It is, in short, a great time to be an eater." So writes David Kamp in The United States of Arugula, and as his book's subtitle suggests, "The Sun-Dried, Cold-Pressed, Dark-Roasted, Extra Virgin Story of the American Food Revolution" celebrates the availability of comestibles that far surpass anything "our grandparents ever could have imagined." Yet in the preface he acknowledges dissent, such as that from James Beard biographer Robert Clark, who questions the notion of "the whole country greedily feasting on chanterelles and mache."
Both sides are correct. Although a "food revolution" has indeed taken place, only middle-class and wealthy people can afford to purchase the real quality goods. (To wit: Last week I nearly swooned at the check-out line upon realizing I'd just paid eight dollars for an organic squash.) The fast, processed, and generally shabby foods everyone else is stuck with are far worse than anything our grandparents ever could have imagined. It's a gastronomic take on the populist tale of two Americas: The rich get richer foods, the poor get poorer foods.
Exceptions to this rule most often occur at breakfast, a mealtime that transcends the dollar gap. Folks of all classes tend to enjoy the same basic components of eggs any style, pancakes, waffles, home fries, bacon, sausage, buttered toast, and coffee. The original S&S Diner (on Miami's NE Second Avenue) began dishing all of the above in 1938, along with other humble, homespun fare. The horseshoe-countered Art Deco relic is still doing so, and last month expanded to a southern location in another landmark establishment, Allen's Drug Store. Way back when our grandparents were eating better/worse than we, it wasn't unusual to have eateries located within pharmacies (I have never been able to figure out why, other than for the convenience of having stomach antacids at close proximity). For many years, Picnics at Allen's was the name of the diner here, but when the picnic was over, S&S swooped in.
After grabbing a stool at the counter of the repainted but otherwise Picnic-mimicked room, I was treated to one of the small pleasures of diner dining: Within seconds, a steaming-hot cuppa joe was placed before me. It won't be mistaken for Starbucks, but the bargain brand of beans is brewed relatively strong, and refilled as routinely and quickly as the flickering of a neon sign. The toast is made of cheap white or wheat bread, traditional home fries are peppered with paprika, and the eggs, as you might guess, are not organic. They are, however, softly, moistly scrambled, or folded around a choice of omelet fillings. Breakfast specials include two scrambled eggs with ham, home fries or grits, toast, and coffee ($3.40); same deal but with two discs of Canadian bacon and American cheese in place of ham ($4.50); and "two-two-two-two" ($6.95, but with coffee it adds up to $8.45), a pair each of eggs, bacon strips, sausage patties, and pleasurably puffy pancakes similar to those found at the original S&S (winner in 2001 of New Times' first Flapjack Flip-Off). "Maple syrup" is dark, thickened sugar water that could float the boat of Robert Clark's argument for miles.
What is it about plain old grits that gets middle-class people so giddy? And why is it that corned beef hash causes an opposite reaction? S&S proffers both American classics. And just because someone doesn't rake in big bucks doesn't mean he or she can't enjoy an international array of offerings, such as Belgian waffles, Greek omelets, Italian sausage, Canadian bacon, and English muffins. Eggs Benedict is available, too, but this seems a bit hoity-toity for a diner; something tells me the hollandaise sauce is a marriage of boiling water and a packet of Knorr's instant powder. Steak and eggs likewise seems out of its element, which might be the reason "hamburger and eggs" is offered as an alternative. I passed on both.
I also skipped the menu of lunch and early dinner options, which encompass salmon cakes, Salisbury steak, calves liver, burgers, pork chops, and spaghetti with meat sauce. Like many people, I once had a romantic notion of diner foods, but was disabused of such nostalgic naiveté at an early age — when I cooked in one. I'll stick to S&S for breakfast, and happily so.
How the other half eats can be observed at La Piaggia, an elite lunch oasis across from the Murano Grande Condominiums in SoBe: "The South of France at South of Fifth." Proprietor Robert Pascal knows what it takes to pamper the pampered, having spearheaded La Voille Rouge in Saint-Tropez. His South Pointe haunt re-creates the leisurely French Riviera via an elegant, open-air beach club ambiance. Half the tables are set on a tiled floor under a white canopy awning; the rest sit in sand and are shaded by bright orange umbrellas — the idea being to flip off the sandals, dig your toes into the sand, and take another sip of your tropical cocktail. An inviting saltwater pool likewise beckons the beatific, largely European clientele, many of whom are tanned, comely, and dressed in what might be described as creative casual chic (a.k.a. way more expensive than it looks).
The cuisine bespeaks what is fast becoming South Beach's universal language: Mediterranean. Warm, crusty bread in a cloth-covered basket arrives first, and goes hand in hand with appetizers such as a whole steamed artichoke with vinaigrette, fresh anchovies with harissa and tomato, and a dazzling salad Niçoise with two planks of seared tuna and invigoratingly sharp Dijon vinaigrette (although somehow I was more in the mood for mache and chanterelles). A charcuterie plate teased the palate with prosciutto di Parma; slices of mild Rosette de Lyon salami (a classic French pork sausage); coarsely textured, duck-speckled country pâté; a small knob of Burrata mozzarella; olives; and cornichons. Our glasses of Rosé Barbeiranne from Côte de Provençe positively glistened in the sunlight.
The jewel of the menu's crown is grilled dorade royale — two thick white fillets expertly extricated from the bone and skin tableside, and served with a gooseneck pourer of light, lemony, tarragon-perfumed butter sauce. The delicate dorade is chaperoned with a dish of classically prepared ratatouille, for $39. Other entrées are surprisingly moderate in price: A bountiful bouillabaisse is $28.50; sprightly, mango-threaded tuna tartare $19.50; and herby, full-flavored hangar steak, smothered in sautéed shallots and sided with a pile of skinny frites, $25.50.
The cuisine is clean and zesty, ideally suited for our sun-kissed climate. Service, though generally strong, is not quite polished enough for so posh a venue. During a busy weekend afternoon, there was a mixup that left half our table with entrees, the other half without. Turned out the dishes given to us belonged to another group, so it took quite some time for the rest of our food to arrive — and in the interim, to be polite, those with meals in front of them waited. The proper solution in this case would have been to remove the plates, bring over a light snack for us to munch on, and then serve all the main courses together.
Because the food here is lean, there is always room for dessert. Try the tarte Tropezienne, "from Saint-Tropez," a large, light, not-too-sweet round of genoise (foamy French sponge cake) layered with luscious vanilla custard and dusted with powdered sugar.
La Piaggia has been operating quietly since 2002. Very quietly. There is, in fact, a plaque by the entrance that clearly reads, "Private Club, Members Only." The establishment exists mainly for occupants of the soaring, architecturally boring condos that cluster around it. Outsiders — meaning those who present themselves in respectable fashion (or else are well connected) — can gain entry via reservations. If, however, you get rebuffed at Piaggia's wooden entry gate, I advise letting it go: The security guy looks as though he has bulked up on more than his fair share of S&S breakfasts.
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