Truluck's on Brickell keeps on truckin'
Truluck's Seafood, Steak & Crab House touts itself as a corporate food chain with a conscience. Though this is no longer a novel idea, we are pleased with the pledge to "never serve endangered, overfished species" and to "follow all Ocean Conservancy guidelines." We likewise salute the sourcing of antibiotic-and-hormone-free beef, pork, and lamb from Niman Ranch.
Other things we admire about the elegant restaurant is its classic steak-house-style dining rooms, featuring dark woods, carpeted floors, and padded blood-red banquettes — plus a piano man playing casual tunes. We even appreciate the leisurely rate at which the chain is expanding: a half-dozen outlets in Texas, one in California, and four in Florida (Naples, Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton, and this latest in downtown Miami). Finally, there is the army of waitstaff wearing chef jackets that reinforces our positive feelings with amiable and attentive service. Everyone at Truluck's wears a happy face.
Cynics who carp about the demeanor being a commercial friendliness scripted from corporate employee handbooks might have a point. On one occasion, our waiter recited his lines rotely — including a repeated, straight-faced reference to my wife and me as "ladies and gentlemen." We weren't sure if he was really nervous, on meds, or seeing double.
Some waiters are clearly better than others, yet the staff appears to have been rigorously trained. This is a busy, 220-plus-seat dining room (with ten more tables on a patio), and there were occasional lapses (bread not brought and water glasses left unfilled), but these were glitches in an otherwise well-oiled machine that makes pampering diners a priority.
An appetizer of "hot 'n' crunchy fried shrimp" delivered five fairly large, succulent crustaceans lined up open-faced and swathed in crisply fried seasoned bread crumbs dappled with dabs of tartar sauce; drizzles of mango-jalapeño marmalade on the plate made for sweet-and-spicy swipes. A lumpy lump crabcake of sweet white meat with Maryland-style seasonings came lightly bound (no filler at all) and even more lightly browned in a pool of homemade tartar sauce.
Crabs are the house specialty here. Truluck's owns a fishery outside Naples, Florida, and employs its own group of crabbers: "From our traps to your table in less than 24 hours." A silver tray laden with the crabs du jour gets lugged around the room. On our visits, there were Alaskan king crab legs, Dungeness crab, whole Norton Sound king crab, and Jonah crab claws. There's a lobster tank as well.
The sweet Jonah crab, an Atlantic relative of the Pacific Dungeness, has more in common with the Florida stone crab. Like the latter, the white meat from the claw is the draw, and these Jonahs from Maine are less expensive: We sampled an appetizer trio of medium-size claws for $13. They arrived so well chilled that the nearly translucent crab beneath the cracked shells lacked full flavor; the hinges below each claw, however, were filled with luscious, lobster-like flesh. Lemon wedges and the traditional stone crab mustard sauce were served alongside.
Minced crab pieces were also mounded at the bottom of a soup bowl, over which a waiter poured hot yellow corn chowder sweetly flecked with diced carrots, celery, and potatoes. The resultant crab-and-corn chowder is the sole soup served and is far preferable to the Baja ceviche: limp snippets of shrimp and sea bass heavily macerated in what tasted like spicy, lime-soaked bloody mary mix, with a dollop of guacamole on top and greasy fried tortilla chips around it.
Fish entrées are offered pan-seared or grilled with just olive oil, lemon, and sea salt. For a surcharge of $8 or $9, you can dress it with "Pacific Spice" or "Pontchartrain" garnishes. We sampled Cook Inlet sockeye salmon plainly grilled. The nutty, naturally rich notes and meaty texture of this deeply coral-colored fish, along with a full grill flavor, made it seem as though it was cooked in a smoker. The Cook Inlet sockeye is delectable but enjoys only a short run that might be over by the time you make it here. Another Truluck's pledge: "We do not serve seafood out of season."
We tried the New Orleans-style Pontchartrain treatment with blackened grouper. Atop the flaky-fleshed fillet were crawfish tails, gulf shrimp, and blue crab in a "spicy piquant" Creole sauce that exuded cream, grain mustard, sherry, and just a little heat. Beneath the grouper came Parmesan mashed potatoes, which partners with many of the main courses. The cheesy nature of the spuds paired well with the creamy Creole sauce and assertive spices of the blackened grouper; not sure it goes as well with precomposed entrée plates of sesame-crusted Hawaiian tuna or Scottish salmon with béarnaise sauce.
A refreshing, multiflavored Pacific Spice garnish — peach half-moons parleyed with heirloom tomatoes, jalapeño circles, and a spicy vinaigrette — elevated delicate fillets of Alaskan halibut into a jazzy summer dish. The more-than-accommodating staff substituted a mac 'n' cheese side for the Parmesan mash at no extra charge. In retrospect, it wasn't such a smart trade, because thick elbows of pasta came smothered in sauce culled from some dairy product that tasted like self-deprecating Velveeta.
There was nothing about tender, juicy strips of Niman Ranch churrasco skirt steak that a potent whipped horseradish/goat-cheese/chimichurri spread couldn't mask. Seriously: The meat was toothsome, and many diners will enjoy the kick of that horseradish splash, but it should be served on the side for those who prefer their steak naked. New York strip, rib eye, center-cut filet, and center-cut pork chops are the other Ranch offerings.
Choice of Parmesan mashed potatoes, rice pilaf, fries, sweet potato fries, or blandly steamed broccolini (would it kill them to add garlic?) comes with the churrasco, but we paid a $5 swap fee to get a premium side of crab fried rice. The few scraps of crustacean hardly warranted a surcharge; the insipid rice was mixed mostly with corn and bits of carrot, green pepper, mushroom, and seemingly whatever else was lying around. A bachelor with limited culinary skills might cook something like this for dinner when he can't find anything but leftovers in the fridge.
Enophiles may take advantage of more than 100 labels representing well-respected vineyards around the world, and sip them via sampling, glass, bottle, or flight. None of the wines, however, is especially well priced, with few alluring choices less than $80 and fewer still below $50.
A postdinner dessert tray is loaded with a generous triangle of key lime pie; a bowl of fresh berries with whipped cream; enormous wedges of carrot cake and chocolate malt cake; and a "chocolate sack" overflowing with some cream-cheese/macerated-berries/whipped-cream concoction that could have been conceptualized and constructed by preschoolers.
We went with the cakes. Four moist layers of fresh pineapple-and-coconut-laced carrot cake wowed with a thin line of cream cheese frosting between each. A thicker cream cheese layer on top was sprinkled with sugar-and-spiced pecan pieces, and a boozy butterscotch sauce (that tasted like literally half butter and half Scotch) arrived on the side. The cake was very fresh, very delectable, and perhaps too filling for two; we greatly enjoyed some for breakfast the next day.
A chocolate cake with four layers of chocolate malt icing (and a scoop of vanilla ice cream) was equally big, fresh, and satisfying. Considering the size and shareability of these desserts, the respective $10 and $11 price constitutes a restaurant bargain.
Truluck's offers all sorts of deals. Monday night brings all-you-can-eat Jonah crab claws with unlimited soups, salads, and sides ($59). And every night is Date Night, a pre-Miami Spice $39 dinner of soup or salad, choice among four entrées, and a shared dessert. There's a $25 prix fixe lunch too.
Toward the end of our meal, a manager stopped by to gauge our satisfaction — and left his business card on the table. The following day, the person who had phoned in our reservation received a call from someone at Truluck's to see how dinner went. I find both gestures overly intrusive, but they show that this restaurant chain doesn't take its diners for granted. In fact, you will likely enjoy dining at Truluck's at least in part because they try so hard to make your dining enjoyable.
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