Too Much of the Daily Grind

In a recent article titled "Why I Disapprove of What I Do," New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl reflects on a piece of advice given to her in the Seventies by the late M.F.K. Fisher. To be a restaurant critic, Fisher told her, you have to be "one of those ambitious sorts, willing to walk on your grandmother's grave." Reichl, at that time a Berkeley cook with a hankering for health food and liberal politics, was writing a restaurant column for a small alternative publication. She wasn't exactly cultivating a killer instinct along with a taste for collard greens, though A she wasn't reimbursed for her meals and didn't receive a salary. She satisfied her political leanings at the same time, deliberately reviewing cooperative restaurants, tiny ethnic places, anywhere she could criticize not the food itself but the public's perception of how to view such food.

"But reviewing was fun, so much fun that when mainstream publishers started paying me for my opinions, I didn't do the decent thing and refuse," writes Reichl, adding that before long she'd given up cooking altogether in favor of "[writing about] $100 meals when half the world is hungry," a decision tantamount to joining the establishment. And she'd come to realize what Fisher seemed to mean: The restaurant critic must be so committed to improving the quality of chefs and restaurateurs that she refuses to allow room for personal politics. Ruth, in other words, had to get in touch with her own ruthlessness. The discomfort of critiquing a miserable meal one week would be compensated by the pleasure of reviewing a great one the next, but it would never be completely canceled out. Her alter ego, Reichl admits, still whispers every once in a while: "How could you?"

I didn't come of age in the late Sixties. I don't have much of a political agenda. I never met M.F.K. Fisher, or for that matter Ruth Reichl, two women whose work I really admire. But although I do feel a touch traitorous when I write a bad review, I have the sort of ambition that allows me to go on. And I also have a voice in my head, one that demands to be obeyed. It whispers, "Where do we get to eat next?"

That sussuration became absolutely clamorous not long ago, when I heard chef Anthony Sindaco had moved to yet another restaurant. "Let's go!" the voice shouted. But after visiting Sindaco for the third time in as many years, this time at the Mayfair Grill in Coconut Grove's Mayfair House, I have to wonder why my alter ego is so insistent upon following this admittedly talented guy from place to place.

Sindaco migrated to South Florida with the rest of the culinary herd four or five years ago, when this area was being hailed by the industry as the Promised Land. We saw an influx of chefs and restaurateurs, a few critically acclaimed in their previous positions, most hoping to be bigger fish in the subtropical pond. All with as much optimism as talent. After a few quixotic seasons, much of that optimism is gone, the talent having migrated back north and west. And those who stayed despite disappointment, such as the 37-year-old Sindaco, have been on the move almost constantly, looking less and less for appreciative audiences and more and more for an appreciative boss.

Sindaco wasn't completely unaware of the challenges he faced here; stints at places like the Doral Resort in Telluride prepared him for the whims of touristville. But no amount of wind-chill factor could have readied him for Hurricane Andrew, which effectively (if temporarily) shut down the Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo. The place was sold to club members, and after only six months, Sindaco was out of a job. His search took him into the realm of non-resort establishments, a new route for him. A position at the now-defunct Langosta Beach, which brought him his first favorable reviews from New Times and the Herald, lasted four months. Next he forayed into Fort Lauderdale, turning the former Casa Vecchia into Go Fish, a success for almost eighteen months before the owner sold. Ditto his effect at South Beach's Casablanca, though I had to visit twice before I was convinced Sindaco had settled in; he departed after only a year. And then, this past December, he returned to hotels, via the Mayfair Grill and its new owners, Lennar Developers.

An awesome task was at hand. The Grill had been without a chef for six months; Sindaco and food and beverage manager Jean Marc Maltrait were hired simultaneously in the middle of banquet season. The tropical menu instituted by previous chefs, they found, was too difficult for sous chefs to present properly without supervision. And there was no pastry chef (there still isn't).

In short, Sindaco says, he "inherited a big mess."
Little sign of that mess was evident on my first visit. Bread was brought immediately, with molded butter in a chilled serving dish. Lemons were dropped into water glasses from silver tongs. A pianist pounded out dinner music to the receptive crowd that half-filled the 130-seat dining room.

Though place settings for two are set side by side at the seashell-pattern banquettes, we hungrily eschewed romance, cozying up instead to a fantastic pan-fried crabcake, one of three hot appetizers from the list of six first courses (not counting soup of the day). Molded from lump crabmeat, the succulent starter was browned outside, delicately flavored within. A sweet-tart mango vinaigrette laced the plate, while a salad of chopped asparagus and red pepper supported the cake. More crisscrossing spears of asparagus, verdant and al dente, provided simple garnishes.

