have-nots camp. Nonsalad appetizers, average in size, range from $10.50 to $19.50; entrees run from $18 to $36, but are generously portioned. Asian-style bouillabaisse, for instance, might seem steep at $34.95, but it was chock full of top-of-the-shelf shellfish: scallops, clams, lobster, mussels, squid, and jumbo shrimp, along with mushrooms, peas, and meticulously diced tomatoes. The bouillabaisse base was an assertively spiced broth comprising a well-balanced blend of Far East flavors: garlic, ginger, lemon grass, coconut milk, and Thai curry.

"Hummus and parsley crusted salmon" is a misnomer: The coating is made from uncooked chickpeas that when pan-fried came out looking and tasting an awful lot like falafel. The thick plank of salmon was coral pink and succulent, but the highly seasoned crust and accompanying tahini butter were more than the delicate fish needed. Or maybe it was just more than I needed; the less dressed the seafood, the better. So I was grateful to see a large selection of fish offered up in unfussy fashion: grilled, wood roasted, or sauteed. Wood-roasted diver scallops came beautifully bronzed and subtly enveloped in oak-smoked flavor. Sea bass was likewise subtle, mildly grilled and not imbued with the regrettable charred taste that many restaurants and home-barbecuers delight in serving. A few fresh herbs, a dash of salt and pepper, and a splash of lemon juice are all the thick, flawlessly luscious flakes needed.

Although the emphasis here is on fish, landfood is taken seriously. Indeed the double lamb chops served here were as rewarding as those I've had in the most reputable steak houses. A New York sirloin, porterhouse, veal T-bone, Roquefort-crusted filet mignon, and herbed Bell & Evans chicken breast are also available.

Main courses are substantial, but they come à la carte with only minimal accompaniments. You may want to pad your plate with one of the two vegetable sides (asparagus with hollandaise sauce, and spinach with lemon and garlic), or perhaps choose from the three potatoes offered: crisp but commonplace fries, hash browns noteworthy only for their saltiness, or smooth and buttery mashed potatoes. Your call, though another option is getting all three together in one large potato platter. This is a neat idea if you're dining with three or more; if you're a couple, it's likely to be more spud than you can stomach.

And you need to save room for a round of exciting and adventurous desserts. None are lighter than the key lime sabayon tart, a crisp citrus bite paired with a salsa of fresh mango, papaya, and pineapple. Heftier but no less heavenly were four wedges of an almond-cake ice cream sandwich, with sweetly ripened strawberries and a dipping bowl filled with chocolate fondue. "Burnt egg custards four times" sounded like a Chinese dish, but was in fact four potently flavored creme brulees (mango, guava, raspberry, and vanilla), each in its own petite cup. Not to sound repetitious, but the homemade ice cream was also fantastic: cinnamon, banana, ginger-caramel, and the first coconut ice cream I've had that tasted like fresh coconut milk.

Haas has been busy. He is a consultant for China Grill Management's Red Square, and he is also the culinary director for Noble House, selectively revamping their food and beverage operations throughout the state of Florida. If future Robbin Haas restaurant concepts are as fine as Baleen, the measure of a restaurant's success will not be a matter of haves over have-nots, but of Haas and Haas-nots.

4 Grove Isle Dr, Coconut Grove; 305-858-8300. Breakfast Monday through Saturday 6:00 till 10:30 a.m.; buffet brunch Sunday 10:30 a.m till 3:00 p.m. Lunch daily 11:00 a.m till 4:00 p.m. Dinner Sunday through Thursday 6:00 till 10:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday till 11:30 p.m.

Lobster bisque

Corn meal crusted oysters

Wood roasted diver scallops

Double lamb chops

Burnt egg custards four times



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