Thanks to an uncommon surname, I'm a target for small-world coincidences. Handy players of Jewish Geography easily mark me as the daughter of a man with whom they were schooled, the niece of a woman they knew way back when. So it was with no real surprise that I listened to a woman's message on my voicemail: I might be the sister of a man she used to date in elementary school (i.e., she might have been my brother's first girlfriend). If I was that Jen Karetnick, she wanted to meet me. Oh, and by the way, she's the sous chef at a Mano on Ocean Drive.
Don't get me wrong: Bizarre turns of events often make a fine fabric upon which to weave one's writing, and I appreciate these true-life ones. But in a business where I need to remain anonymous, the recognition factor poses a problem. I hadn't visited a Mano in more than a year, not since Norman Van Aken left and Richard Chiavari took the post of executive chef. How could I compare pasts with the sous chef and still keep my critic's identity a secret? The obvious solution -- review the restaurant before undertaking any introductions -- had only one possible downside: Depending upon what I wrote, the sous chef might decide she didn't want to meet me after all.
I was less shocked by the phone call than by the fact that a Mano was barely a third full when I visited. I couldn't help recalling the restaurant of old A hourlong waits for a reserved table, wealthy drunks three-deep at the bar munching martini olives and gratis appetizers. The abrupt staff change no doubt chased away some loyal patrons, and without Van Aken's New World mystique beckoning like moonlight from the white-trimmed windowpanes, a Mano's tourist-unfriendly location at the far north end of Ocean Drive became a high hurdle.
But a year is time enough to assemble a new clientele. The curriculum vitae of the kitchen staff, headed by Culinary Institute of America graduate Chiavari, who sharpened his knives at Brooklyn's River Cafe and his own Gourmet Cafe in Plainview, New York, is impressive. The breezy, 80-seat dining room in the Betsy Ross Hotel is as Caribbean-inspired and attractive as ever. Much of the fare (especially the entrees) is enticing, innovative, and well-prepared. The empty reservation book, the lone valet as still as a plant on the porch, and the polite but bored waitstaff are all clearly at odds with a Mano's lingering reputation as one of Miami's top dining spots.
Neglect cuts both ways. The more uncertain the patronage, the less inclined the kitchen is to make everything fresh, particularly if the previous day's investments of time and effort are still hanging around unsold. Day-old doughnuts don't bother me if they're 30 cents apiece. But stale focaccia and French bread are irksome. The small, crumbly banana and cherry muffins and snappy poppyseed flatbread that graced the bread basket were better choices.
The tostones that composed the "plantain napoleon" were a trifle tough, meaty rather than crisp. An interesting if not entirely successful take on the classic French pastry, this appetizer was round rather than rectangular and as diminutive, relatively speaking, as its long-deceased namesake. Layered with somewhat fishy, ruby-flecked salmon and tuna tartar and dotted with salmon roe and osetra caviar, the construction was finished with a dollop of oddly spunkless wasabi creme fraiche.
A "conch BLT" was served almost as might be imagined. (Despite exotic ingredients, menu descriptions are very clear.) Slabs of white conch, substituting for the traditional white toast, were remarkably free of unpleasant chewiness but tasted a bit too much like the grill on which they had been cooked. Like the napoleon, this dish was a stacked "architectural" presentation, a common Chiavari form (and a trend among New American chefs). Parma prosciutto, thinly sliced and mildly salty, livened the conch instead of bacon. Yellow and red tomatoes completed the sandwich, along with a mayonnaise condiment subtly accented with creamy avocado.
Grilled boneless quail might have been more aptly described as charred, but fortunately the bird was pink and moist inside. The quail was piled on a pretty contrast of "matchsticks" cut from red and yellow peppers, and complemented by a delicate but commanding peach chutney. A black pepper blin contained just enough spice to give the whole dish a firm base.
Three enormous flat wedges of feta cheese, one rolled in black and two in white sesame seeds, were not served "warm" over mixed greens; they were decidedly room temperature, a disparity that might have been a matter of interpretation. At any rate the greens were fresh and generous, dressed with a light, fruity guanabana vinaigrette. A julienne of seeded tomatoes provided additional flavor and color.
Entrees were a tablewide success. Tuna steak, cut as thick as filet mignon and marinated in honey and soy sauce, had a delicious gingery appeal. Grilled pink, the tuna was roofed with an avocado nori roll cut into three pieces, and long, cellophane-thin fried lotus root. The fish sat atop a tahini vegetable "linguine" A carrots, zucchini, and yellow squash cut to resemble noodles, then mixed with a warm sesame paste and served over a sesame "natural sauce."
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Such "natural sauces" provide the ground floor for many of Chiavari's well-designed culinary buildings. More complex than they are rich, the sauces are made from meat or chicken stock flavored with red and white wines, drops of pungent oils, and members of the onion family. On Ocean Drive, where diners often check their diets with their car keys, any chef who makes food that's both tasty and healthy should be lauded.
Herb-roasted rack of lamb, two incredibly tender double-cut riblets served medium-rare as requested, was coated with more buttery bread crumbs than flowery herbs and perched over a sumptuous, caramel-colored roast garlic "natural sauce." Spears of steamed asparagus and an eggplant ratatouille with strong garlic-and-tomato notes garnished the plate.
Butter sauces, Chiavari's closer-to-French alternative to "natural," are infused with vibrant fruits and vegetables; left behind are the infinitely more artery-thickening calories of heavy creams and cheeses. A pan-fried yellowtail fillet, curled like a plantain, took well to a powerful blood-orange butter sauce. A mound of "green mango apple sour couscous," sweet rather than tart, was underneath, decorated with dainty pieces of crisp rock shrimp; a brunoise of peppers and hearty asparagus freshened the plate and the palate.
Any dietary caution exhibited during dinner was extinguished by dessert. "Gone Bananas" was a combination plate A frozen bananas coated with dark chocolate, banana bread pudding bathed in caramel, and a wonderful banana ice cream. "Chocolate Lovers' Fantasy" was a high wedge of silky chocolate mousse cake intended to make you lose composure, which is just what we did. The existence of sweets like these should give pause to any diner thinking of heading elsewhere on the Drive. An entire meal deserves a full stop. Go ahead, wake that valet. Meanwhile, I'll be monitoring my voicemail.