Eight main courses (no specials) balance seafare against landfare at the Mayfair. I've always liked Sindaco's way with fish, so we went for a pan-fried fillet of Florida snapper, which duplicated the success of the crabcake. Posed over a stewy tomato nage, crisp-edged snapper was sweet and flaky, sliced in three parts and piled up architecturally. A molded scoop of rice pilaf perfumed with saffron and roasted sweet pepper was complemented by a fricassee of fresh, firm artichoke hearts.

Pepper-seared sea scallops aren't for the hearty eater, or, at $21, for the budgeter A four pale rounds aren't terribly filling. But for the diner to whom one complex bite can seem like a whole meal, this dish is first-rate. Supple scallops, rich as lobster, were flash-finished in a burst of ground pepper and butter and arranged around a delicious risotto cake flecked with chewy nuggets of sun-dried tomato. A merlot sauce reduced with port syrup added even more potency to this already powerful dish.

Knowing too much about Sindaco's history and about my own susceptibility to his culinary wiles, I resolved to judge the Mayfair by undertaking two visits, in part to convince myself that the first meal hadn't been a freak occurrence -- and also to make sure Sindaco was still working in the kitchen. That's when I encountered the mess. Sunday-night dining was tomblike. No people. No piano. And, it turned out, no Sindaco.

"I work like a horse," he says. "I take one Sunday off a month."
I don't doubt that. Nor do I doubt him when he adds, "I've had problems getting a good, dedicated crew." That's apparent. Sindaco's off nights are also the restaurant's.

A garlic-grilled squid appetizer more than lived up to its billing -- the garlic in the oily white-wine sauce was overwhelming. To make matters worse, four baby squid had been overcooked to the point of toughness before being draped with roasted red and yellow peppers. A garnish of anchovy-oregano bruschetta was too toasted, hard as biscotti. Though the effect of the calamari was dramatic and pretty, the dish was a disaster.

Salad was better. Smoked trout, practically a whole fish, was boneless and not fatty, a real treat, its mild smokiness well matched by the youngest, palest green frisee I've had in a long time, accented with string-thin haricots verts. Criticize the cook all you want, but praise the purveyor. Spiced pecans (a little soggy) and an excellent lemon-pepper vinaigrette completed the greens.

Service was lackadaisical and indifferent. "What cut of meat is the veal steak?" we wanted to know.

Our waiter shrugged. "I'm not much into the butchering of animals," he said.
We ordered it anyway. And it was a beauty, a boneless filet sparkling with juice. And pepper. Far too much black pepper. The inches-thick steak, which had been nicely cooked medium-rare, seemed to get hotter with each bite. A ragout of mushrooms and a backdrop of mashed potatoes soothed the overspiced palate, but a gratin of Belgian endive had virtually disintegrated.

Pepper was also the culprit that brought down an otherwise beautifully prepared poultry dish. A chicken breast was marvelously juicy, wrapped inside a thin crust of sliced potatoes, but the bird had been brutalized by a deluge of black pepper. Encountering a bone amid the meat was another unpleasant surprise; given the coating, I'd have expected an absolutely boneless cut. Side dishes, fortunately, saved this entree from ruin: a heap of polenta puddled with a deep red wine sauce, and roasted portobello mushroom slices and a smattering of caramelized shallots.

Now that the banquet season has ended, Sindaco aims to get back to the line, which he admits to having neglected. He's also working on expanding the dessert list, an assortment so bare and mediocre-sounding we didn't broach it. A new wine list, a collaboration between Sindaco and Maltrait, is forthcoming, as well. Perhaps most exciting is the series of guest chef/vintner dinners the restaurant is sponsoring: Don Pintabona from New York City's Tribeca Grill will be cooking on May 16 ($50 per person; call the restaurant for reservations).

Still, a more pessimistic Sindaco sounds a bit uncertain about the Mayfair's future. "I can't be a savior," he says.

I do admire Sindaco's talent -- as they say in the business, he's got the chops -- and I respect his pursuit of the right setting for those abilities. Like all humans (even restaurant critics), chefs are fallible, and Sindaco's bad judgments have been compounded by bad luck. Still, when I go out to eat at a place like the Mayfair, I expect consistency and commitment, as should every diner who plunks down 100 bucks for a meal.

As Ruth Reichl puts it, "Everyone has become a critic. I couldn't be happier. The more people pay attention to what and how they eat, the more attuned they become to their own senses and the world around them."



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