Since September 11 diners have been holing up at home instead of going out to eat. Not that this survivalist homing instinct has necessarily extended to doing our own home cooking. While formerly hot-ticket restaurants may be relatively empty, many shops selling ready-made gourmet food have found a new market in diners who want to grab dinner and run home to park themselves in front of the TV, not the stove.
So Hoeflinger & Chiarini seemed heaven-sent for these times. Billing itself as both restaurant and charcuterie/prepared-foods market, H&C differs from Miami's many other purveyors of been-there-done-that chichi sandwiches, faux cobb and caesar (-esque) salads, entrées differentiated with cutesy terms like "seafood and landfood," and tiramisu-type desserts, in a couple of catchy ways. One is that in addition to regular lunch and dinner selections, each weeknight highlights a different international cuisine: Monday, Asia; Tuesday, Mexico; Wednesday, Argentina; Thursday, France; Friday, Peru; and, on weekends, the truly global concept of all-day brunch. H&C's other great gimmick is convenient and budget-priced "dinner boxes," four nightly take-away assortments including a beef, poultry, pasta, or seafood entrée -- often one of the international specials -- plus soup or salad, baguette, and dessert.
My main question was, obviously, could H&C pull all this off? Because most eateries that try to be all things to all people can't.
Both food and service on a first visit to H&C, for a light late-afternoon Saturday brunch, were terrific, starting right from the big basket of crusty French bread, accompanied by a particularly fruity extra-virgin olive oil, which was brought to us even though we ordered only two appetizers and beer. Jeffrey's crabcakes were the light, rich kind reminiscent of classic crab Justine: crab and mayo-mustard Béchamel held together mostly by faith -- no great amounts of potato or other heavy binder. Accompanying avocado salad was more of a tartar-sauce substitute (and an improvement), with bands of nicely balanced sweet-sour balsamic reduction providing perfect contrast. Caesar salad came coated with a seemingly whipped dressing that had plenty of body despite the lack of egg, and flavor amplified by generous Parmigiano-Reggiano shreds plus spiced croutons. Beer mugs were frosted, an attentive detail. It promised good things for Friday night's Peruvian specialties, particularly in the way of upscale touches.
Some promises were kept, too. Though Peruvian specialties were more limited than expected -- the unavailability of two dishes listed on H&C's Website menu, papas a la huancaina (cold potatoes in pepper-spiked cheese sauce) and aji de gallina (chicken in walnut sauce) being particularly disappointing -- a mahi-mahi ceviche was impeccably fresh, with a more subtle spicy lime marinade than the stuff found in standard ceviches. And lomo saltado was possibly the best version of this beef-onion-tomato-pepper-potato stir-fry I've ever had, for exactly the reason H&C's brunch had led me to expect: upscale upgrades. The dish's savory soy-vinegar sauce was a perfect blend of tang, salt, and sugar, and the French fries were, for a great change, fresh rather than mushy. The beef was very tasty; however, the meat's long grain and chewiness made it clear that it was in no way the filet mignon promised on the menu.
More distressing was the fact that the home delivery I unpacked from H&C's stylish translucent bags bore almost no resemblance to what I'd ordered. Instead of the appetizer portion of ceviche, there was an entrée portion -- for which I was charged but which turned out to be a good thing, since the parihuela (mixed seafood soup) entrée I'd ordered wasn't there at all. Neither was an order of fresh-squeezed pineapple juice. Instead of the vegetarian Middle Eastern platter, there was an antipasto -- a huge embarrassment despite the high quality of the plate's many meats, as my dinner guest was a nonmeat eater. Additionally the Manchego cheese, supposedly part of the antipasto, was missing. So was the baguette that was supposed to be included in the dinner box.
Some of the screwups could have been a language problem. Many H&C servers speak minimal English; in fact an initial call to H&C brought three successive people to the phone, none of whom could deal with my request for directions from I-95, which turned out to be about three blocks away. A managerial-sounding woman responded to my distressed phone call about the home order with many distressed cries of "Oh! That's just terrible!" She also asked what I wanted done. However, she refused to do it. "We have for delivery only what do you call, mopeds." When I responded that my server had made a point of telling me that orders of more than $50 could be delivered as far as Miami Beach, she briefly left the phone and came back to say, "He refuses because traffic is too heavy to the Beach.... But please, I hope you will return here soon so I can make amends."
When I returned three nights later, for Monday's Orient Express Night, no one sounded like my effusively if ineffectually apologetic phone honcho-ette. My first waitperson insisted that no dinner boxes were being offered. "Why?" I wondered.
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Darned if journalists aren't always asking overly complex questions. Mine being beyond my waitress's English, she got me another server, a bilingual and also very festive fellow named Mauricio, who did manage to take my order for one fish and one poultry box, immediately.Unfortunately, though, unlike the quality crabcakes and lunch/brunch food plus the few Peruvian dishes we'd had, H&C's "Oriental" dishes were a disaster. All items but one were so strenuously oversalted as to be almost inedible. The pan-seared mahi-mahi, the day's entrée special, was so overwhelmed by soy sauce that its alleged Oriental vinaigrette was undetectable except for some sesame oil overload -- no Asian spice taste, no vinegar taste on either the fish or the stir-fried vegetables accompanying it. The special appetizer of mussels and clams in coconut milk consisted of six tough, overcooked, oversize specimens in a sauce that had none of coconut milk's natural sweetness but did have, in spades (thanks to overstrenuous boiling), all of coconut milk's fattiness.
The regular menu's grilled curry chicken breast entrée had all the juiciness and tenderness of, roughly, petrified wood, and no taste of curry; a sprinkling of toasted coconut and an advertised peanut-scallion sauce on accompanying vegetable-studded rice were both nice but so scant as to be nearly negligible in taste. And the one relatively unsalty special, carrot-ginger soup, contained (aside from some unannounced meaty poultry stock that quite understandably distressed one vegetarian guest of mine) no discernible ginger. Aside from soy and sesame, Oriental Express Night's food featured no discernible Asian flavors whatsoever.
The special dessert also had, as would be expected from its name, Delicia Catalana, no Asian flavors, though the gelato-type frozen treat was very tasty in a dulce de leche sort of way. But it had basically melted on the way home since it was, after all, basically ice cream. Which would seem to make it a pretty obvious "no" for a take-out dinner box (especially since H&C has many homemade pastries that travel well, like a dynamite lemon meringue tart). So why? Good question. Hoeflinger & Chiarini has a good concept, with an iffy follow-through -- good try, no cigar. Yet